COMES NATURALLY #129
Spectator Magazine -- November 15, 2002
Copyright © 2002 David Steinberg
R.I.P. GWEN ARAUJO
It's a story that's both news and not news.
On October 3, according to police reports, Gwen Araujo, an attractive 17-year-old with a radiant smile and a zest for life, went to a party in Newark, California, a suburban town in the San Francisco Bay Area. She drank a fair amount of beer. She flirted with 24-year-old Jose Merel, a boy she had something of a crush on. She had anal sex with him, and perhaps with Jose's friend, 22-year-old Michael Magidson, as well.
Maybe something about the sex suggested to Jose or to Michael that there was something different about Gwen. For some reason, Jose's brother's girlfriend, Nicole Brown, followed or took Gwen into the bathroom where she discovered that, biologically speaking, Gwen wasn't a girl at all.
"It's a man; let's go," Nicole called out and all hell broke loose.
Gwen was knocked to the floor, her skirt pulled up. Jose was the first to attack her, but Michael and 19-year-old Jaron Nabors quickly joined in. Someone asked for a knife and Jaron offered the knife from his pocket. Gwen was stabbed and gashed in the face. Jose and Michael then dragged semi-conscious Gwen into a garage where Gwen was strangled with a rope. The two boys later put Gwen's body in the back of Michael's truck and, together with Jaron, drove 150 miles into the Sierra Nevada foothills, where they dug a hole and buried Gwen's body, still bound hand and foot and wrapped in a sheet.
For almost two weeks, no one at the party said anything to police about what had happened, although dark rumors circulated that eventually got back to Gwen's frantic mother and aunt. On October 16, Jaron Nabors contacted Newark police and took them to where Gwen's body was buried. Jose, Michael, and Jaron were arrested and charged with murder. Since California is one of five states that include gender identity as a hate crime category, the three were charged with committing a hate crime as well.
What's not news is that a transgendered person was brutally murdered for daring to be herself. Gwen Araujo was the 25th transgendered person to be murdered so far this year, according to the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition. That makes 2002 the deadliest year yet for transgenders. Violence against transgendered people is widespread, though severely underreported in mainstream media. In a study by the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, two-thirds of transgender respondents said they had been physically or sexually assaulted at one time or another. In June, 2001, the murder of Fredericka (F.C.) Martinez, a 16-year-old Navajo from Cortez, Colorado, who considered herself two-spirited, or "nadleeh," received typically scant attention in the national press.
But the murder of Gwen Araujo has generated a response significantly different from responses to previous acts of violence against transgenders. Maybe it's because Gwen was attractive, relatively well-adjusted, and just 17 years old. Maybe it's because her murder occurred in the proudly open-minded, relatively diversity-accepting San Francisco Bay Area, where personal and political support for transgendered people and transgender issues is well organized. Maybe it's because Gwen Araujo had strong support from her family as she struggled with her issues of gender identification and how to carry her gender into the world around her.
Whatever the reason, reaction to Gwen's murder by police, press, family, and community groups has been immediate and overwhelming. The response of the Newark Police Department has been direct, forceful, and sympathetic, in contrast to widespread police neglect in cases involving violence against transgenders.
"This is a child of our community, a human being," Newark Police Lt. Lance Morrison told transgender activist Tina D'Elia, who was struck by Morrison's heartfelt concern. Speaking to The Los Angeles Times, Morrison was even more outspoken. "Someone was dumped like a piece of trash on the side of a mountain," he indignantly told the Times. "A number of people could have helped, stepped in, prevented, or reported this. None of them did."
Newark police have pursued the case diligently, even arranging for a friend of Jaron Nabors to wear a concealed microphone to record a conversation that proved pivotal in the investigation. When virulently homophobic Rev. Fred Phelps threatened to picket the funeral of "cross-dressing teen pervert Eddie Araujo," Newark police immediately put both the funeral and an earlier wake under police protection to insure that no disruption of services would take place. Perhaps as a result, neither the picket of the funeral nor a threatened picket in support of the men accused of the murder, materialized.
Coverage of the story has been widespread in the mainstream press, including extensive stories in The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Jose Mercury-News, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Associated Press, as well as stories on CNN, ABC, and NBC network television. News repo rts, while far from ideal, have been relatively thoughtful and free of typical media sensationalism.
On the one hand, reporters and editors still stubbornly insist on referring to Gwen as "Eddie, who called himself Gwen" or the "boy who lived as a girl," and on using male pronoun identifiers for Gwen, even when they acknowledge requests from the transgender community that female pronouns be used instead. On the other hand, even mainstream stories of the murder have for the most part been straightforward, respectful, and thankfully free of suggestions that Gwen was in effect asking to be murdered by identifying as a girl, by dressing as a girl, by going to a party, by drinking beer, or by having sex with people she didn't know very well.
Long stories with headlines like "Slain 17-Year-Old Struggled with Intolerance in School" and "Transgender Teen's Slaying Shakes Nation" have stressed the difficulty Gwen experienced as a transgendered youth who was constantly teased and harassed about her feminine appearance and demeanor. Coverage has also stressed the strong support she received from both family and friends. Profiles of Gwen portray her as lively and likable, rather than as one of those teenagers bound to get into trouble because of the attitude they carry on their shoulders.
Press reports have also emphasized the solid support that Gwen has received from her family. And indeed, the commitment of Gwen's family to respect and defend Gwen's gender expression has been exceptional. Gwen's mother, Sylvia Guerrero, makes clear that she understood the difficulties her son faced transitioning into a young woman, and that she supported Gwen's decision to live more and more openly as female, at home and at school, even as she admits the difficulty she has had in adjusting to Gwen's emerging female identity..
"Being who he was was very painful," Guerrero told The Los Angeles Times. "He felt like a freak." While worried about what would become of "her angel," Guerrero was also clearly proud of her transitioning son. Going out into the world as a young woman "took guts," she told the Times, "especially in this town."
Imelda Guerrero, Gwen's aunt, also stood squarely behind Gwen in press interviews and at memorial services after Gwen's death, admiring Gwen's cooking ability, and especially her developing skill with makeup. "He was a beautiful person, inside and out," she emphasized. "Nobody deserves to take his young life." Both Imelda and Sylvia Guerrero supported Gwen in her dream of going to school and becoming a professional Hollywood makeup artist.
As press and public attention grew in the weeks after Gwen's body was found, Sylvia Guerrero was determined that the world would see her child as the young woman she knew herself to be. At the wake before Gwen's funeral, hundreds of supporters filed by her open casket where Gwen could be seen, unabashedly feminine in her long hair, necklace, blouse, black lace gloves, and long metallic fingernails. Over 750 people attended the subsequent memorial service at St. Edward's Catholic Church in Newark, while several hundred others gathered outside the overflowing church. As one final gesture of support, Sylvia Guerrero decided that she wanted the tombstone to be inscribed with the name Gwen, rather than Eddie, even though she had never been able to call her child by her preferred female name before her death.
"He was my baby. He was my son," Guerrero told well-wishers at the service. "When you see someone like Eddie, smile at him."
Other stories have focused on the psychology of the three men charged with the murder. According to relatives, friends, and neighbors, the three, all high school athletes, were anything but flaming homophobes. A neighbor of Jose and Paul Merel describes the brothers as "nice, pleasant, well-mannered boys." A friend of Jaron Nabors calls him responsible and bright. "There's no bias in him," says Nabors attorney Robert Beles, denying that Nabors "would actively participate in any type of homophobic activity."
By making clear that Gwen Araujo's murder was not the act of a few crazy bigots, press reports have usefully directed attention on the widespread homophobic and transphobic attitudes that are the real roots of anti-transgender violence. Reports note that other students at Newark Memorial High school said they might have attacked Gwen as Merel, Magidson, and Nabors did, if they had been in similar circumstances. Even Jose Merel's mother, while trying to express sympathy for Sylvia Guerrero, saw no irony in commenting to The Los Angeles Times that "if you find out the beautiful woman you're with is really a man, I think it would make any man go crazy." If something is to be done about violence against transgenders, these are the attitudes that need to be addressed and changed through education and increased awareness.
Response to the murder from Bay Area transgender activist groups has been far-reaching. Some 500 people held a march and candlelight vigil for Araujo in San Francisco on October 25, the day of her funeral. Activists who attended Gwen's funeral that day were received with enthusiastic applause. A day later, a second candlelight vigil was organized in nearby Palo Alto by the Gunn High School Gay and Straight Alliance. A service of lamentation at one local Presbyterian church was dedicated to the memory of Gwen Araujo, and a large vigil was organized for the opening performance of "The Laramie Project," a play about the Wyoming murder of Matthew Shepard being coincidentally produced by students at Newark High.
Instead of being swept under the rug, the murder of Gwen Araujo is causing a broad spectrum of people to ask how such a thing can happen, generating new understanding of the difficulties that transgendered people face in a hostile, unaccepting world, and bringing to public consciousness the need for more effective education around public acceptance of gender and sexual diversity.
Happily, even as violence against transgendered people seems to be on the rise, awareness and outtrage over incidents like Gwen Araujo's murder is also rising, around the country, and around the world. In 1999, a first Transgender Day of Remembrance, a candlelit vigil to memorialize those who had been killed due to anti-transgender hatred or prejudice, was organized in San Francisco. The following year, Remembrance events spread to 14 cities around the country. In 2001, the number of participating cities grew to 23, and this year, on November 20th, there will be Transgender Days of Remembrance in 38 cities and four countries. Information on Days of Rememberance is available online at http://www.transgenderdor.org
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at email@example.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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