November 20th marks Transgender Day of Remembrance, inspired by the murder of a black trans woman named Rita Hester. The day remembers trans victims of violence and raises awareness of anti-trans homicide. The story begins with Rita Hester’s fleeting life and tragic death.
Rita Hester was born in Hartford, Connecticut. Diana Hester, Rita’s sister, recalled the transphobia in Hartford to NBC. "In Hartford, people got assaulted and got hurt and all the other stuff, but Rita had friends initially in Boston and started going to Boston," she said.
Unlike Hartford, the trans community in Boston gave sanctuary to Rita. In time, she infiltrated Boston’s rock scene and travelled periodically to Greece. Like many young, beautiful women, her hunger for thrills led her to frequent bars.
“Rita was renowned,” Reverend Irene Monroe told the Daily Beast.
“Everybody knew her, especially in the trans community and in the African-American LGBTQ communities.” Her friends noted her palpable allure. Her magnetic personality coupled with her clear beauty attracted men.
Rita settled in Alston, Massachusetts, where she met longtime friend Brenda Wynne. On the morning of November 28th, 1998, Wynne played racquetball with Rita. She left Wynne’s house at noon. At 4 p.m., she called another friend who chose to remain anonymous; during the phone call, Rita mentioned she was headed to the Silhouette Lounge, a dive bar near her apartment. Rita and Wynne planned to watch ice skating at Wynne’s apartment later that night. Rita never came.
At 6:12 pm, officers responded to a call about a possible fight. When they arrived, Rita was still alive. She had been stabbed 20 times. After waiting an hour for the ambulance, first responders rushed Rita to Beth Israel Hospital. She died of cardiac arrest shortly afterward, 2 days before her 35th birthday.
Newspapers reporting the murder repeatedly misgendered Rita. The despondency among trans people morphed into anger. Around 50 aggrieved transgender protesters marched outside the Boston Herald headquarters and Bay Window’s offices.
The following year, Rita’s murder inspired Gwendolyn Ann Smith, a fellow trans woman and activist, to create Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR), a day that remembers trans lives lost to violence.
According to the Williams Institute, violent crime impacts trans people at four times the rate of the cisgender population. The Human Rights Campaign tracked at least 44 trans murders in 2021, a record high since HRC began collecting the data in 2013. In the minds of trans activists, Rita’s murder is forever married to this perpetual slaughter.
Her family continues to mourn their daughter. Quivering with grief, Kathleen Hester spoke about her daughter’s death during a candlelight vigil in 2015: “I would have gladly died for you, Rita. I would have taken the stabs and told you to run. I loved you.” For now, the murder remains unsolved.
To honor Rita and many others, you can attend PFLAG virtual events or an in-person vigil. Just find the chapter nearest you, and raise awareness of anti-trans violence.