SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- As far as homemade altars go, Gwendolyn Smith keeps an unconventional one for murdered transgender teenager Gwen Araujo.
"I keep my reporter notebooks next to my computer. To this day, I still look up at them on a regular basis," said Smith.
Araujo was 17-years-old when she was confronted at a party in Newark, California by several men with whom she previously had sexual relations.
When they discovered she was biologically male, they brutally beat her, strangled her and then dumped her body in the Sierra.
Araujo's murder is the subject and the just released ABC7 Original documentary 'Being Gwen: A Life and Death Story'.
Smith, who is a transgender woman, was captivated by the crime.
"You don't sit in a courtroom every day and hear about someone who is not dissimilar from you and what they endured because people hated who she was. And that's kind of how you are too," she added.
When Araujo was killed in 2002, Smith had already dedicated part of her life to document the brutal deaths of transgender individuals.
In 1998, she was working on American Online providing transgender resources when a discussion started about the murder of Rita Hester, an African-American transgender woman who was murdered in Boston after going out to a bar.
Smith recalled the case was similar to the death of Chanelle Pickett a few years earlier.
"We were failing to note our deaths. We were seeing these cases just endlessly repeated. So from that day on I started to chronicle cases," said Smith.
That year, she launched the Remembering Our Dead website where she began listing the names of trans people who had been murdered. She wanted to give them a legacy.
The following year, Smith co-founded the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
In Araujo's case, as in the murder of Pickett, the men who committed the murders claimed they were overcome by trans panic and killed the person they were sexually interested in upon learning they were transgender.
In 2014, California became the first state in the nation in banning the trans panic defense. 16 states now prohibit it.
Unfortunately, the violent deaths of transgender individuals continue to rise.
Last year, Human Rights Campaign Foundation reported 57 deaths of transgender and gender non-conforming people, a record number of deaths.
This year, HRC has documented at least 32 deaths, although it warns those deaths could be much higher since many go unreported.
In the ten years that HRC has been tracking deaths of transgender individuals, it has documented at least 300 deaths.
The majority were Black or Latinx transgender women.
The United States ranks third in the world in violent transgender deaths.
In 70% of these cases, the victims were misgendered by the media or police.
"We are murdered the way we are murdered because of the messages and the bias that people create against us and towards us," said Bamby Salcedo, who became an activist after learning of the murder of Gwen Araujo.
Salcedo founded TransLatin@ Coalition, a service agency that provides legal services, housing services and workforce development to transgender people in Los Angeles.
"People think that just because we are more visible that our social conditions have changed. That's not true. The same issues and challenged that I encountered when I started my transition at 18 are the same issues and challenges that today's young trans face," said Salcedo.
She points at attempts to pass laws banning transgender individuals from using bathrooms that conform with their gender, or banning health resources for those who are transitioning.
"I just want to do away with blaming us for our deaths," explained Joaquin Remora, director of Our Trans Home SF, a program that runs housing specifically for transgender individuals.
Housing insecurity is a real problem for the transgender community, which faces a high rate of homelessness.
"When individuals come out at 12 or 14, sharing what they feel with the people who are in change of their lives, oftentimes that leads to getting kicked out of your home," said L'Oreale Earle, operations director at a homeless shelter in San Francisco.
Earle said housing units for transgender individuals gives them the support they are lacking.
She said teaching men to accept their own sexuality or to handle their emotions is one way of reducing violence against trans individuals.
Earle said sometimes men are sexually attracted to a trans woman but then feel shame and that makes them act out violently.
"It's all about the the individual and their acceptance. And we are being the target and the blame for that," said Earle.
For Salcedo, she wants to remember Gwen not for her murder, but for what she has come to represent to the transgender community.
"If Gwen was alive today, I would want to envision her to be a beautiful trans woman who was a politician, or a judge or a lawyer. Someone who is a beacon of hope for many of us," said Salcedo.
For the best viewing experience of 'Being Gwen: A Life and Death Story' download the ABC7 Bay Area Streaming TV App. It's free and available for Amazon Fire, Roku, Apple TV, and Google TV. Here's a guide on how to download it on your device.
You can also stream the 1-hour documentary on our website here.