This and Every TDOR: Remember Rita Hester
“I love my son Rita.” I heard those words spoken in labored, cracked vocal tones years ago at the Arlington Street Church in Boston, a bastion of civil rights.
I remember sitting up more attentively in the pew and watching this amazingly brave mother. The sentence came boldly, intentionally, and during the preamble to the “speak out” portion of a Transgender Day of Remembrance event.
Kathleen Hester, Rita’s mom, spoke to hundreds and reached thousands with that unfiltered expression of deep love and heavy remorse. The pronouns Kathleen used when talking about Rita may not be what we hope or expect, but her love for Rita was undeniable. And whatever complications led to that specific expression of love, Kathleen and Rita ran out of time to make any change.
My friend Rita Hester was violently murdered in her own home at the age of 34 on November 28, 1998, just two days before her birthday. This was only weeks after the world learned about the lynching death of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming. For the first time, the lived experiences of LGBTQ+ people captured media attention, but only for the worst reasons imaginable.
Rita was fun and seized life’s joy. She traveled to Greece and Germany to perform and lip sync perfectly. She was loved. “Everybody loves Rita,” her mother Kathleen said, even as we held each other in tears, knowing how and where she met her violent and tragic end. Until Rita’s death, the violent murders of transgender people were not widely recognized nor mourned collectively. We held two vigils for Rita that year in Massachusetts, one in Boston and one that passed by her home in Allston.
“Everybody loves Rita,” her mother Kathleen said, even as we held each other in tears, knowing how and where she met her violent and tragic end.
The following year, in 1999, my friend Gwen Smith, a fellow national transgender leader who lives in San Francisco, conceived and delivered what we know of today as International Transgender Day of Remembrance. For years, Gwen did the emotionally difficult work of tracing the murders of transgender people, including researching the deaths of people dating to 1970. She passed the baton to my transgender brother, Ethan St. Pierre, and others have since taken on this unbearable load. Gwen said then and still says today that she was inspired to launch National TDOR because of Rita.
On November 20th, hundreds of communities in the US and around the world will continue this tribute and honor and remember the more than 375 known transgender people — 61 of whom lived in the US — who were murdered in year since our last TDOR. They include my Boston friend Jahaira DeAlto Balenciaga, friend of our PFLAG Springfield, Mo. chapter Dominique Lucious, and Jenny De Leon, a much-beloved member of PFLAG Tampa.
As a transsexual Latino man with some strong Texas roots, I find myself pushing through the sad depths of reading about the brutal murders of transgender people, including my own friends, especially Black and Latina transgender women. I find that over the years the emotional toll has changed. Twenty-three years ago, I learned about the death of my transgender sibling Rita by phone tree, a personal connection that allowed each of us to hear and share our sorrow. Contrast that with the impersonal and silent horror so many of us experience today when we learn about the murder of a dear friend by opening an email, seeing their name and photo scroll by on Twitter, or reading a brutal account of their murder on a website.
TDOR might have shifted from Nov. 28th to Nov. 20th, but its purpose remains: to honor our dead and to commit to celebrate the living as we work together to make this world safer for our own and those who love us.
I hope that you will always remember Rita Hester and honor her life with fierce action for our trans and nonbinary community members. #ForeverInPower
by Diego Miguel Sanchez, APR (he/el) | Director of Advocacy, Policy & Partnerships