Transgender Day of Remembrance: How far have we come?

Bianca Ring, Opinions Editor

Transgender Day of Remembrance has been held annually on November 20 every year since 1999, and the history behind this event is important. The tradition was created after the murder of Rita Hester, a black trans woman from Allston, Massachusetts. Her community wanted to honor her and make sure that the local newspapers would cover her death in a respectful way, and they held a small candlelight vigil for her on December 4, 1998. The following year, activist Gwendolin Ann Smith organized a vigil on November 20, to commemorate all the lives lost to anti-trans violence. Now, people in over 20 countries observe this day, and in 2020 President Biden officially recognized it. 

There are quite a few aspects of Rita Hester’s story that the trans community is still struggling with today. Firstly, the initial reports of Hester’s death deadnamed her and used he/him pronouns to refer to her, including articles from the Boston Globe and the Herald. These outlets were aware that she was trans, yet they reported that she was a man who dressed in women’s clothes. Two decades later, The Daily Beast reported that in 2018, the youngest trans woman to fall victim to anti-trans violence was 18-year-old Vontashia Bell. The coverage of her murder from the local paper, the Shreveport Times, misgendered and deadnamed her. The work of activists such as Monica Roberts, who identifies transgender murder victims, has ensured that not only are more trans people honored in death, but that the epidemic of trans murder is made evident. Due to inaccurate reporting, the number of victims of anti-trans violence is unknown, but the work that Roberts does helps make that number more accurate. 

This brings me to the second issue: Rita Hester was a black trans woman. Part of the importance of accurately reporting on trans deaths is that it shows a clear pattern of who is being targeted, and therefore shows who often needs the most support within the queer community. Forbes reported that ninety six percent of trans people killed globally in 2021 were transfeminine, and almost all of the victims were people of color. In the U.S., 27 of the 32 victims that have been reported in 2022 so far were people of color, and 28 were transfeminine. Acknowledging the intersection between racism, transphobia, and misogyny is vital to keeping queer people safe by allocating resources to those who are most vulnerable within the community. 

Another way the media has hurt the trans community is by sensationalizing the murder of these people, especially black trans women. As news outlets have increasingly begun acknowledging the identities of victims of anti-trans violence, many have turned to dramatizing the victims’ stories. Reporting on violent crimes is obviously a heavy subject, but when news outlets go into unnecessary detail about how the victims were killed, it hurts the victims’ families and communities. Dramatizing the suffering of a marginalized person for shock value to get extra views is reprehensible, and is traumatizing for the loved ones of these victims. In Rita Hester’s case, her family has been pestered for the past two decades by reporters, forcing them to relive her murder. The killer was never caught, and the heartbreaking details of Hester’s death have been repeated each year without any advancement toward solving her case. Hester’s story and the history of Transgender Day of Remembrance are important topics that people should be educated on, but reporters fetishizing the violence perpetrated against this woman is harmful and disrespectful to her legacy. 

The death of Rita Hester in 1998 was a result of a culture of hatred and violence towards trans people, a culture that still exists in the United States and around the world today. The number of trans people killed each year is rising as the years go on, but the extent to which that is a result of more killings or more accurate reporting is unknown. The fight for the dignity, health, and safety of all trans people is more important than ever, and observing Transgender Day of Remembrance is a good way to give support to the community and acknowledge the people we’ve lost in this fight.