Who was Rita Hester?

Transgender people will continue to be harrassed, persecuted and murdered until society moves beyond the binary system of male/female to recognise transgender as a third identity. Only then will the data be collected and our deaths treated as no less important than any other human being, says Dee Borrego.

November 20th is as innocuous as any other to most people, but for the transgender community it is a solemn day of mourning and coming together to remember our slain kinfolk. Every year as the date approaches, I'm filled with a sense of loss.  Since 1999, November 20th marks the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, and it began after the gruesome murder of an African-American transwoman named Rita Hester in Boston.

Rita was stabbed to death in her own apartment on 28 November 1998, and her murder remains unsolved.  Her death came just weeks after the murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming roused a national discussion on hate crimes against gay people, yet Rita's murder garnered no such response from the public.  Her murder and the lack of media attention to her death drove a candlelight vigil to begin in San Francisco the next year.

It also fueled the creation of a web project entitled “Remembering Our Dead” which tells the story of transgender people from around the globe who have been murdered out of prejudice and hate.  Their list goes back to the 1970s, and documents the losses our community has felt over many years of mistreatment and marginalization.

I wish that I could say that the list does not grow with each passing day.  But I'd be lying.  Across the globe, transgender people are murdered at rates which are astounding when compared to their contemporaries.  Although the data is limited at best, there has been some effort in the last few years to record and analyze transphobic violence across the globe.

One group that is leading this charge is the Trans Murder Monitoring Project which started through a cooperation between Transgender Europe and the academic online magazine Liminalis – A Journal for Sex/Gender Emancipation and Resistance in 2009.  Their latest data from March 2012 records more than 800 murders worldwide of transgender people over the last four years in 55 countries.  The most terrifying part of this figure is that, by their own admission, the project “can only provide a glimpse into a reality which is undoubtedly much worse than the numbers suggest.”

Part of the challenge in finding statistical data for these atrocities is that there are a number of bureaucratic technicalities and complications which make ascertaining exact figures extremely difficult.  Trans people are not always able to achieve legal recognition for their identity, nor does the media portray us as our true selves in most cases.  So our lives and our deaths are often misreported by governmental and societal agencies, and in the media.  This means accurate information and data are hard to come by, and a precious commodity when they are found.

To put it simply, the reason there is so little data is that the ways the data is collected does not make allowances for transgender people.  This means when collecting information from an individual for a census, for example, or for paperwork related to diseases such HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, tuberculosis, etc., there is no way to show that someone identifies as transgender.  There are almost always only two options given - male and female - with no way to indicate anything other than the gender binary system pervasive in Western society.  This can have immense effects on their health, due to the lack of understanding and awareness of issues that transgender people face and the subsequent lack of information, services, and support available to them.

The Center of Excellence for Transgender Health suggests implementing data collection systems that more accurately reflect both a person's current gender identity - in all of its glorious forms and incarnations - as well as the more traditional male/female assignment given at birth.  This suggested methodology may be radical for some; though its introduction could give the world a better idea as to who the transgender community really is by feeding more of each individual's gender history into our data.  There has been some notable progress however, as countries like Nepal and Australia officially recognize transgender as a third identity.

Yet for the rest of the world, the data situation is further complicated by a legal identity crisis that prevents most attempts at even finding an accurate count of the transgender community as a whole. 

The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that between 0.25% and 1% of the US population is transgender, though no one can say for certain how many transgender people there are worldwide, nor will all of their murders be able to properly documented by the recorders, despite their best efforts.

The sad fact remains that transgender people will continue to be harassed, persecuted, and murdered for being themselves.  Our lives are deemed less worthy by the mainstream in many places, and our murders brushed off as no great loss.  But we are still human beings, and our deaths are no less important than that of any other human being.

Every year during the week of November 20th there are candlelight vigils and memorials around the world.  We hold these to honor and cherish the memory of our lost brothers and sisters from around the world.  The list this year represents almost 40 people's lives cut short by intolerance, so I hope you'll take a moment to remember them, and I urge you to join in fighting transphobia, violence, and discrimination. 

Read other articles in the series, 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence 2012.


About the author

Dee Borrego is a 28-year-old, HIV+ transwoman currently living in Boston, MA.  She is an activist, blogger, polyglot and community leader. She was a founding member of the US Positive Women's Network in 2008, and currently serves on their Steering Committee.  Dee was recently elected to the Board of Directors of the Global Network of People Living with HIV, North America.