Transmissions: Gwen Araujo and the steady trickle of anti-trans violence

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Tuesday October 4, 2022
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Gwen Araujo. Illustration: Christine Smith
Gwen Araujo. Illustration: Christine Smith

Around 20 years ago, somewhere in the middle of October 2002, I was talking with another trans activist friend of mine. At the time, I was heavily involved with the Remembering Our Dead project, and working to get materials together for the upcoming Transgender Day of Remembrance.

There is something that happens when you work on such a project. It is obviously very difficult to be around so much death, so often. It's doubly so if you are trans yourself, looking at a litany of deaths.

The challenging thing, however, wasn't when you would read about a violent, horrific killing of someone like you, or wading through any number of awful, transphobic reasons for those deaths. It wasn't even trying to maintain your own professional composure long enough to contact reporters, or police, or others, wanting to scream at their indifference — or outright contempt — for a victim of anti-transgender violence.

No, the hardest part was the anticipation. You began to feel this sense of awful expectancy about these killings. At the time, you would often hear about a case in this country roughly every two weeks, with a precision that was eerie.

Of course, in this decade, we are seeing these deaths at a far more accelerated pace, whether due to better reporting, more interest, or, frankly, more people willing to show their hatred for transgender people through violent, often murderous, acts — but I digress.

I never wanted to hear about another murder. Frankly, I never do. But you would still expect it. You simply knew that such was coming, and you had best be on guard for it. If it didn't happen, or it took a while, you became a bit antsy, knowing that it was all the more likely that a death had occurred. I hated that feeling, and I always will.

In mid-October, 2002, I had not heard about a transgender murder for about two weeks, going on three, and I was talking about exactly this with another trans activist friend of mine.

I got off the phone with her shortly thereafter, and went downstairs. A roomie of mine had the television on, watching the local CBS affiliate. Topping the news was the first time I heard about Gwen Araujo.

For the uninitiated, Araujo was a 17-year-old trans teen from Newark, California. On the evening of October 3, she attended a house party with a number of other people, including Jaron Nabors, Michael Magidson, Jason Cazares, Jose Merel, and his brother, Paul Merel. (All except Paul Merel, who had left the house before the incident began, were charged in Araujo's killing and ultimately either convicted or accepted plea deals.)

What Araujo did not know was that these five had already suspected that she was trans and intended to confront her that night. After she was revealed to be transgender, she was brutally beaten and tortured over several hours, then buried in a shallow grave roughly 150 miles from Newark.

In the San Francisco Bay Area — and to a lesser extent, nationally — her death made the news. The news tended to emphasize her youth, as well as her good looks. She was perfect for the lurid eye of the mainstream media. Many, too, played up the same cues as her killers' defense — that she had "tricked" them into sex, and they could not be held liable for their actions after being "deceived."

I, my partner, and another trans activist — perhaps the one I spoke to that day, perhaps another — traveled to her viewing and service. There were fears of the anti-LGBTQ Westboro Baptist Church picketing the funeral, and a large group of locals, including many from Araujo's high school, attended to show their support and hold the transphobes at bay. (They did not show up.)

The funeral itself was closed to all but family and close friends, but everyone was allowed to the viewing. I don't believe I shall ever get that day out of my mind, going into a small chapel, where she lay in an open casket, well-presented, but gaunt, showing signs that she had indeed passed on more than two weeks prior.

Over the next few years, I went to more than a few memorials to Araujo, from that first viewing to seeing her name added to the Alameda County Children's Memorial Flag and Grove in the hills overlooking Newark. I attended the arraignment. I went to the hearing that the family arranged, to get her name posthumously changed, in an attempt to get the media and others to stop using her birth name. Likewise, I attended the first trial and, when that ended in a mistrial, the second.

I watched as the rope used to bind her arms and legs was shown around the courtroom, as defense attorney Tony Serra demonstrated how a can of soup — one of the many things Araujo was bludgeoned with — would dent and deform. I saw photos in the courtroom that made it clear how much artistry was used to bring her body together for the viewing.

I also got to know her family, especially her mother, Sylvia Guerrero, and uncle. I was there to support them, and developed a friendship with them. I could, of course, feel their pain, sadness, and loss. Anything that I felt pales in comparison to what they went through, and what they continue to experience.

This was one murder. In the 20 years since Araujo was murdered, there have been thousands more. There have been 31 so far this year in the United States alone. There will be countless more.

Each of those was a person, with a family, with people who cared, and people who will never be able to fully heal from the experience. Not in two decades, and not ever.

We need this to end. We cannot bear this horrific eventuality of anti-transgender violence and murder.

Gwen Smith sends her love to the Guerreros. You can find her at

On Tuesday, October 4, from 4 to 6 p.m., there will be a civic remembrance for Gwen Araujo in the Koret Auditorium at the San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin Street.

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