Toronto
2 min

Ignorance is hardly bliss

When it takes violence to create awareness

Credit: Xtra files

Gwen Araujo was a 17-year-old male-to-female (MTF) transsexual living in Newark, Califonia. In October 2002 she was brutally murdered by three men when they discovered that she wasn’t biologically female.



They were particularly upset, it seems, because they had each had oral sex with her. So they beat her with a shovel, strangled her and buried her in a wooded area.



As if this story of brutality, intolerance and fear isn’t enough, defence counsel for one of the accused plans to try to disqualify prospective jurors if they have any knowledge of transsexuality or homosexuality. Jack Noonan plans to ask them whether they saw the film Boys Don’t Cry (the 1999 true story about the brutal murder of Brandon Teena, a young FTM, in Nebraska) or whether they had heard of Matthew Shepard (the gay college student bashed and left to die in a Wyoming field in 1998). If they answer “yes” to either one, he plans to disqualify them.



In the words of the lawyer, “I really want somebody who will listen to the whole case and not just make up their minds when they see the word ‘murder.'”



Really?



Now there is some merit to the presumption of innocence. But the idea that mere knowledge of transsexuality could make a juror biased is a bit chilling. It sets up ignorance and hatred (rather than, say, knowledge or empathy) as the norm against which objectivity is to be judged.



It not only implies that transgendered folks are still seen as deviant, but so is anyone who knows anything about them. Which is frustrating because transsexual and transgendered people are beginning to make their way into the mainstream, albeit at the margins. It’s becoming harder to find North Americans who know nothing about transsexuality.



Contrast the brutal murder of Araujo with the recent NBC Dateline special, “Scenes From A Marriage.” It followed several couples who married as man and woman; then later, one spouse underwent gender reassignment surgery.



Nothing particularly groundbreaking so far. Except, in these case studies, the other spouse decided to stay. So, these couples, predominantly comprised of MTFs and your basic biological female, have continued to live in holy matrimony.



(In the eyes of the law, their marriages are valid, since the couples married as a male and female – but that’s getting into another issue.)



The story, leaving Jerry Springer tactics behind, was a compassionate, if voyeuristic, glance into the tumultuous change in the lives of these couples. This was a story about average people, living average lives, except for this one admittedly challenging little thing. It was a story about committed marriages, about women who stood by their men (now women), about love conquering all. Cindy and Miriam, Melissa and Stephanie, and Joyce and Victoria are all monogamous, married couples, living the picket-fence life. Some had children. Most had mortgages and worried about medical insurance.



Not all transgendered and trans- sexual people are invited into this picture – or want it. It is not an outlook that would help Araujo. She was, in the eyes of mainstream America, young, promiscuous and deceitful. She was unclear about her sex. She was unclear about her sex when she was having sex. And she was having sex. In fact, she was having it with more than one person.



When the winds of change do begin to blow, predictably, they begin with the least radical, those whom the straight majority can most easily relate to.



It’s possible that mainstreaming will eventually help those on the margins. In fact, maybe it was the mainstream response to the trans and gay bashings of Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepard that has caused the defence so much concern in the Araujo murder trial. A little understanding could lead to a lot.



It’s sad – tragic, in fact – that it takes either horrifying murders or “boring” queers to get straight folks to take our issues seriously.



* Brenda Cossman is a member of the board of directors of Pink Triangle Press.