03 October 2012

A Sad Anniversary: My Grandmother and Gwen Araujo

This date, 3 October, has been a sad one for many years, at least for me.

On this date in 1981, my maternal grandmother died.  As weakened as she was from her illnesses, she fought death until the end.  With her dying breaths, she called out the name of my grandfather, who predeceased her by fifteen years.

I was twenty-three at the time she died.  She was my last living grandparent. But that is not the only reason why her death affected me as much as it did. Probably the only person in this world who knew me better was, and is, my mother.  She died at a time in my life when I was angry, confused and scared.  I simply felt that I could not bear the prospect of any life that seemed available to me at the time:  I didn't want the careers, family structures or lifestyles that, it seemed, other people wanted me to want.  That strained some of the relationships in my life, including those with some of my relations.

My grandmother offered me a lot of emotional support, and sometimes advice.  The latter, I didn't follow most of the time, mainly because I almost never followed anybody's advice. (Some might say I'm still guilty of that.)  But she did listen, and sometimes helped me to see situations with my family and other people that, really, I otherwise couldn't at that time in my life.

Twenty-one years later, on this date, there was a death that has affected me ever since.  It was very different from my grandmother's, which came in a hospital room with my mother and other family members around her.  This other death was brutal, violent and spurred by anger and hate.  

Yes, it was the murder of a transgender girl:  Gwen Araujo.  Ten years have passed since she was beaten and strangled at a party in the working-class San Francisco Bay-area community of Newark.  Her killers then dumped her body in a shallow grave about three hours' drive away, in the Sierras.

While not as widely publicized as the killings of Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena, it did start some discussion of the frequency and intensity of assaults on, and killings of, trans people.  Now it's fairly common knowledge that such crimes against trans people tend to be particularly brutal and even grisly:  Those who investigate them say as much.  Also, you could see the "learning curve" about transgender people reflected in media coverage. Most initial reports identified her as a boy who liked to wear girl's clothes; as more became known about her, some changed their portrayals of her.  (What that meant, of course, is that many of those reporters, editors and commentators were starting to learn that transgenders and cross-dressers are not necessarily the same people.)  

But one reason why her death affected me is that it came just when I was about to embark on my transition.  Tammy and I had split up, and I moved to a neighborhood where I knew no-one, only a few weeks earlier.  I was attending support groups as well as going for therapy sessions and medical evaluations.  On Christmas Eve of that year, I would begin taking hormones.

What happened to Gwen Araujo did scare me, at least somewhat.  I was going to work as Nick, and the friends and acquaintances I knew from my previous life still knew me as him. I was not "out" to any of my family. But I was going to various events, and roaming about during some of the free time I had, "as" Justine.  Sometimes I worried about people who knew me as Justine finding out about Nick, and vice-versa.  And, truthfully, I wasn't yet sure--even a little--about how anyone would react.

But I knew I had to do what I was doing.  Gwen knew she had to live as the girl she really was, or not at all.  Knowing about her life and death thus gave me a kind of hope, or at least the knowledge that I couldn't be anybody but who I am, and do anything but what I needed to do.  

My grandmother told me something like that.  I never discussed my gender identity issues with her. (Then again, I hadn't discussed them with anyone else.)   But the encouragement she gave me about other things, and her advice that, in essence, bad situations don't have to last but good people can, and do, has been about as good a legacy as anyone could have left for me.