Author’s Note: I have long debated whether to ever post this story. The story is true and the connections made in this I believe to be true. With almost 15 years having passed since reports first slammed into the media, I think that an important aspect to the story of a beloved trans youth has not entered the discussion as it should. I will never forget this friend of mine. None of us should.
Her death sparked national outrage. Trans youth had been murdered at various times before and after her passing. But her death incited the rawest indignation in anyone’s memory.
The family of Gwen Araujo honored her birthday on February 24.1 Had she escaped her assailants she would be 32 today. Very likely she would have at least attempted to go to Los Angeles as a makeup artist and would have sought an avenue for transition while pursuing activism. But 3 men robbed her of that possibility 15 years ago this year.2
The details concerning her death have been rehearsed again and again in various media. The outrage at the light sentences of the perpetrators inspired California to eventually outlaw the use of the “panic defense” in cases involving hate crimes. Lifetime network produced a film about her called “A Girl Like Me” which depicted a version of how her mother Sylvia Guerrero viewed her recent life and death through the lens of attorney Gloria Allred who prosecuted her attackers. What the film and what news reporters at the time did not successfully depict was a truly charismatic person who wanted to make a better world.3
That was the girl this writer remembers in a city in which I lived in 1999-2000, the landmarks of which have changed so much that what was seems incredible in retrospect. Gwen had been introduced to me in the summer of 2000 at The Edge, in nearby Fremont near Mowry Boulevard. I lived in Fremont at the time while working in an Oakland senior complex and serving at another newly organized LGBT center in Hayward called, “The Lighthouse.” I had learned about “The Edge” from its director who had come to “The Lighthouse” to visit a new transgender support group called “The Alameda T’s.”4
Mowry provided a relatively straight thoroughfare through a maze of streets that would confuse most travelers. It began in the northeast at Mission Boulevard near the hills, just across the railroad from Niles. The actor Charlie Chaplin used to go there get away from it all and local businesses recall him fondly. Mowry crosses the Nimitz Freeway near Gwen’s home in Newark and approaches San Francisco Bay at the southwest. The New Park Mall occupied the entrance to Newark at the freeway crossing. I lived in a rented room opposite what was the AT&T building on Mowry north of the Fremont BART station. The Edge at that time occupied an office just off Mowry at a point in-between just north of a marketplace known as the Fremont Hub.
Several changes have taken place in that landscape. The AT&T building later gave way to medical offices. Washington Hospital rose up just south of the BART station. “The Edge” now applies to a number of establishments in Fremont including several medical offices on State Street and a youth center on Fremont Boulevard. A group calling itself “The Edge-Men Together” still has an online presence through the Community of LGBT Centers. But a brick and mortar office by that name no longer appears today.5
When I visited “The Edge” I met “Eddie”, a Latin youth, obviously of such age as starting high school, with long straight black hair cut off even with the chin and eyes that sparkled like deep pools of water that ran to the center of the Earth. “Eddie” presented then as a hip male with navy blue jacket over a tee shirt and denims.6
I normally didn’t talk to minors for a special reason. In that day civil rights didn’t exist for transpeople in California. Locals might immediately suspect me of sexual impropriety just for speaking to a child, especially since I had been in the sex industry prior to that time. My activism was still something completely new for me, drawing me away from that industry. But I knew that would not cover for common suspicion.
Despite my initial misgivings “The Edge” provided a designated safe space for LGBT peoples. I felt at liberty to let down my guard for once. “Eddie’s” captivating smile and demeanor immediately made me feel at ease. As soon as I told “Eddie” that I was a member of Transgender San Francisco my new found friend’s eyes lit up with a smile. We immediately “clicked” and we continued our conversation for an hour. I was literally astonished at this youth’s charismatic demeanor.
Transgender San Francisco in that day commanded a special presence among transgender organizations in Northern California. It boasted 279 members in September 2000 according to its publication, The Channel.7 Members said its membership soared to a peak of 450 at one time. Transpeople in Northern California often belonged to 2 or more support groups, sometimes attaching the initials of organizations to their names like acronyms. “Jane Doe, SGA, DVG, TGSF” meant that Jane Doe was a member of the Sacramento Gender Association (River City Girls today), Diablo Valley Girls, and Transgender San Francisco. But TGSF remained a central organization for many years at this time. Any prominent transperson in Northern California would most likely have taken membership in TGSF.
On one of the director’s visits to “The Lighthouse” he invited people to speak on transgender issues as part of a televised panel for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Since I had already been a public person as a columnist for TV Epic, as a contestant in a televised beauty pageant run by TGSF, worked with San Francisco’s Transgender Civil Rights Implementation Task Force, and lived in Fremont where taping would be done, I was a logical choice for the project.
The taping of that program would bring special surprises. It was done at the AT&T building just a 5 minute walk away from my home. Another panelist arrived, Patricia Kevena Fili who I knew from The Butterfly Project in Oakland. Also, 2 other staff members came to operate the equipment. But the greatest surprise to me was “Eddie’s” arrival, wearing the same casual attire as Eddie presented previously. We greeted with an embrace of friends.
What was this kid doing there? “Eddie” (as this was the name still being used at the time) was moderator but at that time this youth never let on being transgender. I smiled, pleasantly surprised that anyone so young would have the confidence or the candor to moderate a television panel. “Eddie” had both. This kid was simply incredible.
The youth gathered Patricia and me prior to taping to determine questions to be asked during the half hour telecast. Her ideas for questions echoed those generally unfamiliar with the philosophical or political aspects of transgenderism and even expressed surprise when Patricia and I used the ladies’ room. “Eddie” offered us rapt attention throughout the session and demonstrated excellent focus upon the task.
Within an hour we had enough material for the program to air the next hour on local access. The PFLAG staff was delighted with what they had, saying it far exceeded their expectations. I bid them all farewell, returning to my room in my preparations to depart from the Bay Area in pursuit of work.
Eventually I moved in with the man who would become my husband. I kept my membership in TGSF until 2004. But in 2002 I received the grim news about the murder of a trans youth in Newark from my online connections. As soon as I saw the picture of the victim and saw her eyes I said, “She looks familiar.” As I read, one word caught my attention: “Eddie”.
I read article after article online. The age and location looked consistent with the Eddie I knew. But “Eddie” had assumed other names: “Wendy, Lida, and Gwen.” Gwen Araujo had cross dressed since age 14. The “Eddie” I knew would have been 15 at our first meeting.8
If the “Eddie” I knew and Gwen were one and the same it would explain her intense interest in transgender issues. But another quote caught my eye.
A friend of Gwen’s named Jennifer Woods said, “He [sic] was ready to stand his [sic] ground and be who he [sic] wanted to be and people weren’t used to that much confidence. Ultimately I think his [sic] strength killed him [sic].” This would have been consistent with the confidence of the youth who moderated that panel.9
Gwen’s choice of clothing also fit the style of the “Eddie” I knew: black shirt, denim skirt, and flip flops at the time of her murder, consistent with what my friend chose to wear at “The Edge” and at the AT&T building.10
I e-mailed people I knew including Patricia Kevena Fili, asking if they could confirm that Gwen was the same “Eddie” who did the PFLAG taping. Nobody would answer no matter how much I pressed for answers.
But descriptions and more pictures of Gwen Araujo convinced me that the 2 were the same person. I fell into a deep sadness and anger, blaming myself for my influence. Others upon hearing my self-reproach tried to assure me that I could not be blamed. But I felt no consolation.
Perhaps they were right. If Gwen had cross dressed before our first meeting she would have done so privately. The Lifetime film A Girl Like Me presented a story of one who was cross dressing much earlier than age 14 and that’s common for transitioning people.
Another troubling set of facts emerged. It was written that Gwen’s family attended the Evangelical Free Church when she was 10-14 years of age and that she began presenting as a female around the time the family left that church. She had also attended counseling sessions ages 14-16 from a Linda Skerbec of Focus On the Family who said after Gwen’s death that she was “on the verge” of persuading Gwen “to move beyond the label of transgender and claim the sexual identity that marked his [sic] anatomy.”11
Focus On the Family is an organization founded by the Nazarene psychologist Dr. James Dobson. It has hosted a “National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day” and continues to advocate reparative therapy despite widespread condemnation of that practice by the American Psychiatric Association.12
In that context it would be no wonder that Gwen Araujo would have ended up so maladjusted. Her mother Sylvia Guerrero was slow to accept her as Gwen, saying, “Mijo, I’ll call you ‘Gwen’ when you have a sex change.” Gwen was said to have turned to alcohol and attempted suicide, common to transpeople who find acceptance of their gender identity lacking among those close to them. The internal conflict can be that painful.13
That conflict can translate into external dangers too. Newark Police told the Associated Press that Gwen had been found in an alley after drinking and with a stab wound in July 2002. No mention was made in the report as to whether the wound was from an assailant or if it had been self-inflicted. Either way it’s demonstrative of the danger trans youth have faced; danger that has seriously been underestimated.14
Sylvia Guerrero would later advocate for transgender rights. A box with Gwen’s ashes remains enshrined in her home, marked “Gwen Amber Rose Araujo.” Amber Rose had been her choice for Gwen had she been assigned “female” at birth, so she supplied it for her middle name after Gwen, a name her daughter chose for herself after her admiration of singer Gwen Stefani. She speaks of Gwen as her angel now. But she has also fallen upon hard times. A GoFundMe page asks for help at this link to which this writer urges anyone who is able to contribute.15
One thing continued to disturb me about Gwen and “Eddie” for years that followed. If Gwen had already cross dressed at age 14, what was to prevent this youth from presenting as Gwen at the PFLAG taping? If she was confident enough to moderate a television panel, why would she not feel confident enough to be herself and present as a female at the taping?
I can only suppose because the answers died with her. Gwen had then still been looking for answers for herself in terms of how transpeople operate and present to the world. I had likewise cross dressed for years before doing so publicly and even longer before going full time. Gwen would be no different. Besides, Gwen understood the societal contempt youth face concerning their choices and demeanor. Gwen may have been in no hurry to do anything that wouldn’t blend in. She felt safer at the time to do the program as “Eddie” and to present herself to me as the same.
This writer also felt deep resentment, as did many activists in the Bay Area, at the crassness of comments made by Joe Rodriguez in the San Jose Mercury News who said, “I’d like to hear real-world advice from the transgender community. (boy did he [sic] ever!)”16
The presumptuousness of that reporter’s preaching rightfully drew ire, especially for his use of improper pronouns in reference to Gwen. But more importantly, he presumed that Gwen never had any guidance from transpeople. Clearly, he presumed falsely. Gwen learned from the taping session and other interactions. She knew what resources would be available as an adult. These resources would not be widely available to youth at that time.
Organizations like Transgender San Francisco generally did not open themselves to minors for the same reasons as I didn’t generally talk to minors. Trans youth organizations would not widely appear for many years. Gwen unwittingly demonstrated how vital the availability of trans youth liaisons really are, and that need is burned into our memories by her passing.
This was the real lesson of the life of Gwen Araujo: the need for society to recognize the needs of trans youth and embrace them as the beautiful and intelligent individuals they are. Society also needs to recognize what its stigmatization of transpeople do, a stigmatization that prevented more outreach to trans youth than what then existed and even what exists now.
For those of us who remember Gwen, we still feel pain. We can only honor someone who had a genuinely bright and courageous spirit with continuing efforts for trans kids. We may only say as did her mother at her funeral, “Take flight, beautiful butterfly. Take flight.”17
Note: The articles from the San Jose Mercury News from this time no longer appear online except as quoted in other sources. Transgender San Francisco has graciously posted online the corresponding issue of The Channel, continuing to remind us to remember our dead.
- Guerrero, Sylvia. Photos (February 25, 2017) Facebook.
- De Sá, Karen. Troubled Years Preceded Attack (October 26, 2002) San Jose Mercury News. Web: TGSF: http://tgsf.org/other-resources/gwen_channel.pdf, p. 21. Retrieved March 1, 2017.
- Evans, Shelley, Screenwriter and Holland, Agnieszka, Director A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story (2006) Lifetime Web: IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0787484/. Retrieved March 1, 2017.
- Unless otherwise noted, all information is from the memory and experience of the writer.
- (n.a.) The Edge – Men Together Project (n.d.) Web: LGBT Centers: http://www.lgbtcenters.org/Centers/California/6/The-Edge-Men-Together-Project.aspx. Retrieved March 1, 2017.
- This article places “Eddie” in quotations, knowing that this is not how Gwen truly identified, not for the purpose of deadnaming, but as a matter of historical fact that has also been acknowledged to the media by her family. Etiquette demands that one addresses a person according to the gender presented at the time. Gwen was presenting as a male at that time. It isn’t unusual for transpeople to use multiple names till finally settling upon one. Outside that specific context, this writer refers to her rightly as Gwen.
- Kantz, Ayme (ed.) The Channel, Volume 19, Issue 9 (September 2000) Transgender San Francisco, p. 2.
- Locke, Michelle. Family, Community Say Farewell to Killed Transgender Teen (October 25, 2002) Associated Press, San Jose Mercury Web: TGSF: http://tgsf.org/other-resources/gwen_channel.pdf,. p. 16. Retrieved March 1, 2017.
- De Sá, San Jose Mercury News.
- Mason, Margie. Transgender Teen’s Death Lamented (October 25, 2002) Associated Press, com. Web: TGSF: http://tgsf.org/other-resources/gwen_channel.pdf, p. 17. Retrieved March 1, 2017.
- Op cit.
- (n.a.) Focus on the Family Celebrates “National Coming Out Of Homosexuality Day” (October 11, 2001) Press Release, Focus on the Family. Web: PR Newswire: http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/focus-on-the-family-celebrates-national-coming-out-of-homosexuality-day-73601687.html. Retrieved March 1, 2017.
- De Sá, San Jose Mercury News.
- Locke, San Jose Mercury News.
- Guerrero, Sylvia. Mother of Murdered Transgender Teen (November 28, 2015) Web: GoFundMe: https://www.gofundme.com/mjcbpda6. Retrieved March 1, 2017.
- Rodriguez, Joe. Still Just a Kid (October 24, 2002) San Jose Mercury News. Web: TGSF: http://tgsf.org/other-resources/gwen_channel.pdf, p. 17. Retrieved March 1, 2017.
- Locke, San Jose Mercury News.