Gwen Araujo remembered 20 years after brutal murder

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday September 28, 2022
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Trans teenager Gwen Araujo. File photo
Trans teenager Gwen Araujo. File photo

Sylvia Guerrero, whose transgender daughter was killed 20 years ago October 4, said, "If I had an LGBTQ child now, I'd still be worried, just as I was for Gwen at the time."

"I was hoping the world would be a much better place for the LGBT community but it's not," Guerrero told the Bay Area Reporter. "It's the world we live in, and it starts at home. Everyone deserves equality across the board."

Guerrero's daughter, Gwen Araujo, was 17 years old when, in 2002, she went to a house party in the East Bay city of Newark where she was beaten, tortured, and strangled by a group of young men — two of whom she reportedly had sex with — after they discovered she had male anatomy.

Guerrero said that at the time of the murder, "I had everything — a car, family, and 401K — and in one night my world forever changed and never has been the same."

Beset by financial and health issues, Guerrero now lives in Tracy with one of her sons. She has a GoFundMe to help raise money for her expenses, saying that at 58 and having been outside of the workforce for so long, prospective employers often don't get back to her.

Sylvia Guerrero, the mother of Gwen Araujo, spoke outside Alameda County Superior Court in 2006 following the sentencing of the defendants in the case. Attorney Gloria Allred, who worked with Guerrero, is in the background. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland  

"This is not something I had planned for my life," Guerrero said. "The wound is still fresh in my heart and soul, and it's never going to heal."

Defendants Michael Magidson and Jose Merel claimed a "gay panic" defense but were convicted of second-degree murder in a retrial in 2005. The first trial in 2004 had ended in a mistrial after the jurors were unable to arrive at a unanimous decision that it'd been first-degree murder.

Defendant Jason Cazares negotiated a plea deal with prosecutors at the end of his second mistrial and pleaded no contest to manslaughter in late 2005. In January 2006, all three men were sentenced: Magidson and Merel received the mandatory sentences of 15 years-to-life, while Cazares, under his plea agreement, received six years.

A fourth man, Jaron Nabors, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 2003 and testified against the other three defendants. He was later sentenced to 11 years.

In 2019, Magidson, the last of Araujo's killers who is still in prison, was denied parole, as the B.A.R. reported. Guerrero wrote to the B.A.R. at the time that Magidson for the first time said that he was sorry, though she didn't believe it was sincere. (Guerrero was unable to personally attend the hearing, but her sister did.) Magidson is expected to have another parole hearing in 2024.

Trials recalled
Gwen Smith, a trans woman who writes the Transmissions column for the B.A.R. and is the founder of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, has strong recollections of the trials.

"One of the things about working in anti-trans violence is that — for better or worse — you begin to anticipate murders," Smith stated. "They happen with a very regular frequency and, when you don't hear about one, you start to get a touch, well, not antsy. It's not that you want one to happen. It's that you are on alert, knowing it's coming."

According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 50 trans people were killed in 2021, a record number. So far this year, the national LGBTQ rights organization states on its website, at least 30 trans people have been killed.

Coverage of Araujo's murder and the trials highlighted the issue of transgender crime victims being deadnamed in the media and in court. At the first trial, both defense and prosecuting attorneys referred to Araujo by her birth name instead of her chosen name.

"I recall the fight to get her name recognized. In the earliest days of coverage, most outlets used her birth name, relegating her chosen name to a side note," Smith stated. "Eventually, some time into the trials, the family went so far as to petition the courts for a posthumous name change, just to do their best to let people know that her name was Gwen Amber Rose Araujo — and nothing else."

An Alameda County court commissioner granted that request on June 23, 2004.

Smith recalled that she will never forget the day of Araujo's funeral, including "the crowd of Newark area locals who came to honor her and hold space in case the Westboro Baptist kept true to their promise to protest."

Back then, homophobe Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church followers regularly attended funerals of LGBTQ people, disturbing mourners with their anti-LGBTQ placards.

"They did not show," Smith continued. "I remember the Angel Action, a group of people dressed in angel costumes, with huge wings to serve as drapes, and prevent protesters from being seen by the family. Oh, and I remember the media, which became a regular participant. I suppose, as a part of the newspaper, that would include me."

Civic remembrance planned
Guerrero will be appearing at a civic remembrance and call to action at the Koret Auditorium at the San Francisco Public Library main branch at 100 Larkin Street in the Civic Center on Tuesday, October 4, from 4 to 6 p.m., said gay former District 8 supervisor and current BART board member Bevan Dufty.

Tuesday's event, Dufty said, will consist of two panels: one will be on transgender rights, which are currently experiencing significant pushback in state legislatures across the country and will be moderated by lesbian B.A.R. news editor Cynthia Laird. The panel will feature Kris Hayashi, a trans man who is the executive director of the Transgender Law Center; Asaf Orr, a senior staff attorney with NCLR and director of its Transgender Youth Project; and attorney Jennifer Altman.

Shannon Minter, a trans man who is legal director of NCLR, stated to the B.A.R., "For many transgender advocates, the horror of Gwen's death and the suffering of her mother, Sylvia Guerrero, have served as constant reminders of the horrific violence directed at transgender women and girls and the urgency of stopping it."

He added, "Twenty years later, the anguish caused by Gwen Araujo's brutal murder has not diminished. Gwen was an innocent teenager struggling to be herself at a time when transgender youth had virtually no resources or support. She was the victim of an unthinkably vicious attack, and no justice in her case was ever done."

Minter noted that changes have occurred since Araujo's murder.

"Gwen's death has spurred many changes, both in California and other states, but we are still far from a world in which transgender children are safe, loved, supported, and protected," Minter stated. "It is enraging that we will never know what Gwen might have accomplished in her life, and that she never had a chance to grow up and have a family of her own. She will not be forgotten, and those of us who remember her death will never stop working to create the safety she deserved and never had."

For one thing, gay/trans panic defenses such as those used by Araujo's killers are now illegal in California. A law was passed in 2014 with the help of Guerrero.

The second panel will be moderated by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Victoria Kolakowski, a trans woman and the wife of Laird, and will feature youth, such as from LYRIC in the Castro and San Francisco public schools, among other partners. Victoria Castro, program manager for El/La Para TransLatinas, will also be on the panel.

This panel will "help young people know Gwen's story" and will help the older people "hear what will make them [trans youth] feel safe," Dufty, a parent of a teen himself, explained.

"Vicky was very up for it," Dufty said. "For young people to see this trailblazing jurist will be great at facilitating discussion."

Laird and Dufty both mentioned how the B.A.R. shined a spotlight on the brutal murder.

"It's hard to believe that it's been 20 years since the brutal killing of Gwen Araujo. Her death, in the East Bay city of Newark, hit close to home for many," Laird stated in an email. "The Bay Area Reporter covered the two trials and other aspects of the case over the years and yet the violence against trans people, particularly trans women of color, continues. I hope that next week's panel can look at some of the reasons for this, as well as celebrate the courage that Gwen had as a teen to live authentically."

Said Dufty: "I think part of the story is the impact of the Bay Area Reporter. I felt the advocacy from B.A.R. pushed this issue, gave it momentum and got the mainstream press to carry it."

During Araujo's life, Guerrero had accepted her daughter's gender identity. She said she doesn't understand parents who won't accept their children.

"It's heartbreaking to think how you can carry a child for nine months and give birth, then they come to them one day, trusting them, and they throw them out like yesterday's garbage," Guerrero said. "It's sickening.

"This was a baby God has given me. They are only loaned to us from God. ... She had nothing but love from me," added Guerrero.

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