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Remembering Rita Hester

by Ethan Jacobs
Saturday Nov 15, 2008
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On Nov. 20 transgender activists and their allies will gather in Allston to remember Rita Hester, a woman whose murder 10 years ago shook the local trans community to its core and transformed the way people across the country respond to anti-transgender violence.

Hester, a popular, outgoing transwoman with ties to Boston’s transgender and rock-n-roll communities, was brutally stabbed at least 20 times in the chest in her apartment by an unknown assailant; police found her body Nov. 28, 1998. In the aftermath of her murder Hester’s sister Diana Hester told Bay Windows she had last been seen at Allston’s Silhouette Lounge and that people had told them that two men, one of whom Hester knew, followed her home from the bar. The motive for the attack remains a mystery. Hester’s brother told Bay Windows following her death that the killer did not take the gold jewelry Hester had been wearing, and there were no signs in the apartment of forced entry. The Boston Globe reported that Hester had worked as a prostitute under the alias "Naomi," but there has been no evidence made public that her attacker was a client. In 2006 Boston Police reopened Hester’s case at the request of her mother and asked members of the community to come forward with any new information about her murder, but the case remains unsolved.

Some in the trans community believe Hester’s murder was a hate crime, evidenced by the brutality of the assault and the fact that the assailant did not appear to have stolen anything from her apartment. Her death prompted community members to organize a candlelight vigil and march in Allston that December, and this year local members of the transgender community and their allies will retrace the path of that march for the Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual event marked across the country to commemorate transgender murder victims. It is particularly fitting that this year’s Day of Remembrance commemorates Hester’s death; activists in San Francisco created the Day of Remembrance event in 1999 in Hester’s memory.

Nancy Nangeroni, a longtime community activist and the host of the cable access show GenderVision, was one of the original organizers of the first Allston vigil, and is one of the organizers for this year’s Boston Transgender Day of Remembrance. Hester’s murder, however, was not the first to bring the transgender community together, said Nangeroni, noting that in 1995 the murder of Boston transwoman Chanelle Pickett prompted community members to hold a vigil at Arlington Street Church in Boston. But Nangeroni said Hester’s death was a turning point in Boston’s transgender community, drawing a crowd of more than 200 people to the vigil, including many from outside the trans community, and stoking a new activist spirit within the trans community.

"There had never been an event that garnered so much attention in the city," said Nangeroni.

The night of the Transgender Day of Remembrance people will gather at St. Luke’s and St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Allston for a community speak out, which will give participants the chance to discuss the impact of anti-transgender violence in their own lives or in the lives of their friends and loved ones. Afterward, attendees will march by candlelight down Brighton Avenue to the site of Hester’s apartment on Park Vale Avenue. From there, attendees will wind their way back to St. Luke’s to warm up with hot beverages and snacks.

Charito Suarez, a program assistant at Cambridge Cares About AIDS (CCAA), attended the first Allston vigil in 1998 and captured much of the event on video; in recent years she has served as the emcee for Day of Remembrance events in Boston, although she is uncertain whether she will do so this year. Suarez said she knew Hester for about eight years before her murder, primarily through the trans scene at Jacques and other bars around Boston. Though they were not close friends, they socialized with each other at the bars and Suarez recalled Hester as a magnetic presence who caught everyone’s attention.

"She was a very smart, bright young lady, and she was a shining star," said Suarez. "Whenever she arrived at Jacques her presence would be noticed by anyone. She was so elegant ... and as beautiful as she was, she would not try to make anyone else look less."

Suarez said once word of Hester’s death began to spread a friend of hers called her on the phone and broke the news.

"And I just started crying, and crying, and crying," said Suarez.

At that first vigil in Allston, Suarez recalled, the mood was "so peaceful, but it was so strong and magnificent." For Suarez, it felt like one of the first times the local transgender community came together to demand its full civil rights. When organizers were searching for an emcee for the Boston Day of Remembrance several years later, she signed on without hesitation.

"She was a very smart, bright young lady, and she was a shining star," said Suarez.

"It was personal. I’m not talking just about another transgender person. I’m talking about a person I actually knew. I knew her character and I knew her heart. I’m doing it for her," said Suarez. "We must speak for her."

Suarez wasn’t the only member of the local trans community spurred to action by Hester’s death. Gunner Scott, now executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC), said at the time of Hester’s death he was a relative newcomer to the now-defunct activist group Lesbian Avengers and had not yet begun to identify publicly as transgender, but the media coverage of her murder propelled him into trans activism. Scott said a friend introduced him to Hester about two weeks before her death. When he saw the media coverage of her murder, particularly in the Boston Herald and Bay Windows, he was outraged. Both papers referred to Hester using male pronouns. The Herald repeatedly referred to Hester in its coverage as a transvestite, while former Bay Windows editor Jeff Epperly used an editorial to accuse critics of Bay Windows’ coverage of acting as "thought police."

Scott turned his anger into action, working with Lesbian Avengers and another now-defunct group, Queer Revolt, to stage protests of the Herald and Bay Windows offices on Dec. 3, 1998. A group of about 50 protestors gathered first in front of the Herald’s offices; they then marched to Bay Windows headquarters, holding signs with messages such as, "Your silence will not protect you," and "Transgendered people shouldn’t have to die to be in Bay Windows."

He said the fact that Hester’s murder came just one month after the murder of Matthew Shepard made the negative media coverage particularly infuriating.

"It was more about the outrage ... because of the fact that Matthew Shepard had happened shortly before this and the way that was such a galvanizing event, and it changed how folks started to see violence against gay people ... particularly in the media, that level of empathy changed. And [it angered people] to have that stark contrast of the lack of empathy towards Rita and who she was," said Scott.

Hester’s murder inspired San Francisco activists to launch the first Transgender Day of Remembrance in 1999, and since then the number of cities holding Day of Remembrance events has increased annually. The events feature a reading of the names of transgender people who have been murdered across the globe over the past year. Yet while the Day of Remembrance has ensured that transgender murder victims are not forgotten, Nangeroni said in many ways things have not changed for transgender people since Hester’s murder. She said in all of her years organizing the Day of Remembrance she does not know of one case where police solved the murder of a transgender person. She said in cases where police have made an arrest, it is always because the murderer either turned himself in or confessed to a third party who went to the police. Like Hester’s murder she said most murders of transgender people remain unsolved.

"If [Hester] had been the son or daughter of a wealthy family of Boston it would have been solved. It’s not just a transgender issue; it’s a class issue as well. Transgender people are presumed to be of the lowest class of society, and they are relegated to that," said Nangeroni. "[Boston Police] publicized a hotline, but I seriously doubt that any shoe leather was worn out pursuing any clues."’

Massachusetts hate crime laws do not cover people targeted for their gender identity or expression. The legislature considered a bill, House Bill 1722, to make the state’s hate crime laws trans-inclusive earlier this year, but the bill died in committee. Advocates plan to re-file it next year.

Bay Windows contacted Boston Police to find out information about the investigation into Hester’s murder, but a spokesperson for the department did not respond by deadline.

Suarez said ten years after Hester’s death she still worries that she herself could meet the same fate.

"To be honest, there is not a single sharp knife in my house. If it happens to her, and I knew how strong she was, it could happen to me," said Suarez. "To me, I became so scared of knives, because it was so brutal, what happened to her. ... I’m still feeling the same fear, that this is something that could happen to me."

The Boston Transgender Day of Remembrance will take place Nov. 20 at St. Luke’s and St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, 5 Saint Luke’s Road, in Allston, beginning at 7 p.m. For more information, or to learn about Transgender Day of Remembrance events in Western Mass., Worcester and Springfield, visit www.masstpc.org/dor.

Copyright Bay Windows. For more articles from New England's largest GLBT newspaper, visit www.baywindows.com

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