What happened to Rita Hester?

It’s June 2022 and with the pandemic restrictions now a thing of the past, spending time away from home is the only thing that I’m thinking about. On this particular weekend, I’m in Manchester, one of my favourite British cities.

Over the years, it’s a city in which I’ve spent a fair amount of time, but there’s always been one tourist attraction that has so far alluded me – the memorial to Alan Turing.

For those of you who know me personally, this will probably be a bit of a surprise, as my background should have meant that I’d visited a lot sooner. I have a history degree, with the focus of that degree having been World War II and while my career has shifted massively in the years since, history has always held my attention.

On this occasion, a mildly warm weekend in the June of 2022, I’ve committed myself  to visiting the memorial, making it one of my priorities for the entire trip.

For those unsure about this subject, Alan Turing was a mathematician who played a pivotal role during the second World War. Working from Bletchley Park, Turing was able to devise a system that allowed German codes to be quickly cracked and understood, providing information that was then used as part of the British war effort.

In the decades since, experts have come to believe that this directly prevented the loss of thousands of lives and might have even shortened the war considerably. In 2023, Alan Turing is viewed as a hero but at the time, he wasn’t given the gratitude that he deserved.

The reason – Alan Turing was a gay man living in war and post-war Britain. Who he was resulted in him having been persecuted, despite the somewhat unprecedented role that he played in Britain winning the war. 

In 2009, Gordon Brown issued a public apology on behalf of the Government for how Turing had been treated and in 2013 the then Queen formally pardoned him.

His hometown was actually Chester but being one of Britain’s most diverse, and proud of places, the nearby city of Manchester quickly adopted him as their own.

In what is called ‘the gay village’ sits Sackville Garden, a small but beautiful park that is dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community, and smack bang in the middle, sits Alan Turing’s gorgeous memorial.

When I attended, in 2022, it was shortly after his birthday and the bench was awash with flowers from across the world. Alan Turing is now international hero.

Unfortunately, in 1954, Alan Turing ended his life, meaning that he never got to see how much his would would eventually be lauded.

It was in this park that I first stumbled across the case of Rita Hester.

As you enter the park, slightly to the left of the centre sits a rather large tree and at first, it only stands out because it’s decorated. Bunting has been strung along it and on its branches are various greetings cards.

In the centre of the tree was one large plaque, its beautiful message outlining exactly what it was there to do.

‘You were known to us. Transgender Memorial. We remember those who have gone before us. And those who will fight for those yet to come. Erected in 2013 by the Transgender and Gay community. Sisters and brothers who have left us. Love will always conquer hate.’

I wanted to know more and for a good few minute, I just read the plaques and cards that had been dedicated.

It was while reading these messages that I first noticed the small plaque that had been dedicated to a woman named Rita Hester.

The first thing that I noticed was that she was from Boston, a curious feature for someone being paid tribute to in Manchester, UK. And the more I read, the more intrigued I became.

‘Rita Hester. Murdered in 1998. In Boston USA. Her death inspired Transgender Memorial Day. We remember you.’ The message was followed by the illustration of a butterfly.

As someone who’s passionate about equal rights – which in my mind firmly and undoubtedly includes trans rights – I wanted to know Rita’s story. Perhaps it shows how ignorant I am or perhaps it shows how blind the media still is towards trans people, I’d never heard of Rita before.

In today’s post, I want to tell Rita’s story, sharing what I could glean about who she was, what happened to her and what we know about the still unnamed murderer who cruelly ended her life.

But more importantly, I wanted to understand how her death inspired Transgender Memorial Day and the legacy that Rita Hester has left behind.

Who was Rita Hester?

On the 30th of November 1963, Rita Hester was born and according to her family she was a woman from very early in life.

According to her sister, Diana, there was never a moment when Rita wasn’t Rita, and she never really did ‘come out’ as trans. It was accepted that Rita was a woman from very early in her life and the family accepted her unquestioningly. Rita was Rita and little definition or explanation was ever required. 

In an interview with NBC, Diana admitted that the family easily accepted who Rita was, acknowledging that she was always a feminine person.

“My entire family, you know, even my nieces and nephew, everybody knew Rita,” she added. “It was very receptive. Was no issue whatsoever. You know, it was fine.”

While Rita had been born into a family that easily accepted their beautiful daughter, the wider community of Hartford, Connecticut was far less understanding. It wasn’t a nice place for a trans person to live and it’s said to have been one of the core reasons why Rita eventually opted to move to Boson in Massachusetts.

It was in the city of Boston that Rita truly found her people, her community, because Rita was a huge fan of Boston’s rock scene. It was in dive bars and rock venues that Rita met most of her friends and she embraced the fun, fast living lifestyle that the city had to offer.

She spent a lot of time in some of contemporary Boston’s most famous drinking establishments, said to have particularly loved the Silhouette Lounge, Model Café, and Jacques’ Cabaret.

Her friends describe Rita as the life and sole of the party, someone who enjoyed living life to the fullest. Her pets perhaps best representing her incredible personality as she owned both a cat and a boa constrictor. What a combination.

Her favourite country was Greece, she loved it there, and regularly vacationed within that country.

It’s also reported that Rita loved to ice skate, but that she was a nightmare to live with. The kind person who left things everywhere and always made a racket. Whether that be because of the rock music booming from her boombox, or because of the shrill laughter as her and her friends gossiped. 

She’d have been my idea of an awful roommate, but certainly someone I’d have loved to have a few drinks with.

Her home was a hot bed of activity, with Rita said to have loved having friends over and she also, loved to cook.

In what was said to have become something of a legend in her friendship circle, Rita was said to have loved food. The kind of person who could easily clear three large meals a day, her appetite was endless, and friends knew not to ask for a share.

What is clear from those who knew Rita is that she was a wonderful person, fun to be around and 100% herself. 

Those who knew Rita continuously refer to her with one word – beautiful. When describing her, they refer to her as beautiful on the inside and out. Her outward beauty tending to garner her a lot of attention, something that friends had long been worried about.

It’s worth remembering here that Rita was thriving, but it was the 1980s and 1990s, a time of huge societal change and development.

The social changes of the 1980s is something that I’ve looked at more closely for my podcast, the White House Farm murders, because it’s often regarded to have been the ‘tipping point’ era.

In many ways, the 1980s laid the foundations for the huge changes and progress that society has since witnessed. It was a time of huge progress, but that often tended to come with tension and conflict.

Younger people were becoming liberal, wanting to live a life that was far removed from that of their parents, and wanting society to shift with them. Their parents on the other hand – a conservative bunch who’d grown up in the post-war period – struggled to adapt these changes.

In this setting, Rita might have been lulled into a false sense of security, after all, her family and friends had been accepting of who she was. They were the exception, not the rule. But according to those who were close to her, they’d became concerned at how trusting Rita was.

This is not a time or place for victim blaming because Rita was doing nothing wrong. In fact, she was doing everything right, she was living her life, on her terms, as she wanted. But friends were becoming increasingly concerned that Rita was catching the eye of the wrong crowd and was to quick to accept people at face value. 

Those around her had deep concerns about her safety, understanding that hate was rampant in the 1990s. It wasn’t easy to be who you were, and they knew that there threatening people all around Boston.

An article with NBC records comments made by Melinda Wilson, someone who is ‘a fixture of Boston’s trans community’ regarding what life was really like.

She told them that ‘life is difficult’ and that being made being a Black trans person made life ‘dangerous’.

Before her death, friends were said to have raised questions over Rita’s safety, with some concerned that she was too trusting. Rita loved to have fun, her magnetic personality drawing people into her circle, but not all of them had good intentions.

According to Melinda, it was a conversation that she’d had with Rita, admitting that she was worried for her friend.

Due to the kind of music that she enjoyed, Rita spent a huge amount of time in ‘straight’ bars and while she made friends there, some people were unkind. One of the friends she made in such an establishment recounted that she’d witnessed some people laughing at Rita while she was spending time with her.

That same friend, a cisgender bartender named Brenda Wynne, easily became best friends with Rita. Telling NBC that she knew from day one that they would be best friends. And they were.

In fact, just two days before she was murdered, Rita had spent Thanksgiving with Wynne and her family. It was the first time that Rita hadn’t gone home for several years and it was to be the very last Thanksgiving that she would ever experience.

What happened to Rita Hester?

On the 28th of November 1998, Rita Hester was murdered inside of her Allston apartment, she was stabbed at least 20 times.

The morning of her death, Rita had played racquetball with her friend Brenda Wynne and the two had made plans to get together that evening. Behind the scenes, Rita was a huge fan of ice skating and the pair had arranged to watch the ice skating at Brenda’s apartment.

After their game of racquetball, both women had headed to their own homes.

At approximately 4pm, Rita called a friend, a trans woman who lived in the local area. That woman has since spoken publicly, but under the condition of anonymity because she’s feared for her life ever since. According to her, Rita confirmed that she planned to visit one of her favourite dive bars, the one called the Silhouette Lounge, which was just around the corner from her home.

The friend had decided to meet R at the bar a littlutae later, deciding to take a short nap beforehand. At around 7pm, she left her own apartment, heading to the bar to meet up with Rita.

The friend never arrived, as the street that led to the Silhouette – the same one Rita lived on – was blocked by police officers.

Meanwhile, Wynne was waiting for Rita to arrive but in an era where mobile phones were an emerging phenomenon, there was little way for her to contact her. In the end, she assumed that Rita had probably met men at the bar and gave it little more attention.

Unfortunately, by this point Rita’s life had already been taken.

At around 6.12pm, the police had received a call from Rita’s building, the caller reporting a fight within their neighbours’ apartment. According to the police report, the officers were dispatched seven minutes later.

They discovered Rita laying on the floor, clinging on to life having been stabbed repeatedly in the chest.

Unfortunately, almost an hour had passed between her being discovered and the ambulance taking her to Beth Israel Hospital. It was there that she passed, succumbing to her injuries, and dying of cardiac arrest.

Despite seeming to have arrived at the scene with haste, neighbours later reported that police had taken a long time to enter the apartment. That being even though the back door was unlocked and open. Why they took so long to enter the apartment has never been explained or established.

From then on, things were only to get worse.

From the moment they entered the apartment, the police insisted on misidentifying Rita, naming her a ‘John Doe’ on the police report.

The media was no better and some of Boston’s most reputable news agencies showed transphobia from the moment that the murder had been committed. One such paper described Rita as “a man who sported long braids and preferred women’s clothes.’

This wasn’t to be the last time that Rita was treated this way and for weeks after the murder, she was often referred to as a ‘transgender man’ in coverage of her death. The news outlets also tended to use her name in quotation marks, offensively suggesting that Rita was just a nickname.

This being even though even Rita’s mother was calling her Rita in all press interviews.

The continued misgendering of Rita eventually led to protests and a few days after her murder, 50 transgender people marched on the Boston Herald’s headquarters. In the years since, the paper’s contemporary editor has sought to explain the paper’s position, admitting that he thought her being trans was essential to the story.

At the time, many newspapers followed the guidelines that had been set out in The Associated Press Stylebook. This offered suggestions on how to report on those who were transgender, suggesting that a trans persons new name and pronouns should only be used if they had undergone gender confirmation surgery.

However, in an interview with NBC in 2020, the editor admitted that this stance was ‘indefensible’.

A short while after the crime was committed, Kathleen Hester (Rita’s mother) received a phone call that would change her life forever. Two days before Rita would have turned 25, local police phoned to tell Kathleen that Rita had murdered.

It was a process that was deemed to have been cold, with the entirety of the news being issued over the phone and not in person, as many of us would expect.

A short while later, Kathleen phoned her other daughter, Diana, and tried to tell her what she had been told. At first, Diana was unable to understand what her mother was saying, as Kathleen was screaming down the phone. But she knew that it was bad and rushed to her mother’s home to be with her.

The scene suggested that Rita Hester had fought like hell, with the scene suggesting that there had been a violent struggle. The eventual medical report would discover that Rita had been stabbed a total of 20 times.

The police were stumped, but the nature of the death seemed to suggest one of two things. The first being that it was a hatful act and the second being that it had been personal. The number of wounds is what those in the true crime world would call ‘overkill’ and oftentimes it suggests that there’s a deeper meaning in what has happened. That there’s emotion involved – that the killer was known to the victim.

Aside from the severity of the injuries, there was circumstances to suggest that there had been a struggle. One being that the phone had been ripped from the wall.

The police quickly realised that there was no evidence of a break-in as the locks and doors were intact. There were no signs of forced entry and, in fact, everything suggested that Rita had welcomed whomever it was that killed her.

Little has been revealed about the nature or scale of the forensic evidence that was uncovered at the scene. However, we do know that there was a partial shoe print which was proven to belong to someone other than Rita herself.

The one thing that the police did have was a witness.

The person in question lived within Rita’s buildings and they later told Diana Hester that at around 6pm – shortly before the call to police was made – two white men had been seen leaving the apartment building.

At the time of her murder, it’s been reported that Rita was in a relationship, but there were said to have been several men in her life.

The first was someone called Bobby, the man who many considered to be her boyfriend. For some reason, whether that be because he refused to tell them or purely because of the passage of time, no one can remember his surname. However, it’s reported that he was barely seen after Rita was murdered.

According to Diana Hester, she’d raised Bobby to the police and others reported that he’d seemingly vanished after the murder.

There were also said to have been two other men whom Rita had an ‘arrangement’ with. The kind of relationship that we would now class as ‘sugar-baby-daddy’.

However, not much more is known about these people, as Rita was said to have been deeply private about that side of her life.

In addition, shortly before her murder, Rita was said to have been involved in an incident with someone at Model Café. In a story that was recounted to NBC by both the neighbour and Wynne, it’s alleged that Rita punched someone in the face.

The reason for this incident is unclear, but Wynne admitted that there were a limited number of circumstances in which she could imagine this happening. In her mind, it must have been because Rita was choosing to protect a friend.

There is another theory, one that both the anonymous friend and Wynne have suggested. They believe that it’s possible that a man (or men) might have targeted Rita because he couldn’t handle the fact that he was attracted to her.

In an interesting detail that directly aligns with the witness in the building, both of Rita’s friends recounted that Rita had met two men in the Silhouette Lounge in the night prior to her murder.

While Wynne was recounting this based on what someone else had told her, the anonymous friend confirmed that she’d been present. It was something that she told NBC in 2020, telling them that: “I always got a bad feeling about those guys. I don’t know why,” she said. “They looked really like they would carry knives or something.”

According to the police, they initially focussed their attention on the plot behind the apartment building, but this lead didn’t pan out. Unfortunately, as far as we know, there has been little further development since.

The murder of Rita Hester came just a few weeks after the high-profile, game-changing murder of Matthew Shepard. An incident that is now considered to have been pivotal in the definition and understanding of both homophobia and hate crimes more broadly.

The death of Matthew Shepard was heinous, with him having been tortured and murdered for who he was.

For those unfamiliar with that case, Matthew Shepard was a young, gay man who had been tortured and murdered in October 1998. The crime was committed in Laramie, Wyoming and became an important catalyst in conversations about homophobic violence.

Yet, while his death caused widespread outrage and was covered by media across America, the murder of Rita was given far less time and consideration.

For those in the trans community, violence was all too common, and their stories tended to remain hidden from the spotlight.

In the years before Rita was murdered, there had been a spate of similar incidents. In the November of 1995, a Black trans woman named Chanelle Pickett was murdered in Watertown, just 10 miles West of Boston. The same year, Debra Forte was also stabbed to death in Haverhill, New Hampshire. Just a month before Rita was killed, another Black trans woman named Monique Thomas was killed in Dorchester.

In a twist of fate that now seems even more haunting, Rita had spoken to a newspaper about the murder of Chanelle Picket. She told them that she hoped he would face justice, telling the reporter that she feared what it would mean if the killer was to get off light. It was her worry that a light sentence would lead some to take the crime less seriously.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened and William Palmer, the man who had murdered Monique, served just two years in prison.

How did this happen, I can almost hear you asking?

Palmer’s defence attorney used the ‘trans panic defence’ arguing that his reaction was due to his discovery that Pickett was trans. It was a strategy that worked, and Palmer was convicted of just assault and battery.

In the years since, there has been repeated outrage at the use of this and the ‘gay panic’ defence in courts. It will never, ever be a valid reason for reacting that way, but it is used by defence attorneys in a ‘scraping the barrel way of defending indefensible clients.

To this day, Rita Hester’s murder remains unsolved and despite the huge world that now is true crime, Rita’s case tends to be forgotten.

Her case is often missing from the copious amount attention that other such true crime cases receive.

As you might expect, her family have never forgotten her and as recently as 2020, members of her family were speaking about her publicly. 

In particular, her nephew Taufiq offered his thoughts about his auntie and the impact that her loss has had on his life.

It’s important for me to point out here that Rita’s family often misgender her, something that is massively at odds with their acceptance of who she was. There’s no obvious ill-intent in this, Rita was loved deeply and accepted wholly by her loved one’s and they’ve justified this publicly.

The Wbu writer outlines that while Hester lived her life as a woman, her family still chose to use masculine pronouns, attempting to “preserve a part of her that died long before she did”.

It’s easy for us, with our 2023 understanding of the trans community to take this far too literally. In reality, they lost Rita long before discussions about pronouns became commonplace.

What is clear is that they loved their Rita, they treated he with understanding and kindness, perhaps more forward thinking than others would have been during that time.

Ultimately, their acceptance of Rita went much further than just the pronouns she chose to use, it was deep, raw, real and honest.

But I didn’t know Rita and so for me, it’s important that I remember Rita in the way that seems fitting to who she was.

For that reason, I have chosen to edit all quotes form her family, using she/her pronoun that Rita seemed to prefer.

Speaking to ‘wbur’ in July 2020, Rita’s nephew, Taufiq Chowdhury, reflected on his memories of his aunt. He recounted how she would regularly visit in him with gifts for the entire family.

He recounted her free spirit, the fact that she could devour a plate of mussels and taught him to live freely.

“I remember being young and she would always tell me I would go to Boston University and I would stay at her apartment,” Chowdhury, 30, said. “She had this whole vision for me.” He also recalled how she had taken him to see “Beauty and the Beast on ice”.

The last time he visited her apartment in Allston was just one days after her murder, when his family cleared out the contents of her apartment. It was the same day that he saw his deceased aunt in the morgue. He was just 8 years old.

Unfortunately, the Hester family were not able to afford for a crime scene cleaner to attend the scene, and instead the family were forced to clean it themselves.

The family, however, tend to agree that who Rita was has played a massive role in the handling of the case. In that same 2020 article, Rita’s sister, Diana, explained how discouraged she felt with the police. She told the outlet that she felt as if her sister’s race, sexuality, and gender had played a role in the investigation.

As the case is unsolved, there have never been any answers as to why Rita was murdered, but her family believe that it is somewhat obvious.

Rita was trans, she was also a woman, and Black. A combination that made her particularly vulnerable.

For Rita’s mother, Kathleen Hester, there’s a deep sense of regret that she didn’t spend more time with Rita while she was here with them. In the years after Rita’s murder, she marched with her daughter’s community, repeating the same words that she recited at Rita’s vigil.

“I wish I was there to take the stabs for her, and I would have yelled ‘Run Rita… run for your life.’ I would have given my life for her,” Kathleen Hester said.

When writing their article in 2020, NBC reached out to the police for an update, but it took eight months for them to reply. They advised that the case was with the cold case unit and that it was being worked sporadically. However, they refused to allow NBC to speak to any of the detectives.

It has been reported by WBUR that Boston police had recently expanded their cold case unit, adding a further seven experts to the department. The reason for this? The force has a huge number of unsolved cases – 1367.

Transgender hate

For some, little has changed in the years since Rita was murdered, with hate crimes towards transgender people still not being taken seriously. And yet, it goes further still because there are other prejudicial lines that cut across sections too, with trans people of colour tending to be lower down the chain of priorities. The same can be said for trans women and when all three are combined, cases are far less likely to be solved.

There is a fair amount of evidence to support this.

Since January 2013, there have been at least 231 confirmed killings of ‘transgender and gender-nonconforming’ people within the United States. A statistic that comes directly from the Human Rights campaign. The vast majority have happened in the South and five out of every six are women. Additionally, four out of every five are Black.

In the earlier mentioned wbuz article it was reported that five Black transgender women alone were killed the June of 2020. And just a year prior to this in 2019, the American Medical Association described the trend of violence against the transgender community as an epidemic.

Unfortunately, while we’ve come much further in our understanding of the transgender community and what we can do to support them, violence continues to be prevalent.

In fact, 2021 was the deadliest year for crimes towards the Trans community.

This article is clearly focussed on America, because that’s where this crime was committed, but there are incidents of anti-trans violence within the United Kingdom too.

According to Stop Hate UK, a reporting service for hate crimes, 88% of transgender people don’t even report the crimes that they experience. And yet, 2630 hate crimes against transgender people were reported. These two statistics combined suggest that the real life number is far higher.

Interestingly, given how the police handled Rita’s murder, 48% of the transgender people who HAD reported the crimes committed against them admitted that they had been dissatisfied with the response they’d received.

It’s now 2023, 25 years after Rita was murdered, it’s outrageous that such a large chunk of the transgender community still feel let down.

Transgender Day of Remembrance

Each year, on the 20th of November, the Transgender Day of Reembrace is observed. A day that is dedicated to those whose lives have been lost in acts of anti-transgender violence.

The day itself was started in 1999 by transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith in memory of Rita Hester. It started as a vigil for the murdered woman but was eventually extended to all those whose lives had been taken. What started as a one-off, for one victim quickly became an annual event.

“Transgender Day of Remembrance seeks to highlight the losses we face due to anti-transgender bigotry and violence. I am no stranger to the need to fight for our rights, and the right to simply exist is first and foremost. With so many seeking to erase transgender people — sometimes in the most brutal ways possible — it is vitally important that those we lose are remembered, and that we continue to fight for justice.”

For years after the birth of this movement, Rita’s family were unaware that it was their beloved relative who had inspired the movement. Entirely unaware that the vigil had originally been held for Rita Hester.

This isn’t all that surprising, as Rita’s name has been mostly forgotten, even by those within the trans community.

Unfortunately, transgender history is still not taught in schools and there is little opportunity for people to learn about Rita’s story.

In the summer of 2020, Hester’s name rang out through Roxbury at the Trans Resistance vigil, as she was exalted and chanted alongside others who had stood against hate.

For Chastity Browic, the executive director of the Transgender Emergency Fund of Massachusetts, little had changed and there was a huge risk of others being victimised.

For her family, the battle for answers has also turned into a battle for better rights for the LGBTQ+ community, something that has shown itself in activism for Rita’s nephew. He told wbur that he’s tried to get involved with the community and with Pride, wanting to push for more rights but also, to be closer to her.

As a gay man himself, he now wonders what advise his aunt would have given him but knows that she’d have been a good person to speak to.

Rita Hester’s life was short but full, and her legacy is long and ever present.

Kay Page