Monday, November 19, 2007

Rita's Story

Some of you may be wondering why and how the TDOR which is happening in venues all over the world today got started. To know the present situation, we're going to go back to the past, specifically November 1998.

The Boston transgender community had already been reeling over the brutal deaths of three other local trans women, 23 year old Chanelle Pickett in November 1995, Deborah Forte (the aunt of TDOR co-coordinator and radio podcast host Ethan St. Pierre) in May 1995 and the September 11, 1998 one of Monique Thomas.

On or about that date 35 year old Monique was tied up in her apartment, robbed, stabbed multiple times to death and found a week later. Chanelle Pickett had been picked up at Jacques and was later killed by William Palmer, who got a 2 year suspended jail sentence for assault and battery when his lawyer used what is now called the 'trans panic defense'. In May 1995 Deborah Forte was brutally murdered in Haverhill, MA about the same time the Brandon Teena case was unfolding. Rita was the fourth Boston area transwoman killed in four years.

Rita was an out African-American transwoman who lived in the Allston/Brighton community west of Boston. She was a fun loving, gregarious woman comfortable with herself and was well loved by many people in the various worlds she interacted in.

Everywhere Rita went, people saw her as an incredibly vivacious, outgoing woman. She was was comfortable visiting Jacques, the local transgender bar as well as the local straight bars. She'd been making her living performing overseas, and it was something she thoroughly enjoyed. She had just returned from one of those trips in time to attend Thanksgiving dinner with her family.

Eyewitness reports variously claim that she went home with one or two people after meeting them at Jacques on the prior Tuesday, behavior that struck them as not typical of her style. The only suggestion that seems plausible is that she was murdered by people that she knew.

Since she was a 6’2″to 6’3″225 to 230 pound woman according to friends and known to them as a “large woman who could take care of herself,” it seems unlikely that she could have been murdered by someone breaking into her home, a fact which makes her murder only more puzzling.

On Saturday, November 28, 1998, at or around 6:20 PM, a neighbor reported to police a disturbance at Rita’s apartment. Upon arrival, they found her in cardiac arrest, having been stabbed multiple times. She was rushed to Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital but was unfortunately declared dead after her arrival.

But what enraged the Boston transgender community was the disrespectful misrepresentation by the local press as 'he, male,' and putting her name in quotation marks. If a transgender individual lives for ten years as a woman, has acquired the physical characteristics of one and is known by all as Rita, she is not "Rita".

As Joan Touzet wrote at the time, "She's a woman, and whether or not you agree with her chosen lifestyle in any aspect, you owe her the respect to treat her as she wished to be treated."

The Boston Globe referred to Rita repeatedly as male while quoting her friends who correctly used female pronouns and her correct first name. Even Boston’s GLBT paper Bay Windows, one that should have been sensitive to us as a community ally, repeatedly used male pronouns and Rita’s old male name throughout their article.

In addition, the Bay Windows took it a step further and published wild rumors, stereotypes about African-American transwomen and improper references mischaracterizing her. Rumors abounded in the press at various times suggesting the potential involvement of everything from blackmail (hardly likely, given how out she was to friends, family and community) to Rohypnol (”Roofies,” or “the date-rape drug”), but nothing has been substantiated at this point. It was the first time that many people who knew Rita even had heard of her referred to in this way or heard about her transgender status.

Members of the Boston transgender and intersex communities vehemently protested the poor media coverage and its relentlessly derogatory, negative and insensitive tone. They called her a “gay man”, a “man who lived as a woman”, a “mystery to many”, and referred constantly to the victim as a male even though she'd lived as a woman for a decade and had never been known as one in Boston.

Despite a hurricane of criticism leveled at the papers, they defended their practice of using a name the victim’s close friends had never known her by.   Bay Windows drew heavy fire from the transgender community for its insensitive coverage -including pointed editorials and articles from rival In Newsweekly.

Two positive things came out of this tragedy despite the fact that Rita's killer has yet to be brought to justice. The candlelight vigil that was held on the one year anniversary of her death in San Francisco and Boston has morphed into a worldwide memorial service for all people killed by anti-transgender violence. The negative coverage was the catalyst for the Associated Press and several news gathering organizations to institute in 2001 stylebook changes that govern the coverage of transgender people in their news stories.

But the one thing that can't be changed is the fact that a beautiful trans woman's life was snuffed out by someone in 1998. The TDOR's ensure that we will never forget that.

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