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Monday, February 20, 2006

Is this justice?

Bay Area Reporter

Last month, three men were sentenced for their role in the Gwen Araujo murder. Two of these men, Michael Magidson and Jose Merel, were give a mandatory 15 years to life sentence. The third, Jason Cazares, was sentenced to a mere six years for voluntary manslaughter. As a further indignity, he was allowed to remain a free man until the end of March -- so he could see the birth of his third child.

Let me back up for a moment, to a night in October of 2002. My television was showing a grainy photo of a young boy and talking about the body of said youth being found. It caught my ear because they said something about the victim "dressing like a woman" or some such.

In the years that followed, we learned more. We heard about a transgender girl who fell in with a group of men -- the men who would ultimately beat and strangle her to death, then bury her in a shallow grave. We saw defense lawyers try twice to convince jurors that their reason for murdering this girl was because they "panicked" over her transgender status.

I was one of a handful of people who became close to this case, starting on that first night in 2002. I attended Gwen's viewing, and held hands in a circle of mourners outside her funeral. I went to the preliminary hearing, and helped stage a protest when Michael Magidson was attempting to get bail reinstated after that hearing. I attended court throughout both trials.

Throughout this, I asked for only one thing: justice. I find myself conflicted, with all of this over, as to whether we've achieved it.

Don't get me wrong: I'm glad that two of her murderers are going to prison, and will likely be there for many years to come. Fifteen-to-life, particularly in the case of murder, will tend to the latter end of the sentence.

At the same time, there is another man who will spend a mere six years total behind bars. This is less his time served, of course, which will make his stay seem all that shorter. He was fortunate enough to gain bail after the first trial, and has remained out.

Gwen's family gets to look at a box of ashes. They will never again see Gwen, or hear her voice, or feel her touch.

I am biased, of course, being a transgender woman who is also very involved with the issue of anti-transgender violence. I have also gotten to know Gwen's family, and feel the pain they have faced over the last three and a half years. I have a hard time finding justice, knowing that they will always have to live with this.

That said, there are things beyond the trials and sentences that I can look at. When the story first broke in the media, and for some time afterward, there was a continual fight to get the media to use Gwen's name and her preferred pronoun. Over the last three years, everyone has had to remain diligent with the media, continually reminding outlets when necessary.

Indeed, it only became common to see the correct name in use throughout the media because Gwen's family had her name posthumously changed.

That it remained in the media is another important aspect. This case has received more media attention that any anti-transgender murder before it. In my own archives -- used to create and maintain the Remembering Our Dead Project -- the folder of Gwen Araujo related material is larger than the records on all other anti-transgender murders combined. The case got heavy media coverage in the San Francisco Bay Area, but it was also covered throughout the country and in some foreign outlets. It was treated as a major news story.

The upshot of this is that the story is known outside of LGBT circles: it is a story that a great many people know at least the basics on, even if they've never knowingly met a transgender person in their life. This, if anything, increases awareness of transgender issues in ways that one could never expect.

This case has also spawned transgender civil rights bills in cities nearest the murder, has helped spur a bill to attempt to render useless the "panic" defense, and has even re-ignited efforts for a federal hate crimes bill that is inclusive of gender expression and identity.

Finally, this case has helped to bring awareness of transgender issues into schools. Last November, the Gay-Lesbian-Straight Educator's Network had me speak at a middle school not far from where Gwen Araujo used to live. I was very touched by this experience, knowing that somewhere amongst these 800 7th and 8th graders might be

Of course, I wish that could have come without Gwen Araujo's death in the first place -- but I'm glad that her death is not otherwise forgotten like so many others before and since.

So maybe this is how justice is achieved. There's no way that Gwen will come back, but maybe through her death we've seen the seeds be laid that will help prevent the same thing taking place again -- at least in her area.

Gwen is only one of hundreds, including the most recent case I've heard about -- the murder of Alexis King of Philadelphia. The local mainstream media is calling her a transvestite. The alleged killer is claiming a panic defense.

It begins again -- but, again, there is a chance for change.

Gwen Smith would do it all over again, if she had to. She's on the World Wide Web at


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