Dying without Justice: Gender Martyrs in Contemporary "Based-on-a-True-Story" Cinema

by Sara Marrone

“Can we really blame these boys for what happened, or should we blame the society that made them so afraid?,” asks the defense attorney of a group of teenagers that have killed a 17-year-old transgender girl, Gwen Araujo, to Sylvia Guerrero, her mother, at the trial for her daughter's murder. We're in the last scene of A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story (2006), winner of 2007 GLAAD Award for Best Outstanding Movie for Television, directed by the amazing Agnieszka Holland, the Polish director better known for her lucid depiction of the Holocaust.

A Girl Like Me is a great movie for its narrative clarity and for being pedagogical: it's like a gender trouble guide for beginners. The movie tells the fact-based story of Edward Araujo (J. D. Pardo) and his evolution to Gwen Araujo, born in a male body but felt like a girl since he was 7 years old. He's too “delicate, too... clean,” once said his mother to the doctor. “You know you're a boy, right?” she asks Edward when she finds him with make-up and earrings for the first time. “We have the chance, for the first time, to be a normal, happy family!” Edward was not meant to be normal. But yes, he was dying to be happy.

Sylvia, played by a stunning Mercedes Ruehl, has just come out of an abusive relationship with her husband. She goes to live with her three children, Edward, Chita (Leela Savasta) and Danny (Avan Jogia), determined to raise them alone, moved by a tireless love, deconstructing her mother's belief that children need a father and a mother. She's the lighthouse of her family, and the keystone of the story: she is the only one who – after fighting Edward and his “freakness” – truly embraces his nature, soon replacing fear and distrust with acceptance. Because you treat everyone who is family with respect. She's a brave woman, a rock, an example of utmost dignity and stability for her children…and for the audience.

On his first day at high school, we see Edward entering the corridors parading with earrings, necklace and make-up, with No Doubt's “Hey Baby” in the background, through the giggles and amused glances of the other students. On the same day he got bullied by one of them – “is this Halloween?!” - but his sister Chita promptly defends him by punching the guy in the face. It's Eddie's first day as a she. It's the first day of Gwen's life.

It seems like in the first 4 weeks of pregnancy genitalia are feminine for everyone, then they eventually develop in masculine: “All fetus are essentially female, no matter what the chromosomes. Male brain and reproductive organs, they develop at some point in utero. Transsexualism happens when the masculinization of the brain doesn't take place,” explains the doctor of the “Gender Identity Project,” where Sylvia goes after finding silicone breasts in Edward's room.

People feel anxious about sexual identity. Our sexuality is our intimate place of truth. If we are able to listen to our sexual desires, we are in touch with who we really are – and we'll better find the courage to follow it. Sexuality is something we like to believe is fixed – like eye colour, or height –  because this apparently reassures us. When we're not able to simply recognize and explain what we see, or feel, we feel paranoid, intimidated, or even threatened. And the easiest and most instinctive way to respond to this mix of feelings is using rage, verbal and physical violence to give ourselves the illusion that we can hide what we cannot bear to keep seeing. So someone who suffers for feeling trapped in the wrong body is called ridiculous, abnormal, perverted - with respect to the normative hegemonic and heterosexual identities.

A transsexual person is someone who breaks society and nature’s laws, but, at the same time, leaves the law without a voice. Transsexuals – and LGBTQ+ people in general, as they don't get stuck in heteronormativity’s tracks, put themselves outside the law, without officially breaking it. That's why they generate so much disorientation and impotence in those who fail to look beyond dualisms.


A couple of years pass by, and Gwen is now a beautiful girl, proudly wearing her black wig as the bridesmaid of her sister. At Chita's wedding she meets Joey Marino, who is with his girlfriend, Tamara (Vanesa Tomasino). But this doesn't seem to be a problem for him. Gwen and Joey are attracted to each other like magnets. He eventually breaks up with Tamara to start a romantic relationship with Gwen. They really love each other. Although, at nine months they’ve never experienced sex, even if Joey would like to: Gwen doesn't know how to tell him she's biologically a boy... Sylvia, worried for her daughter's safety as only a mother can be, reveals the truth to Joey. He is shocked and feels cheated, and decides to break up. When Gwen finds out what Sylvia did, she feels like her mother hates her, it seems like she wants to interfere with her daughter's happiness. Gwen now hates her own life too. She becomes cranky, doesn't want to go to school and starts drinking.

Meanwhile, taking advantage of Gwen's suffering (and ingenuity), Tamara acts as a friend, making her join her inner circle. They start going to parties together, where all the attention of the boys in the group is on Gwen: she's the prettiest one, and Tamara gradually, silently feeds her jealousy. At some point, she decides to take her revenge on Gwen. She makes her friend group question that Gwen is not really a girl: she has “big bones... big feet....” So they start feeling worried about being seduced by a “fake girl” - among them there's the bully of the first day of school, Jaron Nabors. They plan a house party to find out “what she really is.” Tamara deceives Gwen by telling her that Joey will be at the party. She wasn't expecting that she was about to throw Gwen to her killers... They felt outraged in their manhood, therefore they must respond to this deception by humiliating the “freak” body that made them feel less manly.


“I don't need you to tell me what society does to people. They beat her. For five hours. They tied her up and strangled her. And then they buried her in a field. Then they went and had breakfast in a diner and eat pancakes, and you think that I should excuse them? Shame on you. I blame them, I blame them everyday.” This is how Sylvia Guerrero responds to the defense attorney, who was trying to excuse the murderers because they killed a sexually promiscuous transsexual who provoked them. It's too easy to blame society for such brutality. “Life is what you make it,” Gwen used to say. A healthy society can exist only when it's made up of conscious individuals, who take their own responsibility towards society.

Gwen Araujo was killed in 2002. After two trials, Michael Magidson (Nolan Gerard Funk) and José Merel (Neil Denis) were convicted of second degree murder. Jaron Nabors (Greyston Holt) pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Jason Cazares (Jorge Vargas) pled no contest for voluntary manslaughter. Not one of them was convicted of hate crimes.

Let's go back to 1999, when another movie, also based on a brutal real life story, was released: Boys Don't Cry, directed by Kimberly Peirce and starring Hillary Swank, who perfectly embodies the androgynous protagonist of the story – she totally deserved the Academy Award for Best Actress in Drama for this role. Despite the technical quality, which is not really the best, this is a very raw and intense movie.


We're now in Nebraska. Teena Brandon (Swank) is a young, messy girl who feels like an hermaphrodite (even if she's biologically female), looking for money to proceed with genital reconstruction surgery. She eventually cuts her hair and inverts her name in Brandon Teena. After being already threatened of death by a girlfriend's brother for having discovered he's a transgender, and being constantly without a stable home, Brandon moves from Lincoln to Falls City, where, after being involved in a bar fight, meets John (Peter Sarsgaard), Candace (Alicia Goranson) and then Tom (Brendan Sexton III) and Lana (Chloë Sevigny).

Brandon is welcomed by this ramshackle family in their house in the middle of nowhere, where beers and cigarettes abound. Lana's mother (Jeannetta Arnette) adores him: his apprehension and sensitivity are like fresh air in that violent and brutalized environment. In the meantime, Brandon falls in love with Lana, and soon they start a romantic relationship. But, even if he's able to create a pure connection with her, Brandon is still feeling lonely in the world: his transgender status makes him face a real threat constantly, he always has to be alert. When Brandon has sex with her for the first time, Lana realizes that he's trans, but she doesn't care about his gender. He's a warm, gentle, romantic lover. Lana falls for him because he challenges traditional assumptions about what it takes to be a man, and to give pleasure to a woman.

Non-binary gender people make normal people mad. Gender is not a manifestation of an inborn essence. Sex is a naturally given category, while gender is a culturally and socially constructed one, a product of actions and behaviours. That's why it is essentially a performance.


When Candace finds out Brandon's birth name through his documents, the rest of the family become suspicious and start rummaging in his room: they find all his equipment – the bandage to bind the breasts, his dildo – and some pieces of trans literature. John and Tom feel instantly threatened by Brandon's affront to gender boundaries, as they incarnate the typified, hegemonic masculinity. John, who was already jealous of Lana and Brandon's relationship, cannot accept Brandon’s access to male privilege. So, he decides to bring him back to the right order: he forces Brandon to come back to Teena – to a pure female who was meant to desire men. John and Tom first humiliate him by removing his pants and reveal his genitalia. Then they drive him to an isolated place to brutally beat and gang rape him. This scene is terribly cruel. They vent all their rage on Brandon's thin body. They re-appropriate his identity by violating his body.

Convinced by Lana, Brandon reports the assault to the police, but the police chief – just like the lawyer in A Girl Like Me - seems more concerned with Brandon's sexual identity than with the violence he has suffered. When John and Tom are called by the police, they go to Candace's to find Brandon in a nearby shed, and John, in a fit of rage, shoots Brandon under the chin, killing him instantly. Right after, Tom kills Candace, who was trying to protect her baby.

At the end of 1993, Tom Nissen was sentenced to life. John Lotter was sentenced to death.

In 2018, Call Her Ganda was released, a documentary film, directed by PJ Raval, about the legal and diplomatic battle after the death of Jennifer Laude, a 26-year-old Filipina trans woman brutally murdered in 2014 by the 19-year-old U.S. Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton, on leave in the Philippines. Jennifer Laude's murder exposes the truth about gender-based violence in Philippines, where the trans community is massive, and many trans sex workers like Jennifer – that her mother tenderly used to call Ganda, which means “beautiful” – have to hide their sexual identity to not alienate potential clients. Call Her Ganda accompanies the different phases of Ganda's murder trial. Three women are intimately invested in this pursuit for justice: the activist attorney Virgie Suarez, the transgender journalist Meredith Talusan and Jennifer’s mother, Julita “Nanay” Laude. Their battle is still in progress.


The main focus of the movie is the postcolonial issue that this case highlights: Pemberton's hate crime becomes an opportunity to reinforce the U.S. imperialistic control in the former colony. The lack of justice for Jennifer Laude is due to the unfair 1999's Visiting Forces Agreement between U.S. and Philippines: according to the VFA, the U.S. government is allowed to retain jurisdiction over U.S. military personnel accused of committing crimes in the Philippines, unless the crimes are of particular importance to the Filipino state. In 2014, during the Obama administration, another similar agreement is signed, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which allows United States to rotate troops into the Philippines for extended stays and to build and operate facilities on Philippine bases, for both American and Philippine forces. It also gives Philippine personnel access to American ships and planes. VFA and EDCA agreements actually allow American military officers to avoid local justice, giving U.S. the power to do whatever it wants in the country. Welcome to neo-colonialism.


Ganda and Pemberton met at the Ambayanz disco bar, in Olongapo. Then they went to a nearby motel, the Celzone Lodge. After 30 minutes, Pemberton leaves the motel and staff finds Ganda dead in the room's bathroom, with her head in the toilet bowl. She has been strangled and then died because of asphyxiation by drowning. After several attempts from the defense attorney to delay the beginning of the trial (under the VFA the local courts have one year to complete any legal proceedings), on March, 2015 the murder trial began: the Philippine Department of Justice decides to charge Pemberton with murder because of his cruelty and abuse of strength. But, after suspicious interventions of U.S. department of Justice (reporters could never enter the courtoom), we arrive at December 2016 with the Olongapo Regional Trial Court stating that Pemberton was guilty of homicide, and not murder, as Jennifer did not reveal her gender identity. The U.S. Marine acted out of “passion and obfuscation.” That's why he's still in a military facility, at Camp Aguinaldo, and not in jail, and his maximum sentence has been reduced from 12 to 10 years.

Ganda is a gender and post-colonial martyr, and it's shocking how much international institutional power plays are able to unnecessarily and cruelly intensify the pain of a mother, already provoked by the bigotry of a young boy.

Gwen, Brandon, and Ganda chose not to conform to an external heteronormative rule, but to listen to an internal call. You can be hardly punished in this world if you don't adhere to some kind of gendered expectations – without performing standard expressions of feminine and masculine. When someone takes courage to look outside the box, to embrace their complexity and be free, be the best and truest part of herself, there's always someone else who cannot stand it. But trans people's right to safety should not depend on cis people's ability to understand their gender. Trans people's lifestyle and self-expression don't have to make sense to cis people. Cis people are not everyone.

Human sexuality is too complex to be caged in pairs of definitions. We need to respect and preserve this complexity, replacing discrimination and isolation with curiosity and love for freedom. This is our individual and collective responsibility. That's what Gwen, Brandon and Ganda's stories have to teach us.


SARA MARRONE is a hybrid actress, performer, author, freelance theatre and cinema critic. She believes in the power of arts to communicate change and to empower people everyday. Since 2017, Sara is the art director of the multidisciplinary artistic platform PLEASUREisPOWER, boosting the talk about pleasure, desire, sexual identity, and gender. She also co-starred in the post-porn short movie "Un'ultima volta (The End)", directed by her girlfriend, Charlie Benedetti, and produced by Erika Lust. 

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