Saturday, December 2, 2023

A screen capture from video of a November 1998 vigil for murder victim Rita Hester. (Image: purposeless via YouTube)

In the pantheon of slain Americans who have furthered the civil rights of a marginalized group is Rita Hester, an African American transgender woman. There had been several murders of transgender people before Rita’s – Chanelle Pickett in Watertown in 1995 and Monique Thomas in Dorchester in September 1998. Rita lived large and loved big, but she could have never imagined her life as her death would mean so much to so many. 

On Nov. 28, 1998, Rita was found dead in her first-floor apartment, stabbed 20 times in her chest just two days before her 35th birthday. Hester’s murder kicked off the “Remembering Our Dead” Web project that became the catalyst for Nov. 20’s annual International Transgender Day of Remembrance. Her murder occurred six weeks after Matthew Shepard’s in Laramie, Wyoming, which became an internationally known homophobic hate crime that inspired President Barack Obama to sign into law in 2009 The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act. 

Rita’s murder is a cold case, still unsolved like most transgender murders. Her murder occurred in an era when the “trans panic defense” – a defendant melodramatically pleading temporary insanity for killing – was a valid legal strategy. Friends of Rita told their suspicion about the murder: “A man (or men) who couldn’t face his attraction to a trans woman came home with Hester and killed her in a fit of shame.”

I’ll never forget Rita’s vigil, held at Allston’s Model Cafe, where Rita was known. The words of Rita’s mother, Kathleen Hester, haunt me to this day. She came to the microphone during the speak-out portion and brought most of us to tears, myself included. “I would have gladly died for you, Rita. I would have taken the stabs and told you to run. I loved you.” After her remarks, Rita’s mother collapsed in a grief-induced faint. When the speak-out ended, the crowd moved outside with lit candles and gathered behind Rita¹s family, walking to 21 Park Vale Ave. where Rita lived and died. There Rita’s mother again brought me to tears as she and her surviving children kneeled in front of the doorway of Rita’s apartment building and recited the Lord’s Prayer. Many of us joined.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, this year, at least 32 transgender Black and Latinx sisters have been killed.

At this year’s Association of Black Harvard Women Annual Vigil for Black Trans Lives, photos and the reading of names of departed Black trans individuals were part of the liturgy in Holden Chapel on Harvard’s campus. Chastity Boswick, executive director of the Transgender Emergency Fund of Massachusetts, was the keynote speaker. Boswick told the audience “she hopes next year she’ll not be among the photos and names.” It’s an ongoing concern Boswick expresses publicly every chance she can: What happened to Hester could happen to anyone like her – “a daily battle,” WBUR said in 2020. 

I heard that concern during the Trans Catholic Voices breakout season at the DignityUSA conference in Boston in 2017. I listened to the vulnerability of an African American trans woman who pointed out that Pope Francis’ statements about trans people deny them basic human dignity and perpetuate violence against them. In her closing remarks, the African American trans-sister asked for help from advocates and allies in the room, again bringing me to tears. She said, “Trans lives are real lives. Trans deaths are real deaths. God works through other people. Maybe you can be those other people.”

As we celebrate Trans Day of Remembrance, we are those other people honoring Rita Hester and others.

The Rev. Irene Monroe is a speaker, theologian and syndicated columnist. She does a segment called “All Revved Up!” on WGBH (89.7 FM) on Boston Public Radio and a segment called “What’s Up?” Fridays on New England Channel News.