Gwen Araujo and the Panic Defence

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6th July 2021  •  5 min read

Gwen Araujo was a 17-year-old transgender woman from Newark, California. In 2002, she would be brutally murdered by a group of men who uncovered that she was transgender.


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Gwen Araujo was a 17-year-old transgender woman from Newark, California. Her family said that by the age of just two, Gwen showed a more feminine side and when she went to elementary school, she was bullied. She would come home covered in bruises and tell her family that the others had called her a “faggot.” Her sister, Pearl, always stood up for her and defended her from the bullies. “I tried to make sure no one messed with her,” she said.1

As a teenager, Gwen began to wear makeup and confessed to her family she felt like a girl trapped in a boy’s body. While she was born with the name Eddie, she started to go by the name Gwen. She chose this name in particular after her favorite singer, Gwen Stefani. Shortly afterwards, Gwen started hormone therapy. “She was really good at putting on makeup. She was a lot better than some of us,” fondly recollected her mother, Sylvia. While Gwen’s family accepted her for who she was, she craved to be accepted by her peers. “She was having a hard time with other people accepting or not accepting her,” said her aunt.

Ultimately, she wanted gender reassignment surgery but her life was cut short before she got the chance.

In summer of 2002, Gwen met Michael Magidson, Jose Merel, Jason Nabors and Jason Cazares. Gwen soon became a frequent visitor at Merel’s home, where they would all often play dominos and drink alcohol. According to the men, they knew Gwen as a “flirtatious and attention-craving 19-year-old.” Over time, however, Gwen and Magidson would begin to engage in oral sex. Gwen then had oral and anal sex with Merel. If either man attempted to touch Gwen, she would push their hands away.

Magidson and Merel would compare their sexual experiences with Gwen and would come to question her gender. On the 3rd of October, 2002, Gwen went to a party at Merel’s home with Merel, Magidson, Nabors and Cazares. It was the very first time she felt confident enough to wear a skirt. A woman named Nicole Brown was also at the party.

As the night wore on, the topic of Gwen’s gender was brought up. Brown grabbed Gwen’s genital area and yelled: “It’s a fucking man.” What was once a relaxing environment soon turned to an extremely dangerous and heated environment. “I swear, if it’s a man, I’m going to fucking kill him. She ain’t leaving,” shouted Merel.2

The men asked Gwen to strip or allow them to touch her to which she replied: “I’m not going to let you molest me.” Merel and Magidson then slapped Gwen before pushing her to the ground and pulling up her skirt and underwear. “I can’t be fucking gay,” shouted Merel.

Over the course of the next three hours, Gwen was bound, beaten, kicked in the face, and hit in the face with a shovel and skillet. She begged for mercy, crying: “No, please don’t. I have a family,” but the men continued. Merel and Magidson were said to be the two ring-leaders. At one point during the prolonged attack, Gwen had offered Cazares money to get her out of the house but he refused.3 Finally, Gwen was strangled to death.

After killing Gwen, the men drove her body 150 miles east to the Sierra foothills where they buried her in a shallow grave. They agreed to not tell anybody what they had done but just a couple of days later, Nabors told a friend and would ultimately lead police to Gwen’s grave. When she was unearthed, she was still bound.

During the trial, the defence referred to Gwen as the name she was given at birth as opposed to Gwen. They also contended that the perpetrators were only guilty of voluntary manslaughter, adding that Gwen was guilty of “deception and betrayal.” Defence attorney Michael Thorman would accuse Gwen of deceitfully luring the men into having “homosexual sex.” Gloria Allred, who was representing Sylvia, described the defence’s arguments as “offensive” and said that Gwen had every right to be the person she wanted to be and that did not warrant her getting murdered.4

DJose Merel, Michael Magidson, and Jason Cazares. Credit: East Bay Times

Magidson and Merel were convicted of second-degree murder after the jury rejected a first-degree murder charge. They would be sentenced to 15 years in prison. In 2016, Merel was paroled from prison, a decision which was supported by Gwen’s mother who felt as thought he had felt genuine remorse over what he had done.

Nabors pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter and would be sentenced to 11 years in prison. He was released from prison in 2016. Cazares pleaded no contest to manslaughter and was sentenced to six years in prison. He was released from prison in 2012. None of the men were ever convicted of the requested hate crime charges and Magidson is the only one who remains in prison today.5

Gwen’s brutal murder would draw national attention and would galvanize the small community where she lived and where she was killed into action. There were calls to prevent hate crimes. “It’s certainly been a huge wake up call, a time to mourn our loss for Gwen, but it’s an opportune moment to raise awareness and visibility of issues affecting gay Latinos and the transgender community,” said Eddie Gutierrez, a spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination.6

In the wake of the murder, Horizons Foundation, an LGBTQ+ foundation, would announce the establishment of the Gwen Araujo Memorial Fund for Transgender Education that would be awarding grants to Bay Area school programs that promote understanding of transgender people. TransVision, which is a health and social services program for transgender people, would also be set up in the aftermath of the murder.

In 2006, the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act was signed in to law. It limited the use of the gay/trans panic defence in criminal trials by allowing parties to instruct juries not to let their bias influence their decision in reaching a verdict. Then in 2014, Assembly Bill No. 2501 would be signed into law which further restricted the use of the gay/trans panic defence. This meant that defendants could no longer claim that they were provoked to murder upon discovering the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Following her murder, Gwen’s family went to court to do something that Gwen could never do during her short life – they legally changed her name to Gwen. “It’s a promise I made to Gwen. I told her that I would petition the court when she had her sex change, but we never got the chance,” said her mother, Sylvia. She had requested the name change not only out of love and respect for her daughter but also in the hopes that it would spur the media to refer to Gwen as Gwen and not her dead name. “I said goodbye to Eddie a long time ago,” said Sylvia. “I had to say goodbye to Gwen, too.”7

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Footnotes:

  1. The Daily Review, 25 February, 2003 – “Slain Teenager Sought Approval of Family, Peers”
  2. San Francisco Chronicle, 27 April, 2004 – “Araujo Begged for Mercy, Witness Says”
  3. San Francisco Chronicle, 18 March, 2003 – “Transgender Teen’s Plea Described”
  4. San Francisco Chronicle, 16 April, 2004 – “Defense Calls Transgender Victim Guilty of Deception and Betrayal”
  5. Alameda Times-Star, 27 January, 2006 – “3 Men Sentenced in Gwen Araujo Killing”
  6. San Francisco Chronicle, 3 October, 2003 – “One Year Since Transgender Teen’s Death”
  7. San Francisco Chronicle, 26 May, 2004 – “Posthumous Request for a Name Change”

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Ash
Ash
29 days ago

“It limited the use of the gay/trans panic defence in criminal trials by allowing parties to instruct juries not to let their bias influence their decision in reaching a verdict.”

Yeah, because that’s how people work. :/

Barbara E Campbell
Barbara E Campbell
24 days ago

I have lesbian, bi sexual, and probably transgender friends and family members. While I don’t have a full understanding I know that homosexuality, and transgenders have been around since God created mankind. I try to stay away from contentious confrontation or public debates on the subject which I know exists and which relatives and friends are or may be non-heterosexual. I myself am straight but I really don’t believe all this hate and contentious disrespectful confrontational very verbal and often abusive behavior over another person’s gender should even exist or be tolerated. Hate is hate and if a crime is… Read more »

Jeni
Jeni
11 days ago

Totally agree with you. My children are transgender f2M and are 24yrs old. I worry everytime they go out. There’s some nasty people about

Maggie
Maggie
22 days ago

Thank you so much for this article. People need to know about Gwen. I’m also Latine and transgender. We are too often ostracized for what we have no control over. For many of us, we have to choose between losing our families or living a lie. It sounds like Gwen had a wonderful family, but obviously others in her community were not nearly so accepting. Even though this was almost 20 years ago, so many trans people still live in fear that they will be the next Brandon Teena, Venus Extravaganza, or Gwen Araujo. I’m so glad we are making… Read more »

Madria Love
Madria Love
14 days ago

She should’ve told them

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