Transgender Day of Remembrance: Remembering Rita

Nov 2023

“Violence against oppressed communities and identities is directly linked to the normalization of the systematic dehumanization of groups of people that brings down the barriers to violence and harm.”

In 2023, we have witnessed an insurmountable amount of suffering and violence. It’s on days like this, International Trans Day of Remembrance, where we take time to honor the lives we have lost and uplift their legacies so they won’t be forgotten. We share their stories as reminders of all of the beauty in our community and as calls to action to fight for liberation, for equity, and against oppression in all its forms.  

Rita Hester was a proud black, transgender woman who is remembered as being a fun, loving, and caring person. She wasn’t afraid to take up space, and never let anyone tell her what she could and couldn’t do. Her family has said they knew from an early age that Rita was a girl, and they never had an issue with who she was; they always accepted her. Still, it was in the larger society where Rita challenged the expectations placed on her. This led her to pursue a life of acceptance in Boston where she would become a fixture in her community, beloved by so many. Devastatingly on November 28th, 1998, Rita was attacked in her home and her murder was never solved. While her death was largely ignored by the media, a vigil held in her honor was attended by over 200 mourners and sent waves through the entire community. 

The following month, activist Gwendolyn Anne Smith, deeply moved by hearing about the loss of Rita, reflected on the similarities in the case of Chanelle Pickett, a trans woman who had been murdered three years prior and never received justice due to her murder’s “trans panic” defense. Smith recounted these similarities with her friends, who didn’t remember Chanelle Pickett’s name. This inspired Smith, along with fellow activist Penni Ashe Matz, to organize the first ever Trans Day of Remembrance on the one year anniversary of Rita’s death on November 28th, 1999. They were afraid that we as a queer community were forgetting our past. By actively remembering their names, their stories, and their legacies, we are fighting against the societal belief of the disposability of trans people, especially those at the margins of intersectional oppressed identities like gender, race, class, ability, and more. 

Today, on the 25th anniversary of Rita’s murder, we are still seeing incredibly alarming rates of violence and hate targeted towards the Trans community. So far in 2023 alone, there have been over 320 confirmed murders of members of the Trans community. All forms of violence and hate are integrally intertwined with oppression. Violence against oppressed communities and identities is directly linked to the normalization of the systematic dehumanization of groups of people that brings down the barriers to violence and harm. 

The rights of transgender people have been at the forefront of politics for years, and the resentment for and dehumanization of LGBTQ+ individuals continues to permeate the legislative landscape of the United States. According to the Trans Legislation Tracker, 2021 saw a 200% increase in anti-transgender bills introduced compared to the year before, with 144 pieces of legislation proposed in 37 states. In 2022, 174 bills were introduced and 26 passed, attacking transgender individuals’ rights in areas including gender-affirming healthcare, school environments, and participation in sports teams – all under the guise of “religious freedom” and “parental rights”. 

The calculated, vitriolic attack has intensified exponentially this year, as representatives nationwide have passed 85 of the 586 total anti-transgender bills introduced to state and federal legislatures. Florida Senate Bill 1580, nicknamed by opponents the “Let Them Die Act”, provides healthcare professionals with broad protections to refuse medical services to patients due to a “conscience-based objection” of religion, morality, or ethics. All the while, 33 U.S. states still accept the “panic defense” in court proceedings—a legal protection which allows defendants to justify violent crimes in cases where they were “shocked” upon learning a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity like in the case of Chanelle Pickett.

It is pieces of legislation like these that normalize and encourage transphobia by villainizing all gender expansive people, thereby directly motivating violence against the queer community. Reflecting upon the life and death of Rita Hester, we are reminded that transgender women of color, and particularly those who go without housing and other basic needs, represent a population which is especially vulnerable. To honor her and so many others whose lives have been cut short due to bigotry and violence, we must recognize the interconnectedness of oppression in all its forms, as we move towards liberation in community with one another. 

This year, as always, for Trans Day of Remembrance, True Colors United honors all of the lives lost of our Trans and Gender Non-Conforming community. As we know, the deaths of trans and gender-nonconforming community members are often overlooked, underreported, misrepresented, folks are dead named, and overall disregarded by the media. This makes it increasingly difficult to properly represent those we have lost. Through our search, we would like to uplift and honor community members we lost who had or were experiencing homelessness in their lives. We remember Fede. We remember DéVonnie J’Rae Johnson. We remember Thamara Rayaane.