Transphobia varies in its expression of mistreatment. It can vary from name calling,
denying housing, getting fired, all the way to violence and murder. Most trans people would
agree that the degree of discrimination jumps in severity very quickly. On November 28, 1998
Gwen read online that a black transgender woman named Rita Hester had been found on the
floor of her apartment, having been stabbed twenty times in the chest in Allston, Massachusetts.
Rita soon died at the hospital of cardiac arrest.
Gwen was incredulous; three years earlier Gazebo covered the death of Chanelle Pickett,
a black transgender woman who was strangled to death near Boston. Both had been trans women
of color, both were killed in November, and had both been at a bar the night they were killed.
Gwen went online and talked to friends, yet no one shared her disbelief that two transgender
women of color could be murdered so brutally and so close to one another. The truth dawned on
her slowly: no one she talked to remembered the Chanelle Pickett case.
Gwen became angry. These two cases were eerily similar and no one was making a
connection between them—there was no community memory. She wrote to me that the George
Santayana phrase, “Those that don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” haunted her.
She wanted the people murdered to be remembered. She said to me, “If we couldn’t remember
and keep track, we were going to keep getting killed.”
The Remembering Our Dead project began online, but the research for it happened the
old-fashioned way. Gwen went to the San Francisco main library branch and searched through
archives of newspapers. Thanks to then ED, Susan Stryker, Gwen got access to the Gay and
Lesbian Historical Society (now, GLBT Historical Society) to do research using old issues of
DRAG Magazine about people who had been killed because they were perceived to be trans. She
reached out to other trans activists, like Phyllis Frye and Nancy Nangeroni, for leads. For
secondary sources, she acquired a Lexis-Nexis account, which gave her access to news stories
from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. As the project became better known within activist
circles, people would seek out Gwen to tell her stories from their local communities. Gwen
would then search for sources to back up those personal tales.
As she researched, Gwen flagged articles and news stories about a murder if there were
any “indicative language or framing words.” To this day, an easy hint that a victim may be trans
is if the article avoids any gender statements. Gwen spent a year researching and writing those
names down. Actually, she typed them, since the web had become her domain. She had come
into her own just as the internet was blossoming, and she used that tool to build community
successfully. Gwen yoked together trans issues and the burgeoning LGBT media. Using the
internet to create a platform for shared memory was natural for her after six years of managing
Gazebo.
To this day, the Remembering Our Dead website documents people who were killed
because of their perceived gender identity. “Perceived,” is an important word because there are
people honored on the site who maybe didn’t identify as trans or non-binary. Gwen says that
some of the victims had not “even reached an age that they could determine their own gender
identity.” There is also the poignant example of the 2001 murder of Will Huston, a straight
African American man in Tennessee. He was out with his wife and a blind friend on a river boat
cruise. While his wife used the ladies room, Will held her purse and stood with his blind friend.
Someone started shouting homophobic slurs and killed him. His killer perceived him as both gay
and feminine, possibly transgender. This murder reminds us how senseless all murders of trans
people are.
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