November 20, 1999 marks the first Transgender Day of Remembrance, honoring the victims of transphobic violence. Now an annual observance, the first TDoR is a vigil commemorating Rita Hester, a 34-year-old African American trans woman murdered in Boston the previous year.
Hester had been openly trans for nearly her whole life and was well-known in the Boston neighborhood of Allston. She and her friends were all too familiar with violence against trans people—just a few months before her death, Hester had responded to a Boston paper’s question about the murder of another Black transgender woman, Chanelle Pickett, saying “I’m afraid of what will happen if [the perpetrator] gets off lightly.”
On November 28, 1998, Hester was stabbed to death in her apartment, apparently by someone whom she had invited in. As her friends and family grieved, many of them found the media’s coverage of the murder insulting to Hester and the trans community. Mainstream media covering the tragedy misgendered and deadnamed Hester, taking their cue from the police report. For Hester’s loved ones, these added insults to an already horrific loss underscored the need for respectful remembrances of trans people, especially those who had been victims of violence.
A year after Hester’s death, the first Transgender Day of Remembrance was observed, thanks largely to the efforts of transgender activist Gwendolyn Ann Smith. It is now observed each year on November 20, the anniversary of Pickett’s murder. The observance is not official in the United States, but President Joe Biden became the first president to issue a statement on TDoR in 2021.
Though trans visibility has increased greatly since Hester’s death, gender non-conforming people are still murdered at a rate far higher than the national average, and the majority of victims are Black trans women. Even though violence against trans people is understood to be vastly underreported, 2021 was reported to be the deadliest year on record for trans and gender non-conforming people, with more than 50 murders. The Human Rights Campaign notes that in nearly half of cases, the police or media misgendered the victim.