long. I then walked downstairs and turned on the local news, only to see Gwen Araujo for the
first time, on my local news.”
In October 2002, Gwen Amber Rose Araujo was brutally murdered in Newark,
California, a predominantly Hispanic area north of San Jose, only about an hour away from
where our Gwen Smith was living at the time. She felt an instant connection to the victim
because of their shared name. It was relatively close to where Gwen lived, too. There was a
public viewing at a funeral home and Gwen attended to offer condolences. She saw the body of a
woman who had been strangled, beaten to death with a can of soup, and then buried in a shallow
grave in the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains with rocks placed on top of her. Seeing Gwen
Araujo’s seventeen-year-old body in an open casket left “an indelible stamp” on our Gwen
Smith. She met Gwen Araujo’s family and offered to help them in any way she could. Over the
course of three trials in court, she became very close with them.
To support the family, Gwen went to the arraignment to determine if there was enough
evidence for a trial. She went to first official trial, primarily, to sit with Gwen Araujo’s family as
they suffered watching murderers claim “trans panic.” Michael Magidson, Jose Merel, and Jason
Cazzares were three of the four men who took turns beating Gwen Araujo, the fourth, Jaron
Nabors, pleaded guilty for manslaughter (Glionna). None of the men denied killing the
seventeen-year-old Gwen Araujo, but claimed that when they found out she was transgender they
were so overcome with emotion, that they beat her to death. The defense claimed that the men
had been “deceived by Gwen,” and “tricked by her” into sexual relations. They reacted in a
crime of passion. Gwen Smith went to court several times a week and listened to the testimony.
Gwen described sharing space with the murderers as “disturbing.” Gwen listened to the
defense downplay the crime. Gwen Araujo was first hit with a fist, then kicked with a boot, then
hit in the head with a can of soup until the can dented. Then, they found a skillet and beat her
with that. There were forensic photos of Gwen’s body and all the while the subtle claim that
somehow, Gwen had it coming because she was a transgender woman. The defense claimed the
murderers couldn’t help reacting in violence because of her gender identity. The first trial ended
in a mistrial.
Everyone had to sit through it again. Gwen sat through it too. As an activist, she wanted
to learn information to share with her community. Over the course of the trials, many
newspapers referred to Gwen Araujo incorrectly. They would use male pronouns and used her
birth name, putting “Gwen” in quotes. Gwen Smith wrote to the papers to have them address
Gwen Araujo as female. The papers claimed that was what the family wanted. It wasn’t. Gwen
helped the family communicate their wish that their daughter be referred to correctly, by the
name she called herself. The papers then said it was because Gwen Araujo was legally male.
Gwen Smith called their bluff. She held fundraisers to buy copies of Associated Press
Style book to send to the newspapers making sure to highlight the section of the book that said
articles should use the pronouns that matched how a person styled themselves. Gwen Smith sent
the books in Gwen Araujo’s name. It was so cheeky and clever that it shamed the papers into
referring to Gwen Araujo correctly.
Gwen worked constantly to make sure Gwen Araujo was honored and her family had
support. It was painful though, as a transgender woman herself to go to each court date and sit
through graphic testimony. As a journalist and activist, she had been working to make murders
like this one less common. But, that didn’t change the visceral experience of sitting in the court
with the three murders. One man didn’t have to stay in jail, so he came into court with everyone
else. Gwen shared an elevator ride with him once. She kept going to court over and over because
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