Rita Hester was statuesque and glamorous.
Usually clad in her favorite colors, black and purple, perhaps in a slinky tube dress adorned with ruffles, she was a familiar figure both at Allston bars such as the Model Café and the Silhouette Lounge and at Jacque’s Cabaret, the Bay Village drag bar where she sometimes performed.
“Her presence onstage was so overwhelming,” said Charito Suarez, a friend who first met Hester at Jacque’s. “Even just when she came through the door, she was somebody that could cause a commotion by not doing anything.”
Hester’s long, braided hair always looked nice, Suarez said, and she liked to wear opera-length gloves with rings on top, big pieces of costume jewelry that she wore strategically, along with flat shoes, to downplay her size — Hester was more than 6 feet tall.
One of her most popular numbers was a medley of hits by disco diva and Dorchester native Donna Summer.
But Hester wasn’t just an impressive performer, Suarez said, but someone who was kind and had many friends.
“She was always nice to everyone,” said Suarez, 60, who grew up in Puerto Rico and moved to Boston from New York City in 1979. “She was very, very, very liked by the whole community, so what happened to her was like a real shock.”
The shock began around 6:15 p.m. on Nov. 28, 1998, when her neighbors reported hearing banging from inside Hester’s apartment at 21 Park Vale Ave. in Allston, according to a Boston Globe story from the time. One neighbor told police that someone inside had yelled for help.
Police arrived around 6:30 and found Hester inside, dead of multiple stab wounds.
Police told the Globe there were no signs of forced entry and they suspected Hester might have known her killer. Fourteen years later, no one has ever been charged with the crime.
A police spokeswoman said Friday that the investigation into Hester’s murder is still active and asked that anyone with information contact homicide detectives.
Suarez said one theory in the local transgender community was that Hester, who was born William Hester in 1963, was killed by a suitor who became enraged when he realized Hester was not biologically female.
“She had to be ambushed to get her off-guard; she was never off-guard,” Suarez said. “That’s what puzzles me about this. … She was a smart cookie. A very smart cookie.”
In the aftermath of Hester’s death, a community came together.
Gunner Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, happened to meet Hester only two weeks before her death, and the two had friends in common.
Scott remembered that late fall of 1998 as something of a turning point, with Hester’s murder following closely behind the October murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming.
When Shepard was killed, 2,000 miles away, members of the wider lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community held a vigil on Boston Common, Scott said. But that community gave little attention to Hester’s murder right here in Boston. So transgender leaders created their own event.
Nancy Nangeroni, 59, remembers helping to organize a speak-out and candlelight vigil that made a solemn procession from the Model Café to Hester’s apartment building on Park Vale Avenue. More than 200 members of the transgender community and their allies came together to remember Hester.
Hester’s murder also received some national attention, especially in the transgender community, due less to the nature of the crime than because local media outlets, including Bay Windows, the Boston Herald, and the Globe, referred to Hester as a man leading a double life rather than as a transgender woman.
Nangeroni remembers that in the late 1990s, the concept of being transgender was still new to most people, and many were not sympathetic.
“We were a curiosity and considered to be somewhat less than fully human by a lot of people,” she said.
Scott said that while transgender people have seen much progress in recent years, including the passage one year ago of a non-discrimination law in the Massachusetts legislature, that increased visibility has at times created a backlash of anti-transgender feeling.
In the most extreme cases, negative reactions to transgender people have been deadly, as in Hester’s killing and those of Chanelle Pickett, beaten and strangled in Watertown in 1995, and Debra Forte, stabbed to death in Haverhill that same year.
“The violence against transgender people is typically horrific,” Nangeroni said. “It’s possessed of a deranged kind of intensity, often. … These are not dispassionate shootings. These are up close and personal, and they’re done as if the perpetrator wanted to stamp out the very existence of that person.”
These murders, and others like them, moved transgender leaders to create an event that would honor and remember those lost to violence. The Transgender Day of Remembrance grew out of that first vigil honoring Hester and has become an annual and international event.
Locally, the Boston Transgender Day of Remembrance will take place Sunday, Nov. 18, at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul. The ceremony will begin at 4 p.m. and include a speaking program, a community forum, and a candlelight vigil on Boston Common, across Tremont Street from the cathedral.
Suarez will host the event and sing a song dedicated to Hester. For more information on the Boston Transgender Day of Remembrance, visit http://www.masstpc.org/events/tdor/.
Boston police encourage anyone with information about the murder of Rita Hester to call the Homicide Unit at (617) 343-4470. To assist the investigation anonymously, call the CrimeStoppers tip line at (800) 494-TIPS or text the word ‘TIP’ to CRIME (27463). The Boston Police Department will protect the identities of all those who wish to help this investigation anonymously.