Remembering Trans Heroine Rita Hester

November 19, 2010 at 11:49 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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A guest editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

This weekend is the 12th Annual Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR,) and many of us across the nation will be memorializing transgender Americans murdered because of their gender identities or gender expressions.

The purpose of TDOR is to raise public awareness of hate crimes against transgendered people and to honor their lives that might otherwise be forgotten.

This event is held every November honoring Rita Hester, a 34 year old African American transsexual, who was mysteriously found murdered inside her first floor apartment outside of Boston on November 28th, 1998, because it kicked off the “Remembering Our Dead” web project.

Rita is another one of our black civil rights martyrs, but sadly, too, few African Americans know of her or even care how Rita was murdered. But if Rita were heterosexual and the news was that her alleged killer is a white male, my community would still be on the hunt for him.

Many transgenders, because of transphobia and anti-trans violence in this society, feel most comfortable moving about their lives in the night and out of the view of the general public. In urban enclaves known for their gang violence, crimes against transgender people often go unnoticed or are seen as lesser crimes.

It’s not easy for any person of African decent to be LGBTQ in our black communities, but our trans brother and sisters, are the most discriminated against among us. With misinformation about transgender people in our country still rampant and egregiously offensive, its impact is deleterious. And because of how transphobia, in this present-day, has taken shaped in black communities, most of our trans populations not only have much higher rates of suicide, truancy, HIV/AIDS, drugs and alcohol abuse, and murder, than we already have among our queer populations in black communities, they also have much higher rates of homelessness.

For example, today forty-two percent of the country’s homeless youth identifies as LGBTQ, and, tragically, approximately ninety percent within this group comprise of African American and Latino trans youth from urban enclaves like New York City,Boston and Los Angeles.

But homelessness and residing outside of their communities have not always been the case with our African-American transgender communities. Black drag balls and then “drag houses” or “drag families,” as seen in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary film “Paris Is Burning,” comprised of primarily African American and Latino transgenders who lived in their communities. Their performance at drag balls illustrate how race, class, and varying ranges of gender identities and expressions, deconstructs notions of masculinity, and redefines what it is means to be a diva.

During the 1920’s in Harlem, the renowned Savoy Ballroom and the Rockland Palace hosted drag ball extravaganzas with prizes awarded for the best costumes. Harlem Renaissance writer, Langston Hughes, depicted the balls as “spectacles of color.”George Chauncey, author of “Gay New York,” wrote that during this period “perhaps nowhere were more men willing to venture out in public in drag than in Harlem.”

And with constant harassment by white policemen patrolling the neighborhood, making the trans community their conspicuous target along with public denouncements of them by black ministers, like the famous Adam Clayton Powell Sr. of Abyssinian Baptist Church, Harlem’s trans community was, nonetheless, unrelenting with their drag balls, because they were wildly popular and growing among its working class. And these drag balls were reported in the black press:

“Of course, a costume ball can be a very tame thing, but when all the exquisitely gowned women on the floor are men and a number of the smartest men are women, ah then, we have something over which to thrill and grow round-eyed,” reported the gossipy black weekly tabloid The Inter-State Tattler.

Although, today, African American and Latino trans are relegated to the margins of our communities, if not expulsed from them, they, nonetheless, force their way into being a visible and powerful presence in our lives, leaving indelible imprints while confronted with not only transphobia but also “trans-amnesia.”

For example, the inspiration and source of LGBTQ movement post-Stonewall is an appropriation of a black, brown, trans and queer liberation narrative and struggle. The Stonewall Riot of June 27-29, 1969, in Greenwich Village started on the backs of working-class African-American and Latino queers who patronized that bar. Those brown and   black LGBTQ people are not only absent from the photos of that night, but are also bleached from its written history. Many Black and Latino LGBTQs argue that one of the reasons for the gulf between whites and themselves is about how the dominant queer community rewrote and continues to control the history of Stonewall.

I won’t forget Rita Hester. It’s why we have TDOR.

And I won’t forget the vigil we held for her in 1998 because I am still haunted by the words of Hester’s mother.

When she came up to the microphone during the Speak Out portion of the vigil at the Model Cafe where Rita was known, Hester’s mother repeatedly said in a heartbroken voice that brought most of us to tears, including myself “ I would have gladly died for you Rita. I would have taken the stabs and told you to run. I loved you.” As the vigil processed from the Model Cafe to 21 Park Vale Avenue where Rita lived and died, Hester’s mother again brought me to tears as she and her surviving children kneeled in front of the doorway of Rita’s apartment building and recited, and many of us joined in unison with them “The Lord’s Prayer.”

In remembering Rita, let us keep vigil – its Latin root “vigilia” means “night spent watching” – against hatred and violence.

Reverend Irene Monroe is a nationally-known writer, speaker and theologian.  She has been profiled in O, Oprah Magazine and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  (The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)

Not Only “For Colored Girls…” A guest editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

November 11, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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From the motion picture, "For Colored Girls..." directed by Tyler Perry (LionsGate)

If you’re looking for Madea (Tyler Perry in front of the camera in drag), or Black-faced versions of Sex in the City or He’s Just Not That Into You, then Mr. Perry’s adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s 1975 womanist choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” will gravely disappoint you.

And if you are also looking for Perry’s high-profile ensemble of African American actresses — Janet Jackson, Loretta Devine, Kimberly Elise, Thandie Newton, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, Tessa Thompson, Kerry Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, and Macy Gray — to perform as “Big Mammas,” “Hoochie Mommas,” and “Welfare Mommas” mouthing off “Madea-isms,” these sister-girls will disappoint you too; they have more depth, dignity and dimensionality to their character development than that.

While the movie, in my opinion, is a must see, it won’t be blockbuster hit. You won’t have to worry about waiting in long lines. I went to view the film at prime time with an audience of six of us — all women — in the theater.

With some critics having already bad-mouthed For Colored Girls as an anti-male melodrama, emasculating black males, who would sit for 134 minutes of that?

But those critics are wrong, and let me give you some reasons why.

For Colored Girls illustrates the universal sisterhood of struggle, strife, and survival that women find themselves in certain types relationships with men.

These characters in the film are you, me, and us all at certain junctures in our life’s journey. And For Colored Girls reminds us about the ongoing “dark phrases” of womanhood that women of all colors of the rainbow, even in our supposedly “post-feminist” era of 2010, continue to confront, like spousal abuse, incest, rape, infanticide, and infidelity, to name just a few.

However, with the film set primarily in Harlem, many will see the film as solely the typical “black faces” of African American women.

But that was neither the intent of Shange’s play, nor is it the intent of Perry’s film.

“Driving along Highway 101 one morning, she found herself passing beneath the arc of a double rainbow. Seeing the entire rainbow take shape above her, Shange realized that she wanted to live, that she had to live; she had something to say, not only about the fragility of her own existence, but about the lives of the other colored girls she knew and loved and imagined,” Hilton Als wrote in “Color Vision: Ntozake Shange’s Outspoken Art” in a recent New Yorker.

Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” was written during the height of the second wave feminist movement, giving voice and visibility to an era deluged with white women’s scholarship and sensibilities, and an era discriminated with not only their racial and ethnic biases but also with their class and sexual orientation biases.

Shange was part of the burgeoning black women writers’, poets’, and artists’ era of the 1970s where Toni Morrison published her first novel, and still my favorite, The Bluest Eye. Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and Toni Cade Bambara, to name a few, are some of the early foresisters of the era.

With her signature style of writing — the choreopoem — blending music, dance, poetry, and an amalgamation of what she heard on the street, Shange’s play has influenced this generation of spoken-word and performance artists.

“I like the idea that letters dance. …I need some visual stimulation, so that reading becomes not just a passive act…but demands rigorous participation. The spelling result from the way I talk or the way the character talks, or the way I heard something said,” Shange wrote in Claudia Tate’s Black Women Writers at Work.

Perry directorial style in For Colored Girls captures Shange’s poetic style in each of his characters, with of course a few of his own cinematic flourishes. But none where there was room for Madea to surprisingly appear.

While many may view For Colored Girls as a melodramatic mess of black women’s misery, the play is about women’s empowerment.

The film is about teaching and illustrating to women how to have decision-making power of their own, access to information and resources for making proper decisions, having a range of options from which they can make good choices, having the ability to exercise their assertiveness, and having positive thinking of one’s ability to make changes in their lives as empowered women.

For Colored Girls is not only for colored girls because it offers a pathway to self-growth, finding our authentic power, and discovering the divine in one’s self.

In the closing scene of the film one of the women says, “i found god in myself & i loved her/i loved her fiercely.”

Aren’t we all looking for that woman?

Reverend Irene Monroe is a nationally-known writer, speaker and theologian.  She has been profiled in O, Oprah Magazine and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  (The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)

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