Who She Was

http://www.emporiagazette.com/news/2009/apr/24/who_she_was/

Friday, April 24, 2009

A message of acceptance, tolerance and love came through Thursday night, as the mother of a murdered transgendered teenager talked to a crowd in Heath Recital Hall in Beach Music Hall at Emporia State University.

The presentation by Sylvia Guerrero of Tracy, Calif., was moved from the Kanza Room in the Memorial Union to the larger Heath venue. The event was organized by People Representing Individuality and Diversity in Education (PRIDE) on campus.

Guerrero’s 17-year-old child, Gwen Amber Rose Araujo, was beaten to death at a party on Oct. 3, 2003, after it was discovered that Gwen was physically a man.

Gwen’s story was told in a Lifetime network movie, “A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story,” which won the 2007 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Movie for Television.

The assault on Gwen apparently erupted because two of the attackers had been sexually intimate with her, not realizing Gwen was transgendered — a person who has the physical attributes of one gender, but emotionally feels he or she is the opposite gender.

Gwen was planning to undergo treatments to allow her to become a female, but did not live long enough to begin the process.

“At my daughter’s funeral, I promised her I would be her voice, until people stop dying for who they are,” Guerrero said during an interview before her presentation.

Guerrero said she believes that people are transgendered as they are developing in the womb. Being transgender is not a choice, she said.

After conception, some babies develop the physical attributes of one gender, while possessing the brain of the other, she said. And, while outwardly Eddie carried the evidence of being male, inside, he always considered himself female.

“You know what, this is not genetic,” Guerrero said. “This happens one in so many births. They’re literally born in the wrong body. … It’s not that she just woke up one day and decided to complicate her life” by being transgender.

From childhood, Eddie had exhibited femininity and sensitivity, his mother said, and those traits caused him to be bullied and called names from elementary school into high school. At the age of 14, Eddie told his mother that he was transgendered. He grew his hair long, wore makeup and began dressing as a female. Eddie became Gwen, a name chosen because Eddie was a fan of Gwen Stefani. The bullying and taunting escalated.

Guerrero said that such treatment by peers eventually made attending school so painful that Gwen dropped out of school.

The ostracism was something Guerrero said Gwen should not have had to bear, and she asked that instead of taunting transgendered people, audience members smile at them instead and respect them as fellow human beings.

“That little friendly gesture. it costs you nothing, but it means so much to that person,” Guerrero said. “… Who are we to play God and say ‘This is wrong and this is right?’”

Guerrero described Gwen as a vivacious drama queen, who had sat down with her mother and made plans to go to cosmetology school, then on to Hollywood in hopes of establishing a career in her field. When the hormone therapies and surgeries were completed, she planned to have her birth certificiate revised to legally become Gwen Araujo.

“She had goals and dreams just like the rest of us,” she said.

Anger and hate over Gwen’s being transgender — different — led to the brutal attack that killed her, Guerrero said.

“Her body wasn’t found until 2 weeks later,” Guerrero said. “They buried her.”

The four men had beaten Gwen with a soup can and an iron skillet, then strangled and hung her.

“They busted her head open, kneed her,” she said.

“Those men decided to play God that night. They took her life,” Guerrero said with anger rising in her voice. “How dare they do that!”

Guerrero said the right side of Gwen’s forehead had been crushed and her brain exposed and flattened.

The men loaded Gwen’s body into a pickup truck and drove about three hours to a national forest in the Sierra Mountains, where they buried her and covered her grave with boulders to prevent animals digging up her remains.

After the men disposed of the body, they drove into Placerville and ate breakfast, Guerrero said; they thought that because Gwen was transsexual, no one would care that she was missing. Many transsexuals become homeless or lose touch with their families after being rejected for being transsexuals, Guerreero said.

“That was not the case with Gwen. She was very loved. … It’s a love that’s unconditional.”

Guerrero drew some comfort from being able to see her child again after one of the men took a plea bargain and revealed where they had buried Gwen’s remains — 7.4 miles up a mountainside, near a logging trail, where the cold weather prevented the disintegration that would have occurred in a warmer area.

As a result, Gwen’s body could be dressed in the feminine clothing she preferred and be on view in an open casket for the funeral service.

The images of her daughter still haunt Guerrero, who saw more than 300 photographs of Gwen, after she was unearthed and before and after the autopsy and at the funeral.

“Those horrific pictures, I will never in my life forget,” Guerrero said. “And I also believe that those images drive me to do what I do now because I don’t ever want another parent to ever endure what I endured and am enduring.”

The missing-person case, which police originally had not taken seriously because Gwen was transgender, had developed into a murder that drew considerable media attention, as well as widespread support of Gwen and her family. Each time “A Girl Like Me” airs on Lifetime, Guerrero is deluged with phone calls and e-mails of support, she said.

She has managed to forgive the men who killed her daughter.

“I forgave all four of them for her death, and I didn’t do it in a day,” she said. “I did it in a year and a half. … It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.”

She reached forgiveness after the first trial ended in a mistrial.

“It was actually very powerful to forgive them,” she said, explaining that it allowed her the strength to go through the second trial, which ended in a conviction.

“I was not raised to hate and I believe it was hate that killed Gwen. And I believe that hate is taught at home,” she said.

Guerrero’s parents, too, were able to forgive. Guerrero’s three other children and most of her 13 siblings and their families have not.

Gwen’s permanent absence from the family is something none of them have been able to reconcile.

Guerrero said not a day goes by that she doesn’t miss her child.

“That’s what I miss the most is her physical being, touching and hugging her,” Guerrero said. “…This is my baby that I carried in my womb. I loved her since I conceived her. …My baby was killed. Not my ‘transgender teenager.’”

She has not yet been able to bury the urn that holds the remains of Gwen’s body, which was cremated.

“I have her urn in my room,” she said before the presentation. “She has her own little shrine.”

Guerrero has grown accustomed to calling Gwen her daughter now; sometimes, before the murder, she had lapsed and called Gwen “Eddie” out of habit.

Guerrero petitioned a court in California to have Eddie’s name legally changed to Gwen Amber Rose Araujo — “Gwen” for the name Eddie had chosen and “Amber Rose” for Guerrero, who had chosen that name as an alternative to Eddie, in case the baby was a girl.

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