Violence targets transgender community

By Margie Mason
Monday October 21, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO – Eddie “Gwen” Araujo was a good-looking girl – so good, it cost him his life. 

The 17-year-old with high cheekbones and soft, pretty eyes never came home from a house party earlier this month. Instead, Araujo was allegedly beaten and strangled by three enraged men who discovered she was a he. 

While saddened by the killing, members of the transgender community aren’t surprised. They say stories of assaults, mutilations and murders have become so common, new crimes are almost expected. 

“I hear so much of it, it makes me sick,” said Theresa Sparks, a transgender commissioner on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. “All of these are young people.” 

Araujo left for the Oct. 3 party in his hometown of Newark dressed in flip flops and a denim skirt, but took a change of pants so it would be easier to conceal his true sex when he got drunk, according to court documents. That plan failed after a girl at the party returned from the bathroom and said “It’s a man,” the documents show. 

The three men then allegedly attacked Araujo and dragged him – half conscious – into the garage where police believe they strangled him with a rope until he was presumed dead. His body was found buried in a shallow grave in the Sierra wilderness two weeks later, his wrists and ankles bound. 

Sylvia Guerrero said her son will be buried in makeup and women’s clothes and “Gwen” will be engraved in his headstone – Araujo chose the name because he liked singer Gwen Stefani of the band No Doubt. 

“He was born this way. He always felt like a girl,” she told a crowd of about 100 at a vigil Friday night. “Eddie was different, and people were mean to him. 

“But he was my baby. He was my son. I loved him unconditionally,” she said. “When you see someone like Eddie, smile at him.” 

Michael William Magidson, 27, Jaron Chase Nabors, 19, and Jose Antonio Merel, 24, all of Newark, face murder charges with a hate-crime enhancement that carries up to an additional four years in prison. They did not enter pleas in court Friday and were ordered held without bail. 

A fourth suspect was arrested Wednesday but was released when the district attorney’s office determined there was not enough evidence to prosecute him. 

In a study conducted by the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition about five years ago, two-thirds of transgender respondents said they had been physically or sexually assaulted, said executive director Riki Wilchins. 

Gwen Smith started tracking transgender deaths in 1998 as part of the Remembering Our Dead Project and said many of the slayings share the same details. On average, about one anti-transgender murder is reported in the United States each month, she said. 

“I think the No. 1 thing that people need to get is that we’re human and we have a right to live,” she said. “So often, we’re reduced to a thing. One of the more famous cases is that of Brandon Teena when one of the police officers questioned said, ‘You can call Brandon it for all I’m concerned.”’ 

Smith said Araujo’s slaying is eerily similar to that 1993 Nebraska slaying which was portrayed in the movie “Boys Don’t Cry.” Teena, a 21-year-old girl, was raped and shot to death by two men who discovered she was not a man. 

The killing is also reminiscent of the bludgeoning death of 16-year-old Fred C. Martinez Jr. in Colorado. The Navajo boy was “two-spirited,” meaning he felt he was a girl in a boy’s body. 

Unfortunately, Sparks said it takes high-profile killings to educate people about what it means to be transgender. She said it’s confusing for gay and straight people alike because it’s about gender identification, not sexual orientation. The term transgender describes a wide range of identities including cross-dressers, transvestites, transsexuals and those born with the physical characteristics of both sexes. 

“One of our focuses will have to be more visibility,” Sparks said. “That seems to be a way to get rid of the perceptions that we’re sexual deviants or perverts.”