Remembering Gwen

I don’t tell this story very often.

It must have been 2004 or 2005, because I was high on the couch (with a prescription, of course) with a broken ankle and a copy of Rolling Stone, featuring Green Day on the cover for their political pop punk manifesto, American Idiot. It was fifteen or sixteen years ago, so you’ll forgive me if I don’t recall all of the other articles that were featured in the overpriced homage to Mick Jagger and company (or that Bob Dylan song—who knows?). The one article I do remember (aside from the Green Day one) was about a Latinx womxn who was killed in Newark, CA in 2002.

Gwen Araujo was seventeen years old when Jason Cazares, Michael Magidson, José Merél, and Jaron Nabors murdered her. The details of her death are gory, horrific, and predominantly fueled by homophobia and transphobia. Upon learning that Gwen had what her assailants considered to be “unladylike” genitalia, the four assaulted her until she passed out, and then strangled her and beat her to death with a shovel.

This was the first portrayal of a transgender womxn I ever experienced: violence and sensationalized headlines. She was the first time I saw myself in the media.

The original cover had a title that misgendered Gwen, so I decided to use this picture instead.

Prior to reading Gwen’s story, I thought the most closely-guarded part of my identity—that secret I never intended to share—was an impossibility without a fairy godmother or a primitive intervention. Occasionally, some of the 90s and early 2000s cartoons I watched would play around with gender (who could forget the episode of Fairly Oddparents where Timmy gets girly for a day?), but for the most part, gender was an immovable, unchangeable construct that kept me up at night.

Before creating this website, I wrote a book of macabre poetry about my life and experiences with gender. Sufficed to say, it was not an uplifting tale, despite the story’s happy (most days) ending. There were poems about eating disorders, self-harm, suicidality, and a number of other mental health risks that were easy to hide from my loved-ones (sometimes), but that made functioning in the world difficult. I’ve never been a very talented visual artist, but I even had a few dopey sketches to include with the poems.

The collection was called (W)hole to convey a self-indulgent sense of overcoming adversity to embrace my identity. Don’t get me wrong, trans and gender non-conforming (GNC) folx have to put up with a lot of malarkey, but as far as being trans is concerned, I have a lot of privilege.

Some of the poems were pretty good, while others were lazy and sad. In a hypothetical world where (W)hole sold as well as my last book (a dystopian novel about biking and David Bowie), I’d be able to say I’d sold two whole books in my lifetime. Watch out New York Times Bestseller List!

I thought about Gwen a lot when I was compiling my collection. Would another book of poetry have made a difference?

It’s been eighteen years since her death, and even though trans and non-binary folx are more visible than ever before, our community is being harassed, sexually, physically, mentally, and emotionally assaulted, and murdered more often than ever before. Are those figures actually representative of the violence against our community, or have the cogs that make up society been underreporting and misreporting trans and non-binary (especially our siblings from BIPOC communities) deaths and atrocities? I don’t know. Research is great, until it’s so flooded with transphobia, ableism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, and all of the other biases and “isms” that perpetuate hate that it’s no longer useful.

School has always been my coping mechanism. When I was a kid, I figured that if I did a really good job in school, my family and friends would have to love me even though I was trans. There’s obviously a lot to unpack with that particular thought process, but regardless, I did well in academics, and it continues to be a place where I thrive (unless it’s Zoom class—barf).

Thus, in my first quarter of social work grad school (privilege, privilege, privilege), I wrote a loooonng, meticulously researched essay about queer youth suicide. About halfway through the paper, I started crying.

It very well could have been the estrogen that triggered my response, but more likely, the idea that 30%-51% of transgender and gender non-conforming youth—kids, mind you—attempt suicide was enough to break me (especially because I hypothesized that these statistics were low). To my infinite horror, I found that no interventions had been created or studied to make life less shitty for LGBTQIA+ youth.

It was all talk and no action.

I’ve been transgender for a long time. Longer than I’ve been sober, vegan, a musician, married—you name it, and the trans thing has been around longer. Consequently, I’ve learned a few tips and tricks for mitigating gender dysphoria and not hurting myself (which work most of the time). Considering how sparse the research on gender dysphoria and queer folx in general is, I figured it couldn’t hurt to share what I know to be true.

As an adult, I’m afforded many of the privileges that I didn’t have as a kid: money, legal autonomy, a (mostly) developed brain, lived experiences, etc. These privileges have made living in a cis-heteronormative society easier, but I still can’t help but feel like I failed my twelve-year-old self by allowing her to carry around more self-loathing than any child should ever have to bear.

At that age, I didn’t know the lingo or have the self-confidence to fight for what I needed, let alone understand my own feelings. My parents and loved-ones came from a generation where gender fluidity existed within the unnamed confines of The Rocky Horror Picture Show—a.k.a. non-binary folx were seen as straight-up extraterrestrials. Many schools, shrinks, and doctors were in the dark about the needs of the queer community, and believe it or not, marriage equality didn’t yet exist in all 50 states.

Essentially, transphobia existed everywhere, and I internalized that shit like a child-prodigy takes up the piano. Consequently, I wasn’t particularly nice to myself for a very, very long time. The politicization of queer (and black, disabled, autistic, POC, Muslim, immigrant, etc.) bodies has to stop. My transness is a natural and beautiful part of human variation, just like redheads and left-handed folx.

My essay on queer youth suicide ultimately led me to transform the experiences I would have poem-ed about in (W)hole into Out of Yer Shell. I didn’t advocate for myself when I was a kid because there was nothing like OOYS at the time (trust me, I looked). Flooding trans and enby kids with shame to keep them from coming out of their shell is abuse in every sense of the word. Our community has to be active in combatting systems of oppression that disproportionately affect us, such as suicidality, murder, and homelessness. We need to change the culture surrounding coming out and transitioning and educate ourselves, our loved-ones, and our providers (teachers, principals, mental and medical health professionals, etc.) on ways to be more supportive and loving. The old way doesn’t work:

We need a revolution.

Out of Yer Shell may not be the Stonewall Riot of the internet, but hopefully it’s a start. A lot has changed since Gwen Araujo was murdered in 2002—most of it for the better. The “panic defense,” a term that refers to committing violent crimes because the perpetrator learns that their victim is gay or trans, which was used to defend Gwen’s murderers, has been outlawed in eleven states since 2013. Movies like Disclosure, which analyzes portrayals of trans and non-binary individuals in the media, and the negative effects thereof, are being made by mainstream streaming services. Gender & Sexuality Alliances (GSAs) have been studied, and proven to be effective forms of suicide prevention within schools for ALL kids. Violence and oppression still plague our community, but _____________ (insert something uplifting).

Sometimes it’s okay to leave a blank empty and come back to it later. Resilience refers to the ability to overcome adversity, not that you always have to have something positive to say.

When we were creating the content for Out of Yer Shell, it felt like there wasn’t a really good place to remember Gwen, but it felt wrong to not include her at all. For better or worse, her life taught me so many different things about myself and my community, and eighteen years later (she would be 35 this year), her story and the stories of other queer folx are still changing and reshaping the world. The Matthew Shepard Foundation is doing incredible work to honor Matt’s memory, including Matthew’s Place and their “Vote 4 Matt” campaign, while the Marsha P. Johnson Institute unabashedly fights for justice for black transgender individuals. Queer poets, such as Andrea Gibson, Mary Oliver, and Alok Vaid-Menon, are celebrated for their words and experiences all over the world, while queer stories, such as Pose and Queer Eye are embraced by mainstream audiences.

See, I filled in that blank with optimism!

That being said, “Silence = Death” was the ACT UP slogan that defined the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s, and it’s the same logic that applies to suicidality, homelessness, and mental health struggles among transgender and gender non-conforming youth today. If we do nothing, our kids and our community will continue to suffer. If we don’t change the way cisgender society perceives and treats trans and non-binary youth, they will keep dying. This isn’t a message of hope, but of necessity.

There’s a lot of work to do, but I believe that people, and society at-large, can change. Protecting trans and non-binary kids is so so soooooo important, and with the help of loved-ones, providers, and the LGBTQIA+ community, we can shift the narrative surrounding transition, coming out, and acceptance. It might start with pronouns, but hopefully it ends with saving a young person’s life .

We’ve got this, y’all.

Published by ohEMgawd

Coffee over tea, unless it’s bedtime; biking over driving, unless it’s a road trip; and vegan overall, unless it’s a weird nightmare, where animal products are being forced upon her by a villainous ne’er-do-weller. Em Moratto is a queer author, songwriter, designer, and social worker with a crippling Scooby-Doo addiction, who doesn’t fit into traditional binaries. Before starting Out of Yer Shell in 2020, Em wrote a few books, recorded several albums, and made questionable art to go along with her projects. She currently lives in Denver with her partner.

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