Editor's Note: In elements of this story, Rita Hester's family misgenders her.
Sometimes, Taufiq Chowdhury wonders what his life would’ve been like if his aunt were still alive. Rita Hester used to visit him in Hartford with gifts for the whole family. She took him to see “Beauty and the Beast on Ice.” She showed him how to savor a good plate of mussels. She showed him how to live freely.
“I remember being young and he would always tell me I would go to Boston University and I would stay at his apartment,” Chowdhury, 30, said. “He had this whole vision for me."
Though Hester lived much of her adult life as a woman, her family still uses masculine pronouns, attempting to preserve a part of her that died long before she did. Rita loved them and she tried her best to teach them about her gender identity. She was bold. She didn’t care what the world thought. She knew who she was long before anyone else.
“I can remember him telling me to call him Rita. Or Rita Garbo...It was a long time ago, but nonetheless, I mean, my family loved him,” he said. “You know what I mean? And with every breath, you know, he was a big part of our family. And just his spirit, his energy was always better to have him around than not around.”
Many people today don’t even know Hester’s name. They don’t know that she was stabbed 20 times in her Boston apartment. They don’t know that she loved figure skating and had plans the night she died to watch it on television with a good friend. And for several years after her death, Hester’s own family had no idea that she sparked a global movement, an annual vigil held in November that honors the lives of transgender people known as Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Hester’s sister, Diana Hester, said she hasn’t heard from police in some time.
Her case remains unsolved.
“I used to call and I got kind of discouraged and just got a little flustered. Last time I called, it's been over 10 years,” Diana Hester said. “I feel like they really didn't take it seriously because my brother's a gay Black man, you know, poor. And I feel like they really didn't care.”
Hester’s killing occurred in 1998, six weeks after Matthew Shepard’s in Wyoming, one of the most high profile anti-gay hate crimes of its time that changed the way the Justice Department prosecutes these type of incidents. And yet, despite this progress, little has changed in more than two decades. In June alone, five Black transgender women were killed across the country. Last year, the American Medical Association described the trend of violence against the transgender community as an epidemic.
This summer, Hester's name rang out through Roxbury at the Trans Resistance Vigil and March. She was exalted and chanted alongside the matriarchs of Stonewall, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, transgender women of color who stood against transphobia and police brutality, believing the future could be different and hoping they would live long enough to see it change.
Chastity Bowick, executive director of the Transgender Emergency Fund of Massachusetts, advocates for the needs of transwomen in Boston. She said what happened to Hester could happen to any of them. That’s her daily battle.
“We want her to be looking down at us smiling, we want her legacy to move on and to mean something, we don’t want her death to go in vain. It’s so very important,” Bowick said. “I mention Rita so very often because it’s so vital to the work that I do. I’m trying to prevent women from being killed. I’m trying to provide them with the tools to be sustainable and thinking about her continues to give me that motivation.”
Chowdhury sees other similarities between himself and his aunt. Their love for exotic animals. Like her, he’s had a boa constrictor and an iguana. They each have an appreciation of travel. Sometimes he feels that he carries her legacy as the only openly out male in the family. Chowdhury said he’s tried to get more involved advocating and working with the LGBTQ community during Pride as a way to feel closer to her.
“[Rita] was a fearless person...and his energy was contagious,”Chowdhury said. "I like to think I try to still embody that. I know I get some of that energy from him. And, you know, it's instilled inside of us as a family unit. It’s just who we are.”
He plans to visit Hester’s haunts in Boston one day, like the Model Cafe, which until a recent renovation had her picture hanging on the wall. Or the Silhouette Lounge in Allston and Jacques' Cabaret, one of Boston’s oldest queer bars. There, even without make-up, Hester was a queen, said Melinda Wilson, a longtime performer. She said Hester passed in ways other transgender women did not. It drew attention and made some jealous. Still, Wilson warned Hester against spending time in straight bars.
"Oh, she was a little sweetheart and she was so sweet. She was nice. She's a real nice person. And for that to happen to her," Wilson said. "I tried to tell the girls that you have to be careful. Whatever you're doing, baby. You have to watch yourself."
Some months ago, Chowdhury walked up to an old building in Allston. It was the first time in his adult life that he visited his aunt’s former home, a place he loved as a boy. She used to call him, “Ragamuffin.” For a moment, he imagined Hester in all her glory hosting gatherings. She loved to entertain. Her apartment was filled with souvenirs from her travels to Greece, one of her favorite places in the world.
“I remember a beautiful person walking through these doors and coming to get us and the music would be blasting. So you could actually hear the music outside most of the time,” he said.
The last time Chowdhury was in Hester’s apartment he was 8 years old.
He accompanied his family to clean out her belongings the day after her death.
He saw her body at the morgue. Hester could have been someone Chowdhury could have talked to about coming out of the closet. Instead, his family lived in fear, not knowing who killed her, and not realizing she had become a symbol for trans people.
Hester’s family took her cat and some of her art, including a sculpture of a gargoyle that stood watch over Hester’s living room. It now protects her mother Kathleen Hester's home.
She often wishes she and Hester had been able to spend more time with each other.
“I sometimes wish we had vacationed together and gone places together, which we really never did," she said. "I wish we had really traveled and went places together.”
Kathleen Hester turned 82 this year. A break in the case would mean everything to her. She marched with the community after Hester’s death. Her unwavering words at Hester’s vigil still ring true.
"I wish I was there to take the stabs for him, and I would have yelled 'Run Rita... run for your life.' I would have given my life for him," Kathleen Hester said.
Now, the community continues that fight, lighting candles, crying out her name, and reminding people year after year who she was and why she mattered.