The Boston Phoenix
December 10 - 17, 1998


Displaced anger

Is Rita Hester's murder being eclipsed by the transgender community's grammatical agenda?

Cityscape by Sarah McNaught

Rita Hester's friends have different perceptions of what the 34-year-old was like, but they all agree on one thing: "The girl could dance!" Hester, they recall, was an incredible entertainer whose dance shows at Jacques Cabaret four years ago are still talked about. Glossy black waist-length braids. Voluptuous candy-apple-red lips and eyelashes so long they could almost create a breeze. Hester was six foot two and weighed about 200 pounds, but her friends say she was as agile as a tiny dancer. And she lit up a room with her warm, boisterous greetings.

"I remember watching her do this strip show at Jacques where she would spin and spin, picking up so much speed that you could hardly notice that with each turn another article of clothing came off, until she stopped spinning and there she stood in a bra and thong panties. She got banned from dancing there because they said her show was too risqué," remembers Jessica Piper, who used to meet up with Hester on weekend nights to go dancing or check out local bands. "As flamboyant as she was, she had her act together. She lived her life her way, and she was totally in control of it."

That is, until November 28, when Hester was savagely murdered in her own apartment shortly after returning home from playing pool at one of her favorite Brighton hangouts. There are no suspects; there were no signs of forced entry, and nothing was missing from her apartment. Members of the local transgender community believe that the victim's sexual identity contributed to her murder. Hester was a transsexual who had had breast implants but no genital surgery. She was born William Hester but lived as a woman for almost two decades.

Understandably, the transgender community is in an uproar over the stabbing death. Yet the public protest has not focused mainly on the brutality of Hester's murder, or even on the failure of bystanders to intervene despite police reports that neighbors heard a ruckus. Instead, as soon as three days after Hester's death, activists launched a full-blown campaign denouncing the way the media handled the victim's sexual identity.

On December 1, a meeting was held at the Arlington Street Church to protest the media coverage, and letters demanding an apology continue to stream in to the daily newspapers. Because of what activists call the "infuriatingly disrespectful coverage," a protest will be held outside the Boston Herald at 4 p.m. on December 18.

"We're fed up," explains Ethan Hershman, a transgender activist who spoke vehemently at the December 1 meeting. "There is a definite lack of energy put forth by the media to find out how individuals in the transgender community should be referred to. The fact is, they [the media] just don't give a crap."

Hershman adds that groups such as blacks, the homeless, and Native Americans are referred to in the terms they prefer, and the transgender community shouldn't be any different.

Indeed, the Boston Globe and the Herald have been put under the political-correctness microscope for what critics call their misrepresentation of Hester. The Globe referred to her as "a man who sported long braids and preferred women's clothes" and a "party-thrower" who "led a double life"; the Herald called her a "transvestite" and "a large man who lived as a woman." Even the prominent local gay newspaper Bay Windows called Hester "a gay man" in its December 3 issue. Most recently, Channel 5 has been criticized for its coverage of a December 4 vigil at Allston's Model Café, in which reporters referred to Hester as a transvestite. According to members of the transgender community, such characterizations are way off base when it comes to describing someone like Hester.

"Identity is the key issue here," says Daviko Marcel, executive director of the Transgender Education Network. "Her identity is the cause of her death." Although there is no evidence proving that Hester was murdered because of her sexual identity, as Marcel and many others believe, the police are not ruling it out. (It is also possible that the murder was a domestic dispute or a trick gone bad; Hester worked as an escort.) Marcel concedes that the community's focus in the crime's aftermath should be on solving the murder. But, he emphasizes, "The use of the proper pronoun is very important because it establishes what the person's self-perception is."

A gender glossary

The following list of terms contains information provided to trainees at the Transgender Education Network. "These are just general terms," says the network's executive director, Daviko Marcel. "By no means do they attempt to express the entire continuum of gender expression and presentation."

Gender identity: The sex an individual feels he or she belongs to and wishes to be identified as a member of.

Transgender community: A loose association of people who expand binary gender norms (male/female or masculine/feminine) in a variety of ways. Central to this community is the acceptance of the individual's free right to express gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender variance.

Transsexual: An individual whose gender identity is not congruent with his or her anatomical sex. This incongruity can lead individuals to pursue various types of sex-reconstruction surgery. But for many reasons, including the cost of such operations and the limited access to them, many transsexuals have great difficulty obtaining surgery or decide not to have surgery at all.

Transvestite: An individual who expresses aspects of his or her gender identity by wearing clothing that is culturally identified with the opposite gender. Transvestites do not necessarily experience a disassociation between their gender and their sex; transvestism is not an anatomically based incongruity. Rather, it is an expression of gender (masculine or feminine) through clothing.

Cross-dresser: Another term for a transvestite.

Intersex: A mixed sexual physiology, in which aspects of both male and female anatomy are present at birth.

Transgenderist: An individual who lives as a member of the opposite sex all or part of the time. Transgenderists are not interested in sex-reconstruction surgery. Some may seek hormones or other cosmetic or surgical procedures.

Androgyne: An individual who presents both or neither of the culturally constructed gender signifiers (masculine and feminine).

Sexual orientation: A term that indicates whether an individual is attracted to members of the same sex, the opposite sex, or both. One can be transgendered and be either heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual.

Transgender, Marcel explains, is an umbrella term used to describe a man living as a woman or a woman living as a man. But transvestites and transsexuals, he says, are very different from one another, and a person in either group may or may not be gay (see "A Gender Glossary," right).

"For instance, RuPaul has no intention of having a [sex-change] operation," says Marcel. "He would tell you he doesn't feel like a woman. He's an entertainer."

Hannah Doress, founder of the promotions firm Hanarchy Now, has led the crusade for proper representation of Hester's identity, sending out daily e-mail messages to people on her firm's mailing list reporting the latest on the murder and decrying the "troubling media coverage."

"The recent media coverage is creating a climate of extreme misunderstanding of transsexuals," says Doress. "I'm not transsexual. This isn't a personal crusade. Rita's identity is being disrespected. Her murder was a hate crime, and that hate comes out of all the prejudices society has about transgender people. And those prejudices often come from the perception mass media creates of these people."

Some of Hester's friends see things differently. How she is referred to, they say, isn't as important as the unsolved murder and the fear it has created within the transgender community. Hester's death was the fourth local murder involving a transgender victim in as many years, and the flap over the media's loose use of he and she, they say, misses the point.

Evian Waters, a 27-year-old "illusionist" -- female impersonator -- living in Allston, had been a close friend of Hester's since Hester moved to Boston from Connecticut in 1988. "She was like my big sister," says Waters, who spoke to Hester on the phone just two hours before the fatal attack.

"I MC a show at Chaps every Wednesday, and twice a month she was my guest," explains Waters. "She was an incredible dancer, and she had a beautiful voice, too." The Friday night before Hester died, she accompanied Waters to Jacques Cabaret and the Kells -- a bar where, Waters says, everyone knew Hester as "the princess of Allston."

"We came back here to my house, ate pizza, watched a video, and played Jenga," remembers Waters. "And we made plans to go to Silhouettes [a Brighton bar] on Saturday night to play pool." But on Saturday afternoon, Hester called Waters to change plans. Hester wanted to play pool earlier because she had made plans to watch television with another friend that night.

"She decided to go to Silhouettes alone," Waters says, his voice dropping to a near whisper. "I decided to stay home and make dinner." Some say Hester had an altercation with a man at the bar who followed her out when she left. And still others report that Hester went from Silhouettes to the Kells before going home. According to neighbors, two men were seen coming out the back door of Hester's apartment later that night. The only thing that is certain is that at or around 6:15 p.m., according to police, Hester was stabbed 25 times and left to die in a pool of blood.

"Out of respect, [the media] should have identified her properly," says Waters. "But I don't care about the press. That's not the issue. The real issue is that she's dead, and where is her killer?"

Jeff Epperly, the editor of Bay Windows, says that he, too, believes the main issue is that someone was brutally murdered. "If we were writing a feature piece, we would go with [the gender identification] the subject wanted," explains Epperly. "But this is the news, and we have to deal with the facts. And the fact, according to police records, is that the victim was biologically a man."

Epperly adds that in some cases when he has asked transgender individuals to identify their sex, they can't. "In fact, they say categories aren't important," he says. "So this whole thing is very puzzling to me."

"The media coverage is a very small issue," agrees Zola, a drag queen who works at Chaps and met Hester in the mid-'80s. They worked together as singers and often discussed Hester's trips to Greece and Germany, where she performed. "The fact that she was murdered is the most important issue," says Zola. "[How she is identified] shouldn't be the concern right now. It should be an afterthought."

What's really missing, says Zola, is the celebration of Rita Hester as a person who made the choice to live as a woman even if it contributed to her death. That celebration is now in the works. On December 13, a benefit to help Hester's family pay for funeral expenses is being hosted by Jacques Cabaret, with bands such as Tree, the Deniros, and the Legend of Jesse Christos scheduled to play. Evian Waters, Thirsty Burlington, Crystal Crawford, and Norell Gardner will perform drag acts.

"She loved music and dancing and, unlike many transsexuals, she wasn't afraid to go to straight bars and clubs to have fun," recalls Brenda Wynne, who was supposed to see Hester the night of the murder. "Everything she did and everything she wore was extravagantly wonderful, and no newspaper can take that away if we don't let them."

Sarah McNaught can be reached at smcnaught[a]

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