I was in an online chat room, in October of 2002, when someone asked whether we had heard about the girl who was killed not too far from where I lived in San Francisco.
“Her name was Gwen. A group of guys beat her up for hours before she died,” someone typed. “She slept with a couple of them, then they found out she had a penis.”
My first thought: Why did Gwen put herself in that situation? But of course I knew why — I put myself in Gwen’s situation many times, trying to find affirmation at a time when a trans woman like me was either someone to hate or a fetish object, with no option in between.
Back in 2002, I thought it was my obligation to disclose as trans to possible partners not because of my safety, but because it was somehow the worst type of deception if I wasn’t upfront about my status. People understand if you don’t divulge other sorts of private information on a first date — alcoholism, being adopted, whatever. But somehow, being attracted to a trans woman who hasn’t had bottom surgery is such a harmful affront to a man’s sense of self that even other trans women made me feel as though the potentially violent consequences of nondisclosure were my responsibility.
Yet I couldn’t help but keep my trans status to myself, repeatedly, because it often felt safer. I’ve had several experiences of disclosing to men who hit on me at parties or bars, just to realize 15 minutes later that everyone around me was in on the joke, laughing openly at me. It was often hard to tell whether it was safer not to tell the one person who was pursuing me, or risk an entire party knowing about my status — when I might have become the target of any stranger’s hate.
At the time, the world taught me that even when it was those men who approached me in the first place, the fault still lay with me if something bad were to happen. Just by being assigned male and dressing in a way that would cause others to perceive me as a woman, it’s already my fault — our fault, as trans women — when we are shouted at with slurs, beaten, or worse.
But still, what happened to Gwen I could not even imagine. I was already out of college. She was a vulnerable trans girl in high school, that time when being cute and finding acceptance in others, especially boys, is often the most important thing. California is one of those odd states that has pockets of trans acceptance, but Gwen lived in Newark, 40 miles away from the Bay Area. For her, San Francisco might as well have been that unreachable queer oasis in a desert of straights.
Yet Gwen dared to be who she was — dared to present the way she saw herself, as a young woman. And when men began to see her the way she wanted to be seen, she decided not to tell them about her history. And when they found out, their hate and disgust drove them to murder her.
I went to a vigil in Gwen’s honor on Nov. 8, 2002, on the opening night of Newark Memorial High School’s production of The Laramie Project, Moises Kaufmann’s play about the death of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming in 1998, an event that became a rallying point for preventing anti-gay violence in the U.S.
That vigil was not so different from others I’ve been to since, involving candles and words remembering the fallen, recalling Gwen’s spirit and life. My friend Robin shot video of that night, of the gathered crowd, some dressed as angels, as we all strained to light candles in the rain.
Both Gwen’s lawyer Gloria Allred and her mom Sylvia Guerrero spoke about Gwen’s life and her conviction in her womanhood, even though they and others repeatedly shifted back and forth between pronouns and names. Allred asserted her conviction that Gwen’s killers would be brought to justice, as Allred asked the crowd to shout the refrain, “We have no doubt! We have no doubt!”
What I remember most clearly now is the way that Matthew Shepard and Gwen Araujo were treated as though their cases were really similar to each other: that Gwen was the victim of a hate crime, and her attackers needed to be brought to justice. Within the small confines of that supportive group, the possibility that Gwen’s killers would receive the same harsh punishments Shepard’s attackers did — life imprisonment for first-degree murder — didn’t seem so remote.
This wasn’t the way things played out in court. Gwen’s killers received second-degree murder convictions of 15 years to life, while their accomplices were convicted of manslaughter and given six- and eleven-year sentences. (In contrast, Shepard’s attackers each got two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.) Even the prosecutor who secured the convictions in Gwen's case, Chris Lamiero, said afterward: “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."
In other words, Gwen was culpable simply for having sex as a trans woman who has not had bottom surgery. Even when I and other trans women give myriad reasons for why upfront disclosure is not always practical — the way it puts us in a position to either risk widespread ridicule or be expected to remain largely celibate — many people still believe that it’s our responsibility to disclose. It’s our responsibility to give people we barely know information that can cause us great harm, and if we don't tell them and they find out anyway, any potential violence is our fault for not telling them.
I would like to think, in 2015, that trans women are in a better place. The trans panic defense is banned in California, in part because of the legacy of Gwen Araujo, but it’s still legal in the rest of the country. More than 20 trans women have been killed this year in the U.S., almost all women of color, while violence against gay men has significantly diminished. What began as confidence in a legal system that could fairly try Gwen’s killers has, since her death, become nothing but doubt.
Shepard and Araujo may have been directly compared to each other in 2002, but in 2015, the enormous differences in their positions have come to light. Many people who think gay people shouldn’t be harmed just for “acting” gay or demonstrating affection in public still think trans women are at least partly at fault for expressing our gender whenever we are harmed.
And because people continue to think this, trans women are still put in a position where violence against us is our own responsibility. No case illustrates this better than that of CeCe McDonald, who accepted a plea bargain in 2012 and spent nearly two years in a men’s prison for killing a transphobic attacker in self-defense, because she was afraid that a jury would convict her simply because she was walking around in the world as a trans person.
But at least McDonald lived. For trans women and gender-nonconforming femmes who have died, and for the thousands of others who experience harassment and violence on a daily basis, the harm to our bodies and our psyches is the price we pay for being who we are. And as far as we’ve come, Trans Day of Remembrance — today, Nov. 20 — is still important: In the 13 years since Gwen Araujo’s death, we continue to live with the same ignorance and danger that cost that young trans woman of color her life, have claimed the lives of many others, and stand to claim the lives of many more. This is why we must remember, and fight.