In weeks of often sad and sometimes sordid testimony in the trial of the men accused of killing transgendered teen Gwen Araujo, prosecutors have portrayed the death as a cold-blooded vendetta. Defense attorneys have blamed heated passions, the panicked reaction of drunken young men devastated by sexual deception. On Tuesday attorneys were to begin presenting closing arguments in the case, which has been closely followed by people who feel their sexual and biological identities are at odds. "There is a certain amount of nervousness; the courts haven't always been the most affirming place for transgendered people," says Christopher Daley, codirector of the San Francisco-based Transgender Law Center. "I think, especially because of the way the defense team's handled this case, that one of the overarching themes is going to be: Are transgendered people valued in our society? Like it or not, this verdict is going to be some measure of that."
Michael Magidson, 23; Jose Merel, 24; and Jason Cazares, 24, are charged with killing Araujo. A fourth man, Jaron Nabors, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and agreed to testify against the others. The four met Araujo, whom they knew as Lida, during the summer of 2002 and became fast friends, often hanging out at Merel's house in the San Francisco suburb of Newark. Magidson and Merel had sexual encounters with Araujo but later grew suspicious about her gender. The debate was settled when a woman friend of the four grabbed Araujo's genitals in a late-night confrontation at Merel's house. Chaos followed. Merel, according to witnesses, started crying and saying, "I'm not gay." Magidson was wild-eyed and distraught. Nabors told jurors that Araujo was wrestled to the floor, slapped, and punched. Magidson put her in several choke holds and kneed her in the head; Merel struck her with a can and skillet, Nabors testified. As the assault began, Araujo begged, "No, please don't. I have a family."
But there was no mercy, according to Nabors. When Araujo began to bleed she was ordered off a couch to keep it clean. Later she was tied up and carried into the garage to keep from getting the carpet bloodied, he said. Inside the garage, Nabors said, he saw Magidson start to pull an end of rope toward Araujo's neck. Nabors said he left the garage at that point but that on the drive to the remote spot where they buried the body, Magidson talked about twisting the rope. Cazares, meanwhile, acknowledged hitting Araujo with a shovel, Nabors said. Defense attorneys say Nabors lied to save himself.
Cazares's attorney, Tony Serra, says his client, who did not have sex with Araujo, never hit her and, in fact, tried to help her during the attack. Serra says Cazares agreed to bury the body only out of loyalty to his friends. The only defendant to testify, Cazares said he believed Araujo was female until well into the assault. He said he walked away after learning she was biologically male and did not see her die. Merel's attorney put on a relatively brief defense, mainly calling witnesses to attest to Merel's good character. But Magidson's attorney, Michael Thorman, called the death "classic manslaughter" and said his client was driven past reason by the shock of finding out that Araujo was male. Transgender activists deplore that approach as both blaming the victim and irrelevant to the issue at hand: murder. "Whether or not Gwen made some bad choices that night, that should not be part of us as a society deciding how to respond to the behavior of the defendants," says Daley.
Outside the courtroom Thorman defended his tactics. "I don't think I'm blaming the victim at all," he said. "Eddie Araujo's behavior was obviously a provocation, but I don't blame him in the sense that I
think that Eddie was a confused and troubled person who needed some help. It's horrible that these things happen, but it's just a reality. It's not a matter of blaming. It's how all of this ended up happening the way it happened." Activists and Araujo's family disagree. They say being transgendered isn't a crime and that Araujo was not trying to deceive her friends but, on the contrary, was showing them her true self. "She just wanted to be accepted," said Araujo's uncle, David Guerrero. "She
wanted so much acceptance."
In response to Araujo's death, the Horizons Foundation, which serves gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in the San Francisco Bay area, established a fund in the teenager's name--it has raised $15,000 so far--to support school programs promoting understanding and tolerance of transgendered people. "The importance of the trial...is for our entire community, hopefully, the nation and the world, to learn that transgendered people are in our midst," said Julie Dorf, the foundation's director of philanthropic services. "There are thousands and thousands of Gwen Araujos."