In October 2002, a teenage girl was brutally murdered in a small Northern California town. Seventeen-year-old Gwen Araujo was bound, bludgeoned, and strangled before her body was left in a shallow grave in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Araujo was biologically male; her given name was Edward. But at the age of fourteen, she came out to her family, and began dressing as a girl. “I told him, ‘Whether you’re a man or a woman I’m going to love you,’” said Araujo’s mother, Sylvia Guerrero.
The summer before her murder, Araujo became friends with four men in their late teens and early twenties: Jaron Nabors, Michael Magdison, and the brothers Paul and Jose Merel. It was at a party at the Merels’ house in early October that Jose Merel – who, like Magdison, had had sexual encounters with Araujo – began asking her if she was male or female. His brother’s girlfriend thought they should “check” – so she put her hands up Araujo’s skirt and discovered that she was biologically male.
What happened next was a matter of dispute at the ensuing criminal trials, as was who did what when. But witnesses testified that the discovery elicited a swift and emotional reaction from Jose Merel, Magdison, and Nabors: the three men attacked Araujo, who was later carried out of the house and into the garage, where the attack continued. A fourth man, Jason Cazares, was also charged in the murder.
Nabors pled guilty to manslaughter and testified against the other defendants. The first trial was ruled a mistrial when the jurors deadlocked on first-degree murder charges. In the second trial, Magdison and Jose Merel were both convicted of second-degree murder. The jury deadlocked over Cazares, resulting in a second mistrial for him. He eventually pled no contest to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to six years in prison; Nabors was sentenced to 11 years, and both Magdison and Merel received sentences of 15 years to life.
During the first trial, Magdison’s attorney accused Araujo of “luring” Magdison into having homosexual sex. He also contended that Magdison was guilty only of voluntary manslaughter, and had gone into an extreme rage after learning that Araujo was biologically male.
While juries in both trials rejected the idea of “trans panic” – that is, that discovering a partner’s transgender status could be a mitigating reason for using deadly violence – the jury in the second trial also declined to add hate crime enhancement allegations to the charges. In 2006, the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act became California law. The bill opposes a defendant’s use of social bias against a victim to lessen their own culpability for a crime.
Sylvia Guerrero was interviewed the week of her daughter’s funeral. “I’m going to bury him in the prettiest dress I can find … With makeup. His tombstone will say ‘Gwen.’”
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.