This year in honor of the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, we hear a personal account from PFLAG National Director of Policy Diego Sanchez:
Each November 20 marks The International Transgender Day of Remembrance, a date on which we ask the world to stop and note the disproportionate annual tally and tales of reported murders or other untimely deaths of transgender and gender non-conforming people globally. Each year, equally as disturbing as the number is the nuance, actually naming the severity of the attacks that generally exceed what would suffice as mortal force. View those being memorialized this year. You can see the most current information by following on Twitter.
This year for me is a landmark. It’s been 15 years since the brutal murder of Rita Hester, my Massachusetts African-American transsexual sister, whose 34-year-old dead body was found by police in her first-floor apartment in Allston on November 28, 1998, having succumbed after receiving more than 20 stab wounds in the chest. Her murder was casually investigated in 1998, having occurred shortly after the also-brutal murder of Matthew Shepard that led to vigils and a meaningful map-charting set of memorials from coast to coast. Rita’s murder investigation was quickly closed, reopened in 2006 at the request of her mother, but it remains unsolved.
The nation didn’t immediately honor the memory and loss of the beautiful, always-smiling, intelligent, elegant Rita. She was gone, and the local Boston newspapers – mainstream and LGBT alike – misnamed and misidentifiedher even when asked not to, sloppily linking unfounded allegations about Rita alongside facts. The fact was that she was horridly murdered in her own home, and media reported it without care, respect or regard for her or for the transgender community, including those of us who were local and friends of hers. Then-budding trans activist Gunner Scott mobilized the Lesbian Avengers to picket the newspapers’ offices, and I, with my communications expertise, worked to get media to give Rita’s memory due respect.
We as a trans and ally community in Massachusetts came together differently than we ever had before. The juxtaposition of how each horrid murder was treated differently while occurring so close to each other in time –- Matthew’s embraced and mourned afterwards and Rita’s ignored with intentional disrespect -- was too much to take as water off a duck’s back. Even in our grief, we came together a week later to hold a vigil and procession in Allston, and we held a service at our LGBT and ally community haven, the historic Arlington Street Church, where Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie guided and comforted us with care and love as she always has and still does.
Longtime transgender activist and leader Nancy Nangeroniin 1998 wrote a touching tribute song titled In Memory of Rita that I consider standard fare for Transgender Day of Remembrance experience, and you can listen to and watch her video of it, produced by Nancy and her partnerGordene McKenzie.
For every year her health could endure, Rita’s mother joined us at the Boston TDOR event annually, and she spoke with love of Rita. There is no mistaking that mom’s love for her child and the pain of loss with which she lives, which you can hear captured in Nancy’s video tribute at the link above.
While each year we look at the long list of lost transgender and gender non-conforming people, read the names and how they died at the candlelight vigils and relive annually what familial loss feels like, there is light glowing at each candle’s end. That light is global because of one woman’s passion: Gwendolyn Ann Smith, a transgender columnist and writer in San Francisco, whose vision in 1999 transformed the commonly felt loss and lift in our community into what today is honored worldwide: The International Transgender Day of Remembrance. You can read more about and from Gwen.
Gwen organized a vigil in San Francisco one year after Rita died, named it the Transgender Day of Remembrance and began tallying the reported murders and other driven deaths of transgender people year-round. Transgender radio host and activist Ethan St. Pierre of Massachusetts, whose transgender aunt Deborah Forte was brutally murdered in 1995, picked up the gauntlet first with, and then from, Gwen and today, transgender writer and activist Marti Abernathy and he selflessly share the labor of loss and love with the world. Their work is what gives everyone who wishes a chance to honor our lost trans family memberswhile also celebrating our lives. It’s important to stop and sense the real fear with which so many, including me, live each day, wondering if when we will make it to return safely home, if we have one. It’s also powerful to honor the great work and emotional powering-through that Gwen, Ethan and Marti have endured so that no one, not one life, has to be forgotten and so that no life is lost in vain.