After she met the Three Stooges, in the summer of 2002, Gwen became a welcome fixture at the Merel house. It wasn't long before Mike, Jose and Jose's brother Paul all had sex with her -- always with her clothes on. She found ways to get to house parties all over the Bay Area, introducing herself sometimes as Gwen, sometimes Wendy, sometimes Lida. She was out of control, mouthier than ever, drinking and partying and God knew what else on a daily basis. Early one morning, her mom picked her up in an alleyway after some drunk guys found out she was a boy and cut her with a broken beer bottle. Sylvia, terrified, cried all the way home. "You need to be honest about who you are," she told Gwen. "I'm so worried about what's going to happen to you. My worst fear is that I'm going to wind up going into a morgue and identifying your body."
But Gwen didn't listen. Fooling around gave her what she needed most. "If you can make men want you, that means somebody is finally accepting you as legitimate, as a woman," says Danielle Castro, a transgendered friend of the family. "That becomes the most important thing in the world. You're not going to risk it by saying, 'Oh, by the way, I've got a dick.' Not when you're seventeen. But it's a dangerous game."
Very dangerous. More transgendered people are killed in hate crimes every year than all the other major targets combined -- including blacks, Jews, Hispanics, lesbians and gay men. Most often, the victims are young transgendered women killed by men who've had sex with them. Sometimes the killers discover they've been misled and freak out. "They feel they had to do what they did," says forensic psychologist Karen Franklin, who interviews hate-crime perpetrators. "They feel tricked. Their masculinity has been betrayed. They've had sex with a man!"
Other times the killers know they're having sex with a girl who's still a guy, at least in the anatomy department. "A lot of times, these murderers can't handle their own desires," says Shawna Virago, a transgender activist who works with Community United Against Violence, an anti-hate group in San Francisco. "They turn their anger on the victim rather than the society that is making them feel stigmatized by their own desires. And when they do, it gets ugly."
* * * *
The stooges enjoyed having Lida around -- who wouldn't? She was always doing stuff to get them worked up. One night she broke up their domino game by throwing the tiles all over the place, getting up on the table and rubbing herself while she danced. Paul's girlfriend, Nicole Brown, decided to egg her on. "Take your top off if you're gonna do that," she told Lida. The guys agreed, of course. "Yeah, we'll give you money if you take your top off," they whooped. Pissed off, Lida hopped down off the table and backhanded Nicole "pretty damn hard," Jay recalled. It escalated from there, with the two girls in a full-scale fistfight. Lida, petite as she was, surprisingly held her own. "Nicole was hurt," Jay said. "Her hair was fucked up and she had blood on her."
The guys didn't think much about it until a few days later, when Lida was off somewhere else. Mike started bragging about how she'd given him a blow job a couple of nights before. How she'd pulled her pants down but refused to take them all the way off. How she wanted him to do her from behind -- that way -- because she was having her period.
Jaron started giving Mike a hard time about how gross that was, anal sex. But then Jose chimed in. It turned out that Lida had told him the same thing, done the same thing, maybe two weeks before. A period couldn't last that long, could it?
They started comparing notes. How come Lida always wanted it from behind? Why wouldn't she let them touch her breasts? Weren't her hands kind of rough for a girl? Didn't she always wear something over her neck, like maybe she was covering up an Adam's apple? And what about that fight with Nicole? Lida fought like -- well, a guy.
This called for a blunt. They trooped off to the garage and lit up. For such a tight group of guys, this was a major mind-fuck. "It's like a fraternity," says Barrie Thorne, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley. "You get guys who are invested in being straight but whose bond includes physical and emotional closeness, a lot of homoerotic overtones. They police each other's masculinity." Being together was the one thing the Stooges could count on in their lives -- and being together was all about being guys, drinking and smoking and fucking and telling dumb jokes. If Lida wasn't straight, did that mean that they weren't straight? And if they weren't straight, what were they?
Mike could laugh about the whole thing, but Jose couldn't let it rest. He had no patience with gays. God, what if this meant he was gay, too? Seeing Jose's discomfort, Mike couldn't resist needling him, rattling off all the reasons it seemed like Lida was a guy.
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