She knew it was important for her community to have its day of remembrance each November to mark the violent deaths of transgender people across the country. But Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien wasn’t crazy about it.
The activist was more about celebrating transgender people’s lives than mourning their loss, her friends said.
“She wanted to do something positive,” said Mason Dunn, who heads the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition. “To celebrate the beauty of our community, and have fun.”
So she helped organize the first New England Trans Pride parade, in 2008. Soon after that, she started a beauty pageant for transgender women, in Northampton. The well-attended events helped those women unify and gain acceptance, and offered a platform to advocate for civil rights.
“She wanted transgender women to be out and proud and beautiful,” said Lorelei Erisis, who won the first Miss Trans competition.
To those who knew her, Christa seemed all those things — out, proud, beautiful. The fierce activist, who had moved here from Minnesota more than a decade ago, made the pageants happen by sheer force of will, friends said in interviews.
“She was fantastic, a hell of a diva,” said Erisis. “She was a connector. . . . She enjoyed reaching out, and making social circles.”
It seemed as if Christa had found an acceptance that eludes many transgender women. She was comfortable in Massachusetts, friends said. She married her second husband, Mark Steele-Knudslien, last April, her father driving her to the wedding in a convertible. Her Facebook feed is full of loving updates about her husband, cataloging the cakes she baked for him, providing room-by-room updates on the home in North Adams they were renovating.
“She told me she was so happy,” said Ben Power, a friend who had worked alongside Christa on the pride marches.
But now he and Christa’s other friends are reeling, raking their memories for signs they might have missed.
On the night of Jan. 4, Mark Steele-Knudslien went to the police station in Adams and confessed to killing his wife, striking her with a hammer and stabbing her.
According to reports, Steele-Knudslien told police he had snapped following an argument, and that he was tired of his wife “belittling” him. After he killed her, he told them, he took a shower and went out to buy alcohol, then returned, wrapped her body in a tarp, and took it to the basement.
Hers is the first domestic violence homicide in Massachusetts in 2018, and the year’s first murder of a transgender person in the country, domestic violence and transgender activists said in a statement.
The circumstances of her death are sickeningly familiar to both groups. Transgender victims of partner violence can be especially vulnerable, say those who work with them, since they’re often isolated to begin with. Even somebody more connected to friends and family may be less likely to call for help, worried that police will not take her fears seriously, or respect her gender identity. It’s not yet clear whether Christa was among that group.
The transgender community here is reeling from her death, even as they confront a country that is newly hostile to them, with gathering efforts in the White House and here in Massachusetts to roll back recently won rights they fought hard for.
“Trans women are being killed every week in this country, and you always tell yourself, ‘It’s happening somewhere else, in big cities,’ or whatever,” said Power. “Well, it’s happened right here, in my community. People are crushed right now.”
Christa thought her work would help protect women like herself. She thought of her pageants as a kind of answer to the struggles of transgender women and men. We have to do something, she’d tell Power, not just sit around and cry every November, as the names of every transgender homicide victim are read aloud at community gatherings across the country.
Now her name will be among them.