In 2002 I was living in San Francisco, working at a laundromat, going to protests that involved throwing furniture in the freeway, internally dealing with my own gender bullshit and because of that, feeling like a complete fraud of a human being. Like many young people who feel that their sexuality and/or gender lives in a space outside of the norm, I ran to California’s queer mecca via Greyhound bus, searching for a place to fit in with no specific address in mind. San Francisco was as far west as I could go without drowning in the Pacific Ocean, and I knew it was The Place where my kind of queer could untangle itself, figure out where it fit, and truly live for the first time.
I had been in the Bay Area for a little over a year when the news of Gwen Araujo’s murder hit. The initial information was shocking to me; I took Gwen’s murder personally and felt betrayed by the world for not doing it’s job regarding tolerance. How could a 17-year-old trans woman from a town just 30 miles from San Francisco, America’s queer holy land, be murdered and buried in a shallow grave by the side of the road by her supposed peers? And what was this “trans panic” defense? While 9/11 felt like a surreal horror flick due to the distance I lived from the east coast, the news of Gwen’s murder shook me hard, popping the bubble of the perfect utopia I thought I had uncovered. I was naive and sheltered towards this kind of trans reality. I moved to California to embrace the differences in human (and my own) sexuality and gender, yet in turn had I closed my eyes from what queers and gender-variant people were going through in the rest of the world? I felt the sting of a war I thought I was safe from, and I can still remember the images: Gwen’s face frozen in time with a purple hooded sweatshirt on, her bangs parted across her forehead. Sylvia Guerrero (Gwen’s mom) sobbing at a news conference, never once crying because her child was transsexual but rather because she was mourning the loss of a daughter. The faces of the four young men who took Gwen’s life, dressed in their finest khaki’s and white button-down shirts, their hair overly gelled, strolling into court. Snap-shots of these faces greeted me daily from the cover of the local paper for months.
I became obsessed with Gwen Araujo’s story, the details of her personal life before her death, quotes given to the newspaper from her school friends and mother, what her favorite creature was (the butterfly) or about how she chose her first name in honor of her favorite singer (Gwen Stefani). I tried to attend the arraignment of some of the murderers in the East Bay, to add to community visibility in support of Gwen. I took 3 buses to a small court house only to find out that they had to move it to another town and I had missed it. I carried little facts on Gwen around me with as if I actually knew her, talking about the murder and the “trans panic” defense/excuse, and reminding people what can happen when intolerance, transphobia and little boys masquerading as men who are threatened by what they don’t understand, collide.
It’s been a little over 9 years since Gwen Araujo’s death. While we came from different backgrounds of transgender experience, the loss of Gwen and how it opened my eyes at that particular moment is a major reason why I feel such a strong connection to trans visibility in my art and everyday work. Even in cities with rich histories of queer and trans acceptance, even in the San Francisco Bay area, there are people who are deeply threatened and live with great intolerance. While I completely respect people who would rather not be vocal about their trans history or identity, I also feel that those who show a trans presence of some kind helps with tolerance, adds important perspective to the world, brings up conversations around disclosure and respect, and forces people to face and deal with the reasons why they might not “like” a person just because they don’t understand them. Most importantly, it shows up for those who will follow in our footsteps, whether they want that kind of help or not. That is what Gwen Araujo taught me.
Gwen Amber Rose Araujo (February 24, 1985 – October 3, 2002)
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