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Transgender teen's life as a TV movie
Friday, April 14, 2006
The life of Gwen Araujo, the Newark boy who identified and lived as a girl and was killed because of it, is being made into a TV movie by Lifetime.
That may seem like a racy topic for a network whose forte is family stories -- and is most popular in the American heartland -- but network executives believe it's high time the story of Gwen, and those like her, be told from a family's point of view.
"Even in the 21st century, society is still separated by race, religion and gender," Zev Braun, the movie's executive producer, said in a statement. "It's time those walls be taken down and for people to be accepted for who and what they are -- human beings."
Araujo's story is well-known in the Bay Area. She was killed by men who'd had sex with her and were shocked to discover, weeks later, that she was biologically male. The killing drew nationwide attention to transgender youth, and there's little left to say about the crime.
Instead, "For the Love of a Child" will focus on Sylvia Guerrero's relationship with Gwen, which is nothing more than the timeless story of every mother's relationship with her child. The story had everything the network looks for when considering a script, said Trevor Walton, the network's senior vice president for original films.
"It has all the components that make a Lifetime movie: compassion, redemption and family issues," he said. "What a great story."
That's not to say the idea didn't raise a few eyebrows. But Walton saw a compelling film.
"When it was first read here, there were one or two people who said, 'This is different,' " Walton said.
The movie, scheduled for broadcast in June, follows Gwen's life from her early years as Eddie Araujo, the second of four children in a close-knit Latino family, who seemed most comfortable dressing and acting like a girl.
As a teen, Eddie -- much to the shock of his siblings -- began wearing makeup, growing his hair long and referring to himself as "Gwen," after the singer Gwen Stefani, whom he adored, and identifying as a young woman.
That created tension at home, especially among Gwen's siblings, who didn't understand why their brother wanted to be their sister.
"It was hard for the younger boys, but it wasn't an easy transition for any of us," Guerrero said. "But I love my baby whether it was Eddie or Gwen."
And, of course, Gwen's siblings did too. And that's part of the message Lifetime -- which bills itself as "television for women" -- hopes to convey.
"When you encounter someone or something different outside your own home, it's easy to make a sweeping judgment," said Walton. "But when it's your sister or your daughter or your son and there is something different, sexually or otherwise, compassion and love wins out.
"That's a large part of what this movie is: learning to understand."
To help viewers understand, Lifetime will air a public service announcement developed with Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, the nation's largest family support organization for gay and transgender people.
"I do believe in my heart that we're far from educating this world," Guerrero said. "It's a life sentence for us to have lost her, she's never coming home, no matter what we do, and I don't want this to happen to another family."
By showing the internal family struggle for acceptance -- the side of the issue most people never see -- Lifetime hopes to raise awareness among all viewers. But it's one thing to tell Gwen's story to people in the Bay Area.
Is the rest of the country ready to see it?
Lifetime thinks so. After all, a mother's love for her child no matter what is universal. Everyone can relate to it. And while Lifetime's core viewers -- those in the Midwest -- may not be as tolerant of, or familiar with, gay and transgender people, they are no less compassionate than those who are, Walton said.
"When we've done these kinds of movies in the past, like a lesbian couple in a custody battle, a lot of that audience says they've never met a lesbian couple, but understand it within the context of a family, like 'What would I think if that were my sister?' " Walton said.
Lifetime and P-FLAG also hope "For the Love of a Child" also will show people the difficulty transgender teens often face living in a world of harassment, cruelty and, too often, violence.
After all, the saddest part of the story is that Gwen's story isn't that unusual. Her picture is among a half-dozen other transgender people whose pictures appear on a Web site maintained by the support group Gender Education and Advocacy, people who were slain simply because someone could not look past biology to see the person within.
Gwen was beaten to death by four men who were shocked, and undoubtedly frightened, to discover the young woman that some of them had had sex with was biologically male. Such a visceral reaction is almost exclusively male, and there has been little effort to change the conditioning, said Barrie Thorne, chair of the Gender and Women's Studies Department at UC Berkeley.
If being a man in the masculine sense in our society is really about displaying physical strength, perhaps we need to revisit some of our other basic beliefs, like using that strength to protect the weakest among us, not using it to intimidate, terrorize and kill them.
And maybe seeing "For the Love of a Child" will help some of us do that.