What is it with people who terrorize and brutalize innocent people who aren’t the same as them? When you think about it, which people are the same as each other? I recently watched the 2006 non-fiction film, A Girl Like Me – the Gwen Araujo Story – man, that was a tough one. The movie censored the brutal beating, with a soup can and a shovel, that Gwen (Eddy, played beautifully by J. D. Pardo), a transgender female, received and that led to her death. The movie inaccurately portrays four teenage boys, one of whom had gone to Gwen’s high school, beating Gwen after spending one weekend having sex with her.
Gwen’s attack wasn’t visually explicit, not in the manner of the rape and beating of Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, but it wrenched my heart. In Gwen’s story, one of the boys who’d had sex with Gwen, kissed her on the mouth, then tore crudely at her jeans to find out the “truth.” This is a key moment in the film, when it becomes obvious that the hatred this boy has for Gwen is that he does sexually desire her, in spite of, or perhaps because of, her identity as a transgender female. He questions his own sexual orientation at a time in his life when he can’t face his own truth; hence his palpable hatred. (In reality, a girl named Nicole Simpson conducted the forced inspection). Gwen begs him not to hurt her yet she must have known in her heart that her life would soon be over. The end did not come easily. We don’t see what actually happened: a 5-hour assault, beaten with fists, a soup can, and a shovel. Strangulation with a cord, after death her arms and ankles hog-tied, her body wrapped in a blanket (inaccurately stated as a shower curtain in the film), and buried in a three-foot grave, covered in boulders, so animals couldn’t reach her. In the inaccurate film, Gwen’s body is discovered the following day. In reality, no one reported Gwen missing, except the family. It wasn’t for 2 more weeks, with the help of a boy who had participated in Gwen’s beating, that police located her remains.
The assault and murder marks Gwen’s physical suffering. Her emotional angst permeates the entire film: “If God made me, then God’s a sadist.” That’s the kind of story where you cannot tell the young person that “it gets better“, the catchphrase of the brainchild movement started by Dan Savage, a Toronto homosexual man, who runs an advice column catering to persons bi, straight, gay and LGBT. Celebrities, such as Tim Gunn, politicians,including Obama, and the not-so-glamorous general public, have downloaded videos discussing their experiences as homosexual or LGBT people, or simply offering hope to youth who are torn by their identity and orientation. It is a powerful website.
Gwen Araujo’s true story actually involved four men in their 20’s. Gwen was 17, making even voluntary, mutual sexual acts statutory rape. Apparently the men had no problem with the stat rape of a female, but they had a problem with the stat rape of a transgender female. All of the men were involved with other women, but they regularly used Gwen as a sexual object on the side, someone to make them feel “macho” because of her youth and beauty. These relationships lasted for months, not days. It has been suggested by witnesses they suspected Gwen’s biological identity long before the murder, but weren’t bothered by it until homosexual accusations by acquaintances began.
Gwen/Eddy has a great mother. She struggles between acceptance and denial of her daughter’s struggle, and in so doing, she struggles with her own identity. Is she a good mother or not? Did she do something wrong to her son to cause his gender identity crisis? At the same time, during the trial she tells the defense that in hindsight, she believes Eddy/Gwen was a girl since she was in utero. Yet before the murder, there are many occasions where she hurts her daughter: she refuses to let Gwen act as her sister’s Maid of Honour in case it offends Gwen’s grandparents. Gwen is brave: “How do we know what they’ll say if we don’t try?” She often refers to Gwen as Eddy, despite Gwen’s sharp protests. Ultimately, she offers her child unconditional love and it is after her child’s death that she realizes there are things far more painful than having a transgender child; there is a hate so palpable that it rips through raging fists, becoming an entity of brutality and death. For the funeral, Gwen is dressed in the pretty pink gown she wore to her sister’s wedding (as a spectator), her face repaired by skilled artistry and makeup. Her mother insists everyone sees Gwen exactly as she wanted: a beautiful, tormented girl who was misunderstood.
Psychiatrists insist that transgender is based on gender identity disorder, rather than a natural compulsion to live as the opposite sex. The DSM-IV-TR states that GID is a significant gender dysphoria. The upcoming DSM-V, removes the diagnosis and replaces it with “Gender Dysphoria.” Some authorities do not classify gender dysphoria as a mental illness, including the NHS (National Health Service in England) which describes it as “a condition for which medical treatment is appropriate in some cases.” These include psychological, endocrinological, and surgical services. Many transgender people support the declassification of GID as a mental disorder for several reasons:
- Recent medical research on the brain structures of transgender individuals have shown that some transgender individuals have the physical brain structures that resemble their desired sex even before hormone treatment.
- Recent studies are indicating more possible causes for gender dysphoria,from genetic reasons and prenatal exposure to hormones, as well as other psychological and behavioral reasons. For instance,Brandon Teena’s mother, JoAnn Brandon, argued that her child’s transgenderism was a defense mechanism that developed in response to childhood sexual abuse, rather than an expression of Teena’s gendered sense of self: “She pretended she was a man so no other man could touch her.”
The DSM-IV-TR (text revised) details the characteristics of gender dysphoria:
- Long-standing and strong identification with another gender
- Long-standing disquiet about the sex assigned or a sense of incongruity in the gender-assigned role of that sex
- The diagnosis is not made if the individual has physical intersex characteristics.
- Significant clinical discomfort or impairment at work, or other important life areas.
Personally, I agree with the perspective Gwen’s mental health counsellor shared in the courtroom, that is, that the brains of transgender people are different than those of non-transgender people. In Gwen’s case, the brain said female, but the body said male. She was therefore heterosexual, not homosexual, in orientation. Her brother sums it up perfectly at her sister’s wedding when Gwen dances with a male stranger: “If Gwen was gay, she’d been dancing with a girl.”I have my own theory regarding transgender females. (I swear I came up with this one before the movie). We know that all fetuses begin as female in the womb. The male sex has to impose itself on the female fetus through the onset of androgens, or male hormones. This happens during the first trimester of pregnancy. Biologists speculate this is why men have nipples although they do not have breasts or milk ducts, and therefore cannot nourish their young. I believe when the onset of maleness begins, there is not enough androgen to form the male brain, thus the messages and impulses remain female. Yet somehow, there is enough hormonal change to create a biological male. It would take a genetic researcher to explain that one (if I’m on the right track). As for transgender males, my guess would be the opposite: somehow more than an adequate amount of androgen affecting brain development on many levels, happens in a female, who then develops a male brain inside a female body. Then again, estrogen probably plays a part in all this too. Meh. It’s far too simple to make sense, but clearly I am no geneticist.
Several studies concentrate on whether sexually dimorphic brain structures in transsexuals are similar to their preferred sex or to their birth sex. There are known brain differences between homosexual and heterosexual persons and the brain changes in response to hormone-treatment. Studies have shown that androphilic male-to-female transsexuals (sometimes called homosexual MtF transsexuals in studies) show a shift towards the female direction in brain anatomy. Brain-based research has repeatedly shown that female-to-male transsexuals have several male-like characteristics.The study found that the white matter pattern in female-to-male transsexuals was shifted in the direction of biological males, even before the female-to-male transsexuals started taking male hormones (which can also modify brain structure). This is astounding information. It might have offered some comfort to Gwen and her family during her all-too-brief life journey. Scenes where Gwen lamented her transgenderism, “I’m a freak!” begged for this information.
Criminal courts need to respond appropriately to the persecution of transgender people and start labelling the crime for what it is: a hate crime. In Gwen’s case, two boys were convicted of second degree murder, a third of voluntary manslaughter. However during a second trial, the jury was deadlocked regarding the third’s involvement in the crime. No one was convicted of committing a hate crime. In one of the trials, a trans panic defense, an extension of the gay panic defense, was employed by the defense as an excuse for attacking and murdering a human being. Panic is another word for horror, anxiety, and terror. It is not another word for hatred, and, as such, it was utterly inaccurate in Gwen’s murder trial. Both of these defenses suggest the antagonist is “temporarily insane“. Not so. Gwen’s murder was pre-meditated and carefully planned: she was lured to one of the boys’ houses and killed there by three of them. A law was passed after Gwen Araujo’s murder trial stating transgender and gay panic defenses can no longer be used in Newark, California.
Gwen is far from an anomaly. Transgender people are persecuted the world over; one transgender person is murdered in one country or another every day. These murders are brutal and often involve torture. Most transgender males and females are stabbed, beaten, suffocated, shot, raped, run down by cars. Their bodies are frequently disposed of in shallow graves, stuffed under beds, or left on roadways. Sometimes bodies aren’t discovered for days, after decomposition has begun. One reason for this is the dangerous lifestyle transgenders are forced into: employment is very difficult so they are obligated to work as prostitutes or go hungry. They are frequently homeless. If that wasn’t bad enough, transgender people who enter into relationships are often physically abused.There are successful, professional, married transgender people whose lives are a success story (I have known one and she is an incredibly independent, academic and professional professor at a university). However, this is rare. Transgenders are perfect victims for people who hate.
Gwen is an anomaly in one sense: her family loved and supported her. They made many mistakes and often hurt her, but these were honest mistakes done out of ignorance and fear. She wasn’t thrown out of her house, as many young transgenders are (and homosexuals, for that matter). She had non-transgender friends who loved and supported her. In some ways, Gwen was very fortunate. Until the end, of course.
Two of the men are serving 15 years to life. A third is serving only 6 years in a plea of no contest to voluntary manslaughter. A fourth man involved in Gwen’s beating was never brought to trial. One of the murderers addressed Gwen’s family and tearfully requested that the Araujo family to “please try” to forgive him. Another was permitted to leave jail to witness the birth of his child; ironic, considering he’d committed the death of someone else’s. Gwen showed great courage when beginning her transformation from a recognizable boy to a transgender female: she wore makeup and jewelry in public and at school, and risked and received much harrassment. Like Brandon Teena, Gwen Araujo is an icon for the ongoing transgender struggle, and inspiration for youth who continue the fight against hate and discrimination. It’s a crying shame people, especially youth, have to lose their lives in order to champion their cause. Or at the very least, to live and let live.