The history of National Transgender Awareness Day

20 Nov

National Transgender Awareness Day is actually an offshoot of the National Transgender Day of Remembrance. What is the difference you may wonder? Simply put there is none aside from National Transgender Awareness Day that is the product of a different organization than its sister. They are celebrated on the same day each year which is November 20, find their roots memorializing the same woman whom was Rita Hester, and have the same agenda which is remembering our dead and trying to make sure each year there are fewer names added to the list than the previous.

With that little piece of confusion cleared up, the first National Transgender Day of Remembrance/Awareness was celebrated in 1999. Author and advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith organized the first memorial for Rita and the tradition has remained to this day. There is much more to the story though and it does us all well to be aware of it and the woman who sadly this day was created for.

Rita Hester was a Boston woman that made her life’s work educating the community about transgender issues. Education was her passion and she was a leader in this area standing up for a group of people that sadly all too often have no advocate, especially in those days even though we are only talking about a decade ago. Rita was also a transwoman. On November 28, 1998 she was stabbed at least twenty times in the chest while in her apartment by an unknown murederer(s) who to this day are still at large. Rita expired from a cardiac arrest although the severity of her wounds would have done the job on their own anyway despite getting excellent medical care. All that is really known is that when Hester left the Allston’s Silhouete Lounge, two men were seen leaving behind her, and the next thing anyone knew, she was dead.

Nobody has ever pinned down a true motive for the crime aside from Rita’s status as a publicly visible well known transgender person. Nothing was stolen from her apartment. All the gold jewelry she wore which was quite valuable remained on her person. Hate seemed to be the only motive. As the story unfolds we see how this galvanized not just the transgender community in Boston, but around the world.

As the press often does it smelled a story. A reporter at the Boston Globe theorized on a tip that nobody could substantiate she was murdered for being a prostitute working under the name “Naomi” at the hands of an angry John. Hester had no convictions or arrests for solicitation, in fact to a person the people that

knew her best were shocked, outraged, and horrified by the assertion of such. No evidence to this day has ever surfaced that this was true or that she ever worked as a prostitute and none will according to her friends, family, and the people she worked with because they all say it just wasn’t true. They claim it was the creation of a reporter looking for a byline and trying to smear a group of people a personal bias was held against. It wouldn’t be the first time. It is also believed that the murder happening just a month after that of Matthew Shepard drove the sensationalistic and speculative coverage received as well.

Gunner Scott who is now Director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC) was not going to take the bias in stride. He was enraged the papers continued to spread unfounded stories about Rita and refer to her using male pronouns in their stories. Scott had just met Rita for the first time about two weeks before her death and felt in that brief time he he knew her he could believe what her friends and families were saying in that the stories run by the Herald and Bay Windows that her prostitution and likely behavior led to the attack were outrageous. He aligned with the Lesbian Avengers and Queer Revolt to begin protesting each paper until they ended the bias and unsubstantiated stories.

News spread wide and fast of this very visible transwoman and transgender advocates murder. People across the nation and eventually world rallied around her and in a way fought to continue what she began which was educating the world as to the plight and violence against the transgender community. Each year since a candlelight vigil is held on November 20 in cities around the world to remember Rita and the hundreds of others known and unknown that have fallen victim and died due to hate crimes based on gender variance. Each year the number of towns and cities spanning the globe that recognize this day grows. Each year the walk from the lounge that Rita left her final night to her apartment attracts more and more people. Each year the list of the dead grows and like in Rita’s case, most go unsolved. To this day Massachusetts has yet to add attacks based on gender identity to the list of hate crimes. Advocates will re-file next year, and every year after until it is added. It is what Rita would have wanted.

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