Gwen Amber Rose Araujo was an everyday teenager in many ways, a beautiful young woman who liked crop tops and blue jeans and lived in a small community in Northern California, dreaming of one day becoming a Hollywood makeup artist. But on October 3, 2002, she went to a party bravely wearing a miniskirt for the first time, and she never came home. The 17-year-old Araujo was transgender, and after Paul Merel's girlfriend discovered and outed Araujo at a party both girls were attending, four men — Michael William Magidson, 22, Jose Antonio Merel, 22, Jaron Chase Nabors, 19, and Jason Cezares, 22 — beat Araujo, slashed her face, hit her on the head with a shovel and a frying pan, strangled her, hogtied her, wrapped her body in a sheet, and tossed her into the back of a pickup truck. They drove her to a campground about 100 miles away in the Sierra foothills and dumped her body. Her mother didn’t know where she was for days, none of the partygoers reported the crime, and the media didn’t cover her disappearance until Nabors, traumatized by what had happened, led police to her gravesite.
Araujo had allegedly had anal or oral sex with two of the men in the weeks prior to the party; she was a regular friend of Merel’s who hung out at the house with other kids who drank and played dominoes. The men who killed her were all considered her friends.
She was certainly not the first trans woman or trans kid murdered, but her killing was shocking in part because of the extreme violence of the act and by the time and location where it occurred — in Newark, Calif., part of the Silicon Valley, just 30 miles from San Francisco. Her local high school was in the process of rehearsals for The Laramie Project, a play about the antigay murder of Matthew Shepard.
“In essence, the town of Newark lived through what Laramie did as the local school performed a play about the very same experience,” remembers Cathy Renna, the former news director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Gwen’s supportive and loving family stood up and demanded justice, Renna says, and with media attention, “good came from evil. To me, the most moving part of Gwen's story is her mother Sylvia [Guerrero]'s on-going fight for her child and her historic legal fight to have Gwen's birth certificate changed to female posthumously.” Guerrero told reporters that the tombstone would read Gwen, and that Araujo would be buried in the prettiest dress she could find.
After an initial mistrial, on September 12, 2005, Magidson and Merel were convicted of second-degree murder, but not convicted of the hate-crime enhancements. Nabors pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in exchange for his testimony against the other killers; he got an 11-year prison sentence. Cazares, who insisted he wasn’t at the party at the time of the killing and said he only covered up the crime, eventually struck a deal with prosecutors and received a six-year sentence.
The San Francisco LGBT Community Center released a statement expressing the disappointment many felt upon hearing that the hate-crimes charges did not stick. “The jury did not see fit to find that these men were guilty of hate crimes. That hate did not play a role in this murder is unimaginable,” it read.
“This was a transgender youth who was interrogated, brutalized, sexually assaulted, and humiliated before her death, based upon her transgender status,” transgender musician and activist Shawna Virago told the Bay Area Reporter. She wanted community pushback after the verdict. “The overkill of the actual murder speaks to the fact that this was a hate crime. We have to remember that any of the freedom we enjoy in being out and expressing our gender comes from the fact that we have been fierce, and we have been proud, and very loud, and I don't see that right now.”
“Gwen being transgender was not a provocative act. She's who she was,” said Alameda County assistant district attorney Chris Lamiero, who prosecuted the case and had to battle at least one defendant’s “transgender panic” defense. “However, I would not further ignore the reality that Gwen made some decisions in her relation with these defendants that were impossible to defend. I don't think most jurors are going to think it's OK to engage someone in sexual activity knowing they assume you have one sexual anatomy when you don’t.”
The Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act (AB 1160) was signed into law September 28, 2006, by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was the nation’s first bill to address the use of panic strategies, meaning defendants can’t use societal bias against their victim in order to decrease their own culpability for a crime.
Transgender Law Center represented Sylvia Guerrero in her petition to secure legal recognition of Gwen’s name change. Although requests for posthumous name changes are rare, attorneys with the center argued that the petition was a valid exercise of the court’s jurisdiction. In June of 2004, the same month the jury in Gwen’s murder trial deadlocked, the petition was granted and Gwen’s name was recognized.