Transgender Day of Remembrance’s Boston Origins

DID YOU KNOW that Transgender Day of Remembrance grew out of the Greater Boston’s LGBTQIA+ community’s shock at the 1998 murder of one of our own—34-year-old Rita Hester—combined with intense anger over Boston media’s callous reporting of her murder? 

Rita was a singer who routinely performed at Jacques Cabaret and hung out at Bunratty’s, a mainstay of Boston’s influential music scene. She moved back and forth with ease among Boston’s predominantly white gay community and its African American, Latinx, Asian, and other queer communities of color. She was routinely described by her family and friends as extroverted, ebullient, gracious, glamorous, sassy, and kind. In short, if you were out and queer in the 1990s, you may not have known Rita personally, but you had likely heard of her. 

So when friends learned of her horrific death by stabbing at her Allston home on November 28, 1998, there was widespread shock—even though another transgender woman, Monique Thomas, had been murdered in Dorchester just three months prior on September 11, 1998. 

As Grace Stowell, a longtime member of Boston’s queer community and executive director of BAGLY recalled for the Daily Beast in 2017: “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?’” 

Hester’s murder was widely covered by local media, which misgendered her and defined Hester by her hardships in life as opposed to her triumphs. In a story titled, “Stabbing victim a mystery to many,” the Boston Globe described Hester as “a man who sported long braids and preferred women’s clothes” and noted that “Hester was a mystery to those around him—so much so that, until his body was found on Saturday, many in the building on Parkvale Avenue believed Hester was a woman.” 

Coverage in the city’s gay and alternative press wasn’t any better, as described by longtime activist Nancy Nangeroni in her essay, “Rita Hester’s Murder and the Language of Respect.” Bay Windows misgendered Hester and put her name in quotes. In a follow up editorial written in response to criticism of the coverage, the paper’s editor apologized for the use of quotes around Rita’s name and said that there was “no disrespect intended” but went on to accuse transgender activists of “paranoia.” 

When the Boston Phoenix, one of the country’s most venerable alternative news weeklies, finally wrote about Hester, it wasn’t to cover her death. Instead, in a piece titled “Displaced Anger: Is Rita Hester’s murder being eclipsed by the transgender community’s grammatical agenda?,” the paper weighed in on the transgender community’s angry response to how Rita’s death was being covered. 

Just days after Hester’s murder, a community meeting was held to vent anger about the media’s handling of Hester’s death. Attended by 60 people, including Hester’s mother, brother, and sister, and covered by the media itself, the meeting led to the organization of a community memorial and vigil to mark Hester’s life. It prompted additional coverage of Hester that contributed to public conversation about transgender people and the need to respect their gender identities. 

But this wasn’t the first time that Boston’s queer and transgender community had come together to organize in response to the murder of one of their own. In 1995, Chanelle Pickett was strangled to death by William Palmer. The community held a vigil at Arlington Street Church and among those who spoke out the need for justice was Rita Hester. 

“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,” Hester told the LGBTQ paper In Newsweekly. 

Two years later, during his 1997 trial, Palmer’s attorneys claimed that his attack on Pickett was the result of his shock at learning that she was transgender. The jury refused to convict Palmer of murder or manslaughter, opting instead to find him guilty of just assault and battery. While the community was both shocked and angered by the verdict, it was not enough to prompt an on-going response to anti-transgender violence. 

What finally did it may have been the juxtaposition of community response to Hester’s death with that of the broader LGBTQIA+ community’s response to the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming college student who was tortured to death by two men motivated by anti-gay hatred. Shepard’s murder took place just three weeks before Hester’s and garnered international media attention. It also prompted renewed activism to enact hate crimes legislation. 

Ten years after his murder, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability to federal hate crimes law. (James Byrd, Jr. was an African American who was murdered by three white supremacists in Texas in 1998. The gruesome crime led to the passage of hate crimes legislation in Texas that became a model for the federal law.) 

As Gunner Scott, an activist who helped organize local protests against media coverage of Hester’s death and later became the chair of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition told Bay Windows on the 10-year anniversary of Hester’s death, the contrast between community and media response to both events was galling. “[Shepard’s murder] was such a galvanizing event, and it changed how folks started to see violence against gay people … particularly in the media, that level of empathy changed. And [it angered people] to have that stark contrast of the lack of empathy towards Rita and who she was.” 

As a result, Hester’s story became a topic of conversation on AOL’s Transgender Community Forum, which was managed by Gwendolyn Smith, a transgender activist, writer, and graphic designer. Those online discussions gave rise to the creation of a website Remembering Our Dead as well as a community vigil in Hester’s honor in San Francisco in 1999, where Smith lives. 

That website and the vigil in San Francisco became the model for the Transgender Day of Remembrance, which is now held annually on November 20. 

We are co-sponsoring co-hosting a Transgender Day of Remembrance event with Lexington Pride from 7-8:30pm via Zoom on Friday, November 20, 2020. Speakers will talk about how to turn away from anti-trans violence and toward a culture of inclusivity. The event will also include a reading of names of those no longer with us. RSVP here to get the Zoom link.