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Rita Hester   d.28/11/1998

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the International Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), 20th November is a day set aside in the calendar to remember those who have died as a result of transphobia, and to highlight the continued violence which transgender people are forced to endure.

TDOR began in 1999 as an act in remembrance of transwoman Rita Hester. Rita lived in Allston, Massachussets and was a popular figure in local bars, where she often performed on stage. On 28 November 1998 she was murdered in her own home, dying of multiple stab wounds. News coverage of the story at the time was unsympathetic. According to the Boston Globe account;

“Before he was stabbed to death in his Allston apartment, William Hester was a night-club singer and party-thrower, a man who sported long braids and preferred women’s clothes, according to neighbors.

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.”   

The post-mortem character assassination of Rita Hester enraged local transactivists; prompted by an overwhelming demand from community members for a response to her murder and the insensitive press coverage, the Boston based Transgender Education Network called an open meeting. Local activists, trans people, family and friends of Rita congregated on 1 December. The meeting inspired many others to write to Bay Windows, a Boston based LGBT newspaper, The Boston Herald and The Boston Globe to protest about the negative coverage and the press was roundly admonished for “re-assassinating Rita Hester in their stories”. In the face of such pressure, the media was forced to reappraise the way it had approached the story; subsequent reports about Rita’s death were noticeably more respectful of transgender sensitivities. A candlelit vigil took place in Boston on 4 December.

The following year transactivist Gwendolyn Smith started both TDOR and the Remembering Our Dead project which lists those who have lost their lives as a result of prejudice and hatred of transgender people. As she explains on the Remembering Our Dead website;

“The idea for this memorial came while posting to a message board in the Transgender Community Forum on AOL, discussing the murder of Rita Hester and the wrongful death/survivor’s action for Tyra Hunter. So many had forgotten some of the individuals we had lost in only the recent past and I felt that, by forgetting those individuals, we would be doomed to see their deaths repeated. Indeed the passing of Rita Hester is similar enough to the death of Chanelle Pickett to leave one wondering.”  

TDOR has grown since the first candlelit vigil in San Francisco in 1999. Last year TDOR was marked by events across the globe, each informed by the guiding principles of TDOR;

• “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” (Santayana)

• All who die due to anti-transgender violence are to be remembered.

• It is up to us to remember these people, since their killers, law enforcement, and the media often seek to erase their existence.

• Transgender lives are affirmed as valuable.

• We can make a difference by being visible, speaking out, educating and organizing around anti-transgender violence, and that can effect change and stop the flood of violence against Transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals.

TDOR 2012 will be all the more poignant for me. Earlier this year, after experiencing a sustained campaign of antisocial behaviour, I was put on the council’s housing list. Those on the list have the opportunity to participate every fortnight in an online bidding process for available properties; those with the highest priority needs and who have been on the list longest are successful. In August I placed a bid on a one-bedroom flat in Maughan Street in Earl Shilton, I was surprised to get a telephone call from the council asking if I could come into the office to talk about my bid.

The council told me that I was the highest placed bidder at the time and therefore would be awarded the property at the end of the bidding cycle, but they had genuine concerns for my safety if I had to live there. They wanted me to rethink my bid. I demurred, I hadn’t been safe at my previous address, Perhaps they could explain the nature of their concerns so I could at least make an informed decision. The answer challenged me; while I was aware that Earl Shilton was not renowned for its tolerance and acceptance of diversity, I had not appreciated that some years ago a trans person had been killed in the property I had chosen. If that was the case, why hadn’t I heard of this before? I hadn’t seen any reference to this on the ‘Remembering Our Dead’ website. In the end I decided to withdraw my bid, much to the relief of the housing department and the police. But I felt compelled to investigate further; if what I had been told was true, here was a brother or sister we needed to be remembering.

After a lot of research, I have been able to corroborate only part of the story. In January 2006 there was a violent death in Maughan Street; a man and his teenage son were later convicted of murder. This much is discovered simply by googling ‘Maughan Street’, ‘Earl Shilton’ and ‘murder’. However although the incident was widely reported at the time and was the subject of an IPCC report in 2010, nothing I read indicated that the victim was a trans person; they were instead described as having serious mental health issues.

I do not want to disbelieve the story I was told even though there is not enough evidence to support it. On the one hand, I find myself asking why the police and the council would tell me that the victim was a trans person? Cynical me says that here was an attempt to play on my fears to deter me from applying for a property in a location in which I might well have found myself in an exposed and vulnerable position, making even greater demands on the resources of the police and council. If  so, it worked. On the other hand, I question why the press would refrain from mentioning that the victim was transgender and deny themselves the opportunity of the usual sensational and lurid headlines. Could they have been deferring to the sensitivities of a grieving family still in denial of the gender identity of a loved one. If so, it would not be the first time that the press has erased trans history! But I do not have a definitive answer and that leaves me feeling dissatisfied.

You will no doubt note that in retelling this story, I have used gender neutral pronouns. I am not comfortable in identifying the victim by the name given in the press. If what I have been told is true, it is not the name they preferred, and I have no wish to add to the indignity they suffered by misgendering them. However I suspect this story will continue to haunt me until I find someone who knew the victim well and can put my mind to rest. In the meantime  I take from this the knowledge that in 2006, a desperately vulnerable person with complex mental health issues, which may or may not have been compounded by gender dysphoria, died in an act of horrifying violence. It leaves me feeling a strange kind of kinship with them and I will remember them in this way on Transgender Day of Remembrance. You may wish to do the same.