Rita Hester was murdered two days before her 35th birthday.
On the evening of Nov. 28, 1998, police found the African-American transgender woman in her apartment, stabbed in the chest a staggering 20 times. She was somehow still alive but died from cardiac arrest as soon as she arrived at the hospital.
For the transgender community in Boston, it was as if the sun had suddenly gone out.
“Rita was renowned and infamous,” Reverend Irene Monroe, a speaker at the 1998 vigil for Hester, told The Daily Beast. “Everybody knew her, especially in the trans community and in the African-American LGBTQ communities.”
Monroe recalls that Hester’s mother Kathleen took the microphone at the vigil and said in a faltering voice, “I would have gladly died for you, Rita. I would have taken the stabs and told you to run. I loved you.”
The procession began at the Model Café in Allston and ended outside of Hester’s apartment building, where Kathleen and her children kneeled together and recited the Lord’s Prayer. There were tears, Monroe says, but also anger, and fear that a recent rash of transgender killings in the area would claim more lives.
The fear was justified.
Seventeen years later, violence against transgender people hasn’t abated. Now, at least, it can no longer be ignored. On Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), which is observed every Nov. 20, advocates around the world hold vigils to honor Hester, and to memorialize those who have been killed both before and since her murder.
In 2015, the murders of 21 transgender people, primarily young transgender women of color, have been reported in the United States so far—an all-time high for the annual figure. Since last fall, there have been 271 reported murders of transgender people worldwide. In life, they were students, performers, activists, daughters, friends. In death, their bodies bear the marks of violence—bullets, stab wounds, blunt trauma. Their stories are often misreported by the media. Their killers are rarely found, and almost never brought to justice.
Hester’s case is no exception. Reopened by Boston Police in 2006, it remains unsolved. There were no signs of forced entry, nothing was stolen from her apartment, and there are no suspects, only rumors. It is possible that her assailant is still alive and it is only cold comfort to consider that, as time goes on, it has become harder and harder for him to avoid the name and face of the woman he killed.
In 1998, Boston reporters in need of a trans perspective always called Nancy Nangeroni, one of the most visible transgender advocates in what was then a much smaller scene.
That’s how Nangeroni, now a member of the steering committee for the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC), first learned of the murder, and how she came to co-organize the 1998 vigil with others in the community. By the time she received that call from the Boston Herald, Nangeroni was already seasoned at responding to tragedy within the city’s trans community.
One case, in particular, had set the stage for news of Hester’s violent death.
In 1995, Chanelle Pickett, a 23-year-old black transgender woman living in Boston, was found dead, beaten and strangled, in the apartment of one William Palmer, who used a “trans panic” defense during his 1997 trial.
Palmer’s attorney argued that the violence preceding Pickett’s death was, in part, an emotional reaction to a purportedly unexpected bedroom revelation that she was trans—this despite the fact that six other transgender women claimed to have had sexual encounters with Palmer, as the Boston Phoenix reported. Palmer successfully dodged a murder or even a manslaughter sentence, receiving a mere two years in prison for assault and battery instead.
The verdict shocked the Boston trans community and the police captain who led the investigation. Twenty years after Pickett’s murder, California is still the only state to have categorically banned the use of the “trans panic” defense.
“[The jurors] let their homophobia, their transphobia, get the better of them,” Nangeroni told the Phoenix of the Palmer verdict. “I feel they did not do their job and, frankly, I hope this keeps them awake at night.”
In what Nangeroni has since called a “chillingly ironic” response to the verdict, Hester herself once provided a comment on the trial to a local LGBT newspaper: “I’m afraid of what will happen if [Palmer] gets off lightly. It’ll just give people a message that it’s OK to do this. This is a message we cannot afford to send.”
That message was sent. Hester died three years later. Nangeroni lived to fight on, her quotes appearing in every newspaper report on every transgender death in Boston: Deborah Forte in 1995, Monique Thomas in 1998. For her, there was no way of knowing that the advocacy around Hester’s death would lay the groundwork for what is now an international day of action.
For her, it was another year, another murder.
“We knew that we were doing important work, and we knew that we were going to keep doing it until we succeeded,” she told The Daily Beast. “We didn’t know that this particular moment would live on as it has, and there are many other stories that need to be told that happened back then.”
But still, there were small signs that something significant was happening. At a planning meeting for the vigil held at the Arlington Street Church, an unexpectedly large number of people—“a good 20 to 30,” Nangeroni recalls—showed up, eager to help.
Rita Hester’s death had struck a nerve.
If listening to people describe Rita Hester is even a fraction as pleasurable as it was to be around her, then she must have been a phenomenon.
Rev. Monroe describes her as “ebullient, glamorous, and a ‘sister-diva-friend’ with attitude, sassiness, and style.”
“I wasn’t a close friend of Rita’s but knew her like one knows folks in the community where you laugh and lollygag and play catch-up with them,” she told The Daily Beast.
Hester was a rock and roll musician and a performer who danced at venues like Jacque’s Cabaret. At the time of her death, she had been out as a woman for several years. She was well established in the community, a beloved and ubiquitous Boston presence. Everyone knew Rita and vice versa.
Charito Suarez, an activist working with Cambridge Cares About AIDS at the time of the 1998 vigil, told EDGE Boston in 2008, “She was a very smart, bright young lady, and she was a shining star. Whenever she arrived at Jacque’s, her presence would be noticed by anyone. She was so elegant, and as beautiful as she was, she would not try to make anyone else look less.”
“She was a very larger-than-life-type of person,” William York, a fellow performer at Jacque’s, told The Daily Beast.
York remembers Hester by her stage name of Rita “Real” (pronounced “ray-all”). She was open, accepting, and free-spirited, he recalls. She wore her hair in long braids and favored Whitney Houston songs but “anything that had her moving on stage, she liked to do.” It’s been nearly two decades since her last dance but Jacque’s veterans still imagine how Hester would act if she were alive today.
“Some of us who remember her talk about her,” York said. “We remember what she would have been like. Whenever she was at a drag show, she would always be in the back, dancing to the song if she liked it.”
“We were all very shocked by what happened,” York added. “To me, it’s unforgivable.”
Those who didn’t know Rita came to know her through the advocacy around her murder. Grace Stowell, now the executive director of the Boston Alliance of GLBT Youth (BAGLY), learned of Rita after her death but quickly grew to understand the magnitude of the loss by organizing for the vigil.
“There was a sense of ‘How could this happen to this wonderful person who wasn’t harming anyone [and] who was such a fixture in the community?’” she told The Daily Beast.
Of all the circumstances that eventually led to the creation of TDOR, Hester herself—and the love that people had for her—was the driving factor. All remember her as a friendly wanderer who seamlessly traversed straight and LGBT spaces. It was her ability to travel across and between the city’s various scenes that made her murder such a palpable loss, and that made the response to it so powerful.
In death as in life, Rita refused to stick to her niche.
Kathleen Hester is now in her late 70s. Her voice has only grown weaker with age, but she perks up at the mention of Rita’s name.
“When [Rita] passed away, that was the worst thing that could ever happen to me,” Kathleen told The Daily Beast in a phone interview on the eve of TDOR 2015. “We had such a beautiful and a very close relationship.”
The family still uses male terms and pronouns to refer to Rita, but they gave The Daily Beast permission to change pronouns for consistency and style. Kathleen remembers her transgender daughter as “gentle,” “kind,” and “loving,” someone who “loved her family” and would “do anything for anybody.”
“When she used to come from Boston, she used to give me so much attention,” Kathleen recalled. “If I was sitting in a chair, she would sit on the floor and put her head in my lap…We had such a beautiful relationship.”
As Kathleen shares some of her favorite memories of Rita—like the way she would say, “Ma, you’re beautiful,” to cheer her up when she was feeling “down and out”—Kathleen chokes up.
“It’s hard for me to think about. It’s hard.”
Diana Hester, Rita’s sister, described her as “just a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful person.” At this point, both she and her mother seem resigned to the likelihood that Rita’s killer will never be found, but they are still angry about the way the case was treated.
“Why I think they didn’t handle it?” Kathleen said of the police’s initial treatment of the case. “For two reasons: One, she was gay or whatever they want to call it, and second, she was black and poor, and that’s why they didn’t care. They did not care.”
Diana said that the last time she heard from the Boston Police Department—who did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment—she was told, “It’s a cold case at this point in time.”
“There has been no closure for us,” she said.
Rita Hester, Chanelle Pickett, Deborah Forte, Monique Thomas—these are not household names. Matthew Shepard, on the other hand, likely sounds familiar.
Shepard, a white gay 21-year-old college student who was beaten and left for dead by two young men in the Wyoming wilderness, has since become synonymous with hate crime legislation in the United States. The prosecutor for one of Shepard’s murderers attempted to use a gay panic defense, but the judge did not allow it. Both of his killers are now serving life sentences.
For those attuned to transgender issues, the disparity between the media’s sympathetic handling of the Shepard case and the horrendous reporting on Hester was hard not to notice. The contrast was only heightened by proximity. Shepard was killed in October 1998, the month before Hester was stabbed to death.
Long before the press honored Transgender Day of Remembrance, then, it played an unwitting role in its creation.
“What was different around Rita Hester was the reporting was egregious,” Nangeroni recalled.
News outlets like the Globe and the Herald referred to Rita as “a transvestite,” as “a man who sported long braids and preferred women’s clothes,” and as someone who was living an “apparent double life.” Both papers used male pronouns, even though everyone in the community had known Hester as a woman for years. When transgender advocates protested this misreporting, a Phoenix reporter chided them for putting the papers “under the political-correctness microscope.”
“Is Rita Hester’s murder being eclipsed by the transgender community’s grammatical agenda?” her headline asked, as if insisting on respect for the dead were a distraction from fighting the prejudice that may have led to the murder.
This same reporter, of course, made sure to describe Hester’s breasts and genitals—details that served only to exoticize her case.
Adding insult to injury, even the New England gay and lesbian newspaper Bay Windows reportedly referred to Rita as “he” and placed her name in quotes.
After Hester, however, LGBT media began to take stock of the differences between the reporting on Shepard’s case and the treatment given to transphobic violence.
In a special 1999 report in The Advocate following the murder of Tracy Thompson—a Georgia transgender woman who was hit repeatedly in the head with a baseball bat, and who, like Hester, died as soon as she arrived at the hospital—Lisa Meyer wrote, “Major newspapers and networks across the nation are still reporting what happened to Matthew Shepard. Thompson did not even make the Atlanta papers.”
Slowly, things changed. In the early 2000s, the Associated Press developed new style guidelines for reporting on transgender people. Houston transgender activist Monica Roberts attributes this change to Hester’s case, which she calls “the catalyst” for the media’s piecemeal evolution on trans issues.
Even today, with transgender visibility at its peak, many media outlets continue to make the same mistakes that Globe and Herald reporters made almost two decades ago with Hester. This year alone, local TV stations, newspapers, and online media outlets have described murdered transgender woman as “men dressed as women,” placed their chosen names between quotation marks, and misgendered them with alarming frequency.
Suddenly, 1998 feels like yesterday.
As Boston mourned Rita Hester, someone in San Francisco took notice, too. Gwendolyn Ann Smith, then a computer programmer for America Online, learned of Hester’s murder, and of the controversy surrounding the media coverage.
“The beginning is Rita Hester,” Smith told San Diego LGBT Weekly in 2013. “I was chatting on the Transgender Community Forum [on AOL]. I’d come to the chat and the news of Rita Hester’s passing had crossed the wire, and I came in to just talk about it.”
As a result of those conversations, Smith created the Remembering Our Dead project, an online chronicle of the violence against transgender people. If the media was going to ignore or misrepresent these cases, then she would have to do it herself. Then, she decided, there should be an annual day of observance timed to Hester’s murder.
The next November, as LGBT Weekly notes, Smith created a TDOR event in San Francisco and Penny Ashe Matz coordinated one in Boston. The event spread from there, as the online distribution of information enabled activists around the world to host their own events. This year, it is being observed in cities on nearly every continent, from Cape Town to Honolulu to Helsinki.
The worldwide spread of TDOR is at once something to celebrate and something to mourn, a sign that more people than ever care about anti-transgender violence but a testament, as well, to its stubborn persistence.
“We don’t know if it’s increasing or if more of it is just being reported but what seems true is that it is not diminishing,” Nangeroni told The Daily Beast, reflecting on her decades of transgender activism.
For advocates like her, there are fears that visibility could be fueling the violence, and that, for every Caitlyn Jenner, there are thousands of transgender people struggling to survive.
“I worry that our increased visibility brings more negative attention to us,” she said. “We certainly are seeing a more concerted campaign by the religious right and radical right against transgender people, which didn’t exist 10 years ago because, 10 years ago, they didn’t really pay much attention to us like they do now.”
Even so, Nangeroni believes that the only way out is forward—at least, for those who can afford to be open about being transgender.
“I salute every transgender person who has the courage to leave their front door. But sometimes courage is also recognition that you have no choice but to do what you have to do.”