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by April Ingram
Saturday, Jun. 26, 2004 at 4:01 AM
Transgenders and their allies marched in West Hollywood Wednesday night to protest the hung jury result in the Bay Area trial of the murders of Gwen Araujo
Transgenders and their allies marched against the mistrial in a brutal murder of a transgender teen, Gwen Araujo, after the West Hollywood Transgender Task Force's forum discussed hate crimes against transgenders Wednesday night, June 23, at an auditorium in West Hollywood Park.
The case of the beating, rape and murder of Araujo ended in a mistrial Tuesday because of a Bay Area jury deadlocked over the first-degree murder charges against defendants Jason Cazares, Michael Magidson and Jose Merel. This mistrial enraged community members and became a heated topic of the forum “Facing Hate: Discrimination and Hate in the Transgender Community.”
Shirley Bushnell, chair of the task force, recounted the brutality of Araujo’s murder. Bushnell read aloud from a news report, “Magidson and Merel began slapping and strangling the 17-year-old inside the Merel house. Inside the kitchen, Merel hit Araujo with a frying pan and threw a soup can at her head with enough force to dent the can. Magidson then threw Araujo against the wall and began punching her, leaving cracks and indentations in the wall. Next, the men brought Araujo into the garage, where they strangled her with a rope and beat her with a shovel. The men tied up Araujo and threw her in the back of Magidson’s truck and drove four hours to dig a shallow grave and bury her in the Sierra foothills. After that, they stopped for breakfast at McDonalds.”
Maria Roman from Bienestar Community Services, Inc gave her thoughts on the Araujo case: “It makes me mad that it’s okay if we get justice later. We are looking at this trial to set a precedent. It’s not okay to be beaten, murdered, spat upon, and get justice later. We want justice now.”
Carolina Charm of the Los Angeles Independent Media Association drew parallels to Araujo’s murder to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager who was beaten to death and thrown in a river after he chatted briefly with a white female. The men charged with his murder were found not guilty. However, Till’s murder was not forgotten and resulted in protests that fueled the then nascent civil rights movement. In a similar manner, Araujo’s murder is fueling the same public outrage toward those who commit hate crimes, and toward those who disregard transgenders as valuable members of society.
Vivianna Hernandez, a victim’s advocate of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, explained the “trans-panic defense” by recalling how her roommate was shot to death in 1974 in a San Francisco apartment. Hernandez said, “The police closed the case 72 hours because they concluded the victim had been shot because she attempted to mislead the defendant into believing that she was a woman. That was sufficient justification for murder.” Hernandez said that defense attorneys similarly went for the “trans-panic defense” in Araujo’s case, claiming the murder of the transgender teen was justified because she misled defendants of her gender identity. Hernandez says change is slowly being made, because unlike the past, the jurors in Araujo’s case did not focus on gender identity, but rather on the vicious conduct of the defendants.
Loni Petersen, of the hate crimes unit of the Los Angeles County’s District Attorney’s office, said the law enforcement system and criminal justice system are being more educated in how they handle transgenders and hate crimes. Petersen said, “This is not enough. The average citizen needs to be educated, because juries are made of the average citizens. They will determine whether there will be convictions or not. Many have no understanding of transgender issues or of hate crimes and many don’t care.” Petersen urges audience members to educate others of transgender issues and of hate crimes committed against them.
Talia Bettcher, professor Cal State Los Angeles, cited some frightening statistics of the numbers of trangenders who are killed each year. “Two transwomen were killed per month worldwide last year. Fourteen transgenders were killed in the U.S. last year.” Most of them do not make news headlines as Gwen Araujo’s murder had. Bettcher said that most of these crimes are committed against male-to-female transgenders and most were committed against transgenders of color. Bettcher said that transgenders are in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation” when it comes to revealing gender identity. This is because if transwoman passes as a woman, and people find out her biological gender, people will say “She’s really a man.” If I transwoman introduces herself as a transsexual, people will still say, “She’s really a man.”
“These issues are connected with what happened to Gwen and connected to the fact that she was continually represented in the media as biologically male but living as a female. Until this perception of transgenders as deceivers and pretenders is overcome, transgenders will continue to be open to a ‘transgender panic defense,’” said Bettcher.
Loni Petersen explained the “trans panic defense” and how it related to the trial of the three men charged with Gwen Araujo’s murder. The prosecution was asking for first-degree murder charges, which requires proving premeditation, meaning the defendants had thought about and planned the murder. The defense attorney wanted to lessen the charges to manslaughter by invoking a “panic defense” saying the defendants were so enraged when they found out Gwen was biologically male and they killed her in a heat of passion. The origin of the “trans-panic defense” according to Petersen, “came out of a ‘gay panic defense’ in which if a gay man hit on a heterosexual man, the heterosexual man had a right to attack.” Despite the arguments of the defense, seven of the 12 jurors wanted to convict the defendants of first degree murder. Petersen urged the audience to “give credit to the D.A. who is still pushing for first degree murder charges.”
A representative from the sheriff’s department gave advice on how to combat hate crimes. He advises people to program their local sheriff’s station or police department’s phone number into their cell phones. He said that people are advised to report everything that seems suspicious, even verbal threats.
Other issues brought up was the difficulty for homeless transgenders to be placed in shelters, because most shelters have beds for either male or female, and do not know where to place transgenders.
Another issue brought up was discrimination in the work force. Maria Roman said, “Transgenders are employable. I can tell my clients to wear a suit and I can teach them how to type, but if no one hires them, what is the point?” Roman also said that prostitution often results from discrimination in the work force. “Many people think sex work is wrong, but for a few transgenders sex work is the only option they have to feed themselves and keep and apartment.”
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