SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) – Sylvia Guerrero’s daughter Gwen Araujo would be 37 years old next month, but her life was cut short 20 years ago when she was brutally killed by a gang of four men in the East Bay after they found out she was transgender.
The trial of Araujo’s killers helped drive California laws banning the gay and trans “panic defense” in similar cases; but the anniversary comes just after the Human Rights Campaign recorded a record number of killings of transgender Americans: 50.
“If I had an LGBTQ child now, I’d still be worried, just as I was for Gwen at the time,” Guerrero, 58, told KRON4 News. “I was hoping the world would be a much better place for the LGBT community but it’s not. … It’s the world we live in, and it starts at home. Everyone deserves equality across the board.”
Lawyers employed gay and trans “panic defense”
Gwen Araujo was at a house party in Newark, in Alameda County, on Oct. 4, 2002. Several men there —Jason Cazares, Michael Magidson, José Merél and Jaron Nabors — suspected she had male anatomical parts. She’d reportedly been intimate with Magidson and Merél, and at the party Magidson demanded Araujo let him touch her genitals or expose them to him, which request she refused. When another person who was there forcibly inspected Araujo and discovered male genitalia, the men became violent.
The men subsequently beat, tortured and strangled Araujo, before driving east to the Sierra Nevada mountains to bury her body.
Nabors pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 11 years in exchange for a promise to testify against Cazares, Magidson and Merél. At the first trial of the trio in 2004, the defense for Magidson and Merél used the so-called “gay panic defense,” with Magidson’s lawyer saying his client had lost his reason after his discovery about Araujo.
That trial ended in a mistrial after the jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict after nine days of deliberations.
During the first trial, Araujo was referred to by her “deadname,” or the name given to her at birth before she came out as transgender.
Gwen Smith, the founder of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, attended much of the trials as well as Araujo’s funeral.
“In the earliest days of coverage, most outlets used her birth name, relegating her chosen name to a side note,” Smith stated to KRON4 News. “Eventually, some time into the trials, the family went so far as to petition the courts for a posthumous name change, just to do their best to let people know that her name was Gwen Amber Rose Araujo — and nothing else.”
The case of Cazares ended in a mistrial; Magidson and Merel each were found guilty and sentenced to 15 years. Eventually, Cazares entered a plea agreement and was sentenced to six years.
The murder took its toll on Guerrero. Beset by health and financial difficulties, the 58-year-old who now lives in Tracy with one of her sons said she often doesn’t get calls back from prospective employers. She has a GoFundMe to help with living expenses.
“When people murder a person they don’t even think about how many families will be affected by all of this,” Guerrero said. “I had everything – a car, family, and 401K – and in one night my world forever changed and never has been the same.
“The wound is still fresh in my heart and soul, and it’s never going to heal,” she said.
Guerrero had accepted her daughter’s identity as transgender when she was alive.
“It’s heartbreaking to think how you can carry a child for nine months and give birth, then they come to them one day, trusting them, and they throw them out like yesterday’s garbage,” Guerrero said. “I know I’m a good mom. I knew she was different, but I love my baby. This was a baby God has given me. They are only loaned to us from God.”
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Trial defense spurs changes in law
In 2006, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) signed the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act, limiting the use of the gay and trans “panic defense” by allowing jurors to be instructed not to be biased based on the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity. In 2014, this was followed up by a law signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown (D) banning the defense entirely that one could be provoked to killing after discovering someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Nonetheless, some form of the “panic defense” remains legal in 36 states and in federal court.
Magidson is the only one of the four still in prison. His parole was most recently denied in 2019.
Bevan Dufty, a member of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Board of Directors and former San Francisco District 8 (Castro-Noe Valley) supervisor, told KRON4 News he put together a “civic remembrance” event for Araujo at the Koret Auditorium at the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch. The event, which will consist of two panels, is on Oct. 4, the 20th anniversary of Araujo’s death, from 4-6 p.m.
“The brutality of what was done to such a young, special person as Gwen — it was horrific,” Dufty said.
The first panel, moderated by Bay Area Reporter News Editor Cynthia Laird will be about transgender rights, which have experienced significant pushback in statehouses across the country, as KRON4 News has reported. Dufty said LGBTQ media, like B.A.R., “gave momentum and got the mainstream press to carry” coverage of the case.
The second panel will consist of young people and focus on their needs. It will be moderated by Alameda County Judge Vicky Kolakowski, Laird’s wife.
Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said that the anniversary is an opportunity to continue the fight for equal rights.
“Gwen’s death has spurred many changes, both in California and other states, but we are still far from a world in which transgender children are safe, loved, supported, and protected,” Minter stated. “It is enraging that we will never know what Gwen might have accomplished in her life, and that she never had a chance to grow up and have a family of her own. She will not be forgotten, and those of us who remember her death will never stop working to create the safety she deserved and never had.”