Rita Hester, the Beginning of the Transgender Day of Remembrance

“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.”
– Rita Hester

When I write my articles, I try to keep them from becoming personal. I replace the I’s with we’s because I am not representing myself, but my community. This week, that didn’t feel possible. I will go back to that format next week, but this week, the article is deeply personal, and it would be a lie to pretend otherwise. Transgender Day of Remembrance is a one-day event, not a week or a month, like Pride. When researching this article, there is a very clear reason for that: because it is too much. It is too much for any person to bear to have a full week of scrolling through the names. I have also found, throughout this week, that everyone who witnesses the names is affected by something different. My fiance was affected by those without names, the ones with the least information, the ones that were hardest to remember because information about them was so scarce. My mother was affected by the words “thrown out of a moving car” repeated so often throughout the list. A friend was left sitting alone after the rest of the room at my local pride center had moved on because of one particular name: a name that was not on the list but deserved to be. Another friend was paralyzed by a name they recognized.  

When I was at the podium reading my part of the list, my voice cracked every time I read the age that followed. Whether they were young with so much taken away from them, or older with their stories cut short after they had survived so much, or my fiance's age; it didn’t matter. And this week I want to tell you about the first name I read during my research: Rita Hester.

Rita Hester was murdered a week before her 35th birthday, and her murder inspired the first Transgender Day of Remembrance. The first Day of Remembrance was then just a small candlelight vigil held in her honour and has since grown to include ceremonies worldwide. I attended one of the ceremonies this year and last. The first one I went to was small; it had candles and the reading of names. I didn’t know Rita Hester’s name then, and if I am honest, I don’t remember any of the names read out that day. I cried, as many do, then I went home and forgot about it within the month. This year, I read out names in the local ceremony and still remember some, but I remember more ages than I do names. When the person moderating the event introduced what was happening and what this event was about, he mentioned Rita Hester. I had read Rita’s name in passing when researching the vigils at home and was already considering writing an article about her at some point. I patted myself on the back for knowing the name; I was doing what I was supposed to. I even considered saying it myself when he left room for us, just to add names to the list. I didn’t, though, because when the first person who stood forward to add a name, also added a description. And I realized I had none to offer.

I realized I did not want to add this name for her, to remember her, but for me. So, I could show that I knew things. So I could further cement myself as the local history expert. Now, after a week of research, I still have no description to offer.

I could tell you how Rita died. She was stabbed twenty times by an unknown assailant and left where she fell. I could tell you what led up to her death being the one that started this; Chanelle Pickett’s murder a year before, which had led to the murderer only being punished with two years in prison. Such a heinous miscarriage of justice that the state of California, after Chanelle’s murder, became the first and only state in America to outright ban the ‘trans panic’ defense in order to prevent something like it happening again. I could tell you that Rita’s murder was only weeks after Matthew Shepard’s and lacked the national outcry. I could point out that this is obviously because Rita was poor, black, transgender, and a woman, and empathy for those groups is much more difficult to come by than empathy for white, cisgender, gay men. None of these things, though, are descriptions of Rita. None of them tell you about who she was.

I know that Rita often wore black and purple and that her friends loved her. I know that she was tall and strong and that no one understood how anyone managed to take her on. She had a sister who loved her and a mother who adored her. They used Rita’s proper name, though they never got her pronouns right. Rita used to go to her mother’s house, lay her head on her mother’s lap, and tell her mother she was beautiful. She was open about her identity to family and friends, but through all of the research I did, I can offer no information about her as a person. All I have is that she was murdered a week before her birthday.

I wonder if she was excited. If she had a celebration planned, or if one of her many friends had a surprise party for her. I wonder if she preferred smaller parties for her birthday or none at all. I don’t know if she wanted to spend it alone and drink tea, or if she even liked tea.

I wish more than anything I could have known, that I could give you a description of her, that there was some connection I could provide. But I have nothing to offer. That knowledge was stolen from us. Rita Hester’s opportunities and contributions were taken from her, and our community is poorer for it. Hers is not the only narrative lost. We lack so many stories, and every year the list grows longer, and we forget more. We read lists of names that we forget the next day. We remember the ages, the lack of information, the causes of death, the person that we knew, but we lose everything else. We lose full and rich lives and narratives, people who were working to change our world for the better, or people who were always able to make their best friend smile on hard days. No matter how much we try and keep their names and narratives in our minds, we lose so many. So many slip through the cracks. It is not our community that is to blame for that, though there is always more work for us to do. It is those who ended those lives, whether directly or indirectly. They took these people from us, and we can never get them back. 

I have no comfort to offer, only the knowledge that none of us are alone in our grief. Worldwide, people are joining us and realizing the damage this violence brings to us all, not only the queer community but to all communities. We do not exist in a vacuum, and neither does the rest of the world. These people were siblings, friends, children, activists, partners, writers, painters, mathematicians; they were not just ours to lose. The world is poorer for their absence. So, as the weeks go on,  keep it in your mind that it is not only remembrance of those we have lost, but trying to make the list shorter next year. 

I will end this with a quote from the woman who organized Transgender Day of Remembrance in honour of Rita Hester in 1999 a year after her death, Gwendolyn Ann Smith:
“The Transgender Day of Remembrance is not an event for fundraisers and beer busts. It’s not an event we “celebrate.” It is not a quick and easy one-day way for organizations to get credit for their support of the transgender community. It’s not something to trot out on the 20th of November and forget about. We should be working every day for all of us, living and dead.

Why do we remember? We remember for Rita Hester and Chenelle Pickett. We remember for Brandon Teena, for Gwen Araujo, for Marsha P. Johnson. We remember for Deoni Jones of Baltimore, Md., killed last February. We remember for Tyrell Jackson of Florida, killed on April 4, 2012. We remember for Coko Williams, killed in Detroit on April 3. We remember for Paige Clay, killed in Chicago on April 16. We remember for Brandy Martell of Oakland, killed on April 29, 2012. We remember for Tiffany Gooden, killed in Chicago on August 14. We remember for hundreds of others killed around the world in anti-transgender murders.

This day we mourn our losses, and we honor our precious dead — tomorrow and every other day, we shall continue to fight for the living.”

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

Borrego, D. (2012, November 26.) Who was Rita Hester? Retrieved November 28. 2016 from
https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/dee-borrego/who-was-rita-hester

Samantha, A. (2015, November 20.) The Daily Beast. The Trans Murder That Started A

Movement. Retrieved November 28 2016 from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/11/20/the-trans-murder-that-started-a-movement.html

Lerum, K. (2009, November 20.)  The Society Pages. Introducing (and remembering) Rita Hester:

Transgender Day of Remembrance. Retrieved November 28 2016 from https://thesocietypages.org/sexuality/2009/11/20/introducing-and-remembering-rita-hester/

Fox, J. (2012, November 16.)  Boston.Com. Transgender Day of Remembrance to honor Rita

Hester, other victims of violence. Retrieved November 28 2016 from http://archive.boston.com/yourtown/news/downtown/2012/11/transgender_day_of_remembrance.html

Nangeroni, N. (1997, May 17.) Gendertalk. The Chanelle Pickett Story.

Retrieved November 28 2016 from  http://gendertalk.com/articles/victims/chanelle-revisit.shtml

TransGriot. (2007, November 19.) Rita’s Story. Retrieved November 28 2016 from
http://transgriot.blogspot.ca/2007/11/ritas-story.html

Jacobs, E. (2008, November 15.) Edge Media Network. Remembering Rita Hester. Retrieved

November 28 2016 from http://boston.edgemedianetwork.com/index.php?ch=entertainment&sc=music&sc3=&id=83392

Smith, G. A. (2016, February 2.) Huffington Post. Transgender Day of Remembrance:

Why We Remember. Retrieved November 28 2016 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gwendolyn-ann-smith/transgender-day-of-remembrance-why-we-remember_b_2166234.html