Transgender Teen Gwen Araujo Is Murdered in California Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Gwen Araujo, a transgender teen, was beaten unconscious, strangled to death, and buried in a shallow grave by a group of young men who had “discovered” she was anatomically male. The case, in which the killers were found guilty in the second of two trials, has captured the hearts and minds not only of the GLBT community and its supporters but also the general public and state lawmakers, who have introduced legislation regarding the use of the “panic defense” in criminal trials.

Summary of Event

Gwen Araujo disappeared from Newark, California, Newark, California, and murder of Gwen Araujo on October 3, 2002. Two weeks later, in a suburb less than 30 miles from the famously progressive city of San Francisco, nineteen-year-old Jaron Chase Nabors confessed to knowing about Araujo’s murder, and led authorities to a shallow grave 150 miles away, near Placerville, in the central valley of California. Araujo’s body was found there in the blouse, skirt, and jewelry she had worn to a party on the evening of October 3. Her hands and feet had been bound, she had sustained blunt force injuries to the head, and had been strangled with a rope. Her body was wrapped in a comforter. [kw]Transgender Teen Gwen Araujo Is Murdered in California (Oct. 4, 2002) [kw]Teen Gwen Araujo Is Murdered in California, Transgender (Oct. 4, 2002) [kw]Araujo Is Murdered in California, Transgender Teen Gwen (Oct. 4, 2002) [kw]Murdered in California, Transgender Teen Gwen Araujo Is (Oct. 4, 2002) [kw]California, Transgender Teen Gwen Araujo Is Murdered in (Oct. 4, 2002) Hate crime;murder Transgender/transsexuality[Transgender transsexuality];murder of Gwen Araujo[Araujo] Gender-based violence[gender based violence] Transgender women [c]Transgender/transsexuality;Oct. 4, 2002: Transgender Teen Gwen Araujo Is Murdered in California[2650] [c]Crime;Oct. 4, 2002: Transgender Teen Gwen Araujo Is Murdered in California[2650] [c]Civil rights;Oct. 4, 2002: Transgender Teen Gwen Araujo Is Murdered in California[2650] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 4, 2002: Transgender Teen Gwen Araujo Is Murdered in California[2650] Araujo, Gwen Nabors, Jaron Chase Magidson, Michael Merel, Jose Cazares, Jason

Four young men were arrested in conjunction with the brutal killing. Along with Nabors, those charged with Araujo’s murder were Michael Magidson of Fremont, Jose Merel of Newark, and Jason Cazares of Fremont (all three were twenty-two years old). The murder charge included an enhanced charge for hate crimes (thus making the crime punishable by death). Details of the killing slowly came to light as the trial opened. Araujo had been excited about going to a party that night. She had never before worn a skirt and had borrowed one from a friend; she also wore her mother’s blouse. The people at the party were new friends who did not know the history of her gender identity and the harassment she faced at school. Araujo had come out to her parents at age fourteen as transgender. At that time, she began to grow her hair long and to dress in women’s clothing.

She told her new friends that her name was Lida and that she had become sexually involved with two young men. Speculation swirled among the friends, however, that she was not born female. That evening, partygoers began to harass Araujo about her gender identity, asking if she were a man or a woman. Somehow it was confirmed that she was “anatomically male,” whether by accident or by “forcible inspection” in a bathroom.

Nabors testified that he and the other three men took Araujo to the garage of the home where the party was held and, for up to 3.5 hours, punched her and beat her in the head with metal objects—including a soup can and a 10-inch skillet—before kneeing her in the face so hard that her head broke through the wall. Two of her assailants went home to get shovels. The men then bound her hands and feet and strangled her with rope until she appeared dead. They struck her head twice with the shovels to make sure she was dead. Her body was wrapped in a comforter and loaded in the back of Magidson’s truck.

All of the defendants initially pleaded not guilty to first degree manslaughter during the trial. Nabors, however, changed his plea to guilty (but on a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, receiving an eleven-year sentence) and testified that the remaining three men, after learning she was biologically male, had conspired days before the murder to kill her. Cazares, Magidson, and Merel then mounted a “gay panic” defense, claiming that Araujo had deceived them into thinking she was female, thus justifying, in their eyes, their actions. Furthermore, Nabors testified that while Magidson repeatedly tried to choke Araujo, it was Merel who appeared more and more agitated by the idea that he had anal sex with a boy, crying to his younger brother that he could not be gay. The defendants had reported that they felt “shame, humiliation, shock, and revulsion.”

On June 22, 2004, the court declared a mistrial because of a hung jury. Although jurors later said that they had not accepted the “gay panic” defense, they were, however, divided over the question of premeditation, which would mean the difference between a first- or a second-degree manslaughter conviction. The jury’s verdict hinged on the issue of public disclosure: When did Gwen’s male anatomy become so much of a problem to the men that they would kill to cover their attraction to her?

The men were retried in 2005, and two—Magidson and Merel—were convicted of second-degree murder (minus the hate-crime enhancement), on September 13, 2005. Cazares pleaded “no contest” to voluntary manslaughter and received a six-year sentence. Magidson and Merel received the maximum sentence for second-degree murder: fifteen years to life. Nabors pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter before the start of the first trial.

Significance

Gwen Araujo was named Edward Araujo at birth on February 4, 1985, and she was aware of her feminine gender identity from an early age. According to her mother, Sylvia Guerrero, Guerrero, Sylvia Gwen never identified with the name “Eddie.” After Araujo’s death, her name was legally changed to Gwen Amber Rose Araujo, partially in response to the media’s insistence on identifying her as male, on using her birth name, or on using some combination of male and female names. Araujo’s family was exceptionally supportive of her. Since her death, her mother has become a public spokesperson for transgender acceptance.

The four men convicted of killing Araujo, much like the men who killed young transgender man Brandon Teena in 1993, not only were ignorant about the ways gender can be expressed “differently”; they also expressed a deep hatred and rage based on that ignorance, a “panic” as they called it. Araujo’s death has made it clear that legal protection is needed for those who are transgender or gender ambiguous, and it has led to a rethinking in legal circles about the “gay panic” defense. Hate crime;murder Transgender/transsexuality[Transgender transsexuality];murder of Gwen Araujo[Araujo] Gender-based violence[gender based violence] Transgender women

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gender Public Advocacy Coalition. “Hate Crime Portraits.” http://www.gpac.org/violence/hate crimes.html.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gwen Araujo Memorial Web Site. http://www .jaimesite.homestead.com/ gwenaraujo.html. An excellent resource that includes links to media coverage of the trials.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lambda Legal and The National Youth Advocacy Coalition. “Bending the Mold: An Action Kit for Transgender Youth.” http://www.lambdalegal .org.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Letellier, Patrick. “2003 Exceeds Others in Transgender Killings.” http://www.planetout.com/news/article.html?2003/11/26/4.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Namaste, Viviane K. Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">National Transgender Advocacy Coalition. http://www.ntac.org.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sharpe, Andrew N. Transgender Jurisprudence: Dysphoric Bodies of Law. London: Cavendish, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steinberg, Victoria L. “A Heat of Passion Offense: Emotions and Bias in ’Trans Panic’ Mitigation Claims.” Boston College Third World Law Journal 25, no. 2 (2005). Available at http://www .bc.edu/schools/law/lawreviews/thirdworld/.

September 24, 1951: George Jorgensen Becomes Christine Jorgensen

November 21, 1966: First Gender Identity Clinic Opens and Provides Gender Reassignment Surgery

1978: Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association Is Founded

January 21, 1989: Death of Transgender Jazz Musician Billy Tipton

1992: Transgender Nation Holds Its First Protest

December 24, 1993-December 31, 1993: Transgender Man Brandon Teena Raped and Murdered

June 17, 1995: International Bill of Gender Rights Is First Circulated

1996: Hart Recognized as a Transgender Man

1998: Transgender Scholarship Proliferates

March 21, 2000: Hollywood Awards Transgender Portrayals in Film

2002: Sylvia Rivera Law Project Is Founded

April 30, 2002: Transgender Rights Added to New York City Law

November 20, 2003: Transgender Day of Remembrance and Remembering Our Dead Project

Categories: History Content