When she was murdered in her North Adams home, Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien became Massachusetts’s first domestic violence fatality in 2018 — and the first known transgender person murdered nationwide this year.
Authorities have charged her husband with the Jan. 4 murder, which one headline described as “grisly.” Her killing sent a tremor through this state’s transgender community, where she was much beloved. Steele-Knudslien launched the first New England Trans Pride event in 2008, as well as the Miss Trans New England Pageant. She died only days after the end of this country’s deadliest year for transgender women and men.
In 2017, at least 26 transgender people, most of them women of color, were murdered. That’s more than in 2016, which in turn was more than 2015. Community officials believe those numbers may be higher, since some murder victims are misnamed or misgendered in death. According to a report issued last year by the Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color Coalition, trans women are four times more likely to be murdered than the general population of women.
Like so many other women, whether transgender or cisgender, Steele-Knudslien was apparently not murdered by a stranger, nor was her death random. The grim irony is that, after a lifetime of trying to make the world more tolerant of transgender people, she died in the place where she should have felt most safe.
“There is an intersection between intimate-partner violence and hate violence that we often don’t talk about because we just want to put things in one category,” said Beverly Tillery, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project. “We think if it’s hate-based or hate-related, it couldn’t also be intimate-partner violence. That’s certainly not the case.”
It’s still unclear what led to Steele-Knudslien’s murder or if there was any history of violence between the couple. Police say Mark Steele-Knudslien admitted arguing with his wife, then hitting her with a hammer and stabbing her. He pleaded not guilty.
For any woman in a violent relationship, leaving or seeking help is often a difficult experience, but for trans women it can be even more fraught. If they are not out to friends, neighbors, or coworkers, trans women may guard their privacy at the cost of their safety. And though they are improving, domestic violence services have been slow to respond to the unique needs of potential clients who are transgender.
“For trans people who sought services from a domestic violence shelter or a rape crisis center where staff thought or knew [a client] was trans, one-fifth of those people reported being denied service, harassed, or physically attacked because of their gender identity,” said Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, director of external relations for the National Center for Transgender Equality. She was speaking about results from the organization’s 2015 national transgender survey.
While there are fewer such services designed specifically for the LGBTQ commmunity, alternatives are especially scarce for trans and non-gender conforming people. They need places where “they know they will be safe, welcomed, and respected for who they are,” Tillery said.
Despite increased visibility and more public support, these remain turbulent times for transgender people. The Trump Administration is openly hostile to this already vulnerable community. The murders of trans people often receives scant media coverage, which undermines the threat to their lives. Victims are sometimes blamed by suspects in “trans panic” defenses. That’s what happened to Islan Nettles, a New York trans woman beaten to death in 2013. Mocked by his friends for flirting with Nettles, her murderer said he became enraged because he’d been “fooled.”
From “Orange is the New Black” actress Laverne Cox, to the mostly transgender cast of producer Ryan Murphy’s upcoming FX series “Pose,” trans people are remaking popular culture. Yet comedian Dave Chappelle, who lately seems to be mining troll-filled comment sections for material, still can’t seem to get through stand-up routines without making some clueless comment about trans people.
Still, Freedman-Gurspan says she was encouraged by the the quick response to Steele-Knudslien’s murder. She complimented police for their quick arrest of the suspect and the district attorney’s office for taking the case “incredibly seriously.”
“Once the facts come out, this will be hard for people,” she said. “But I trust the system, and I trust that the [trans] community in Massachusetts, which is very tight, will support each other through this, as horrible as it is.”
In her life, Steele-Knudslien was a champion for transgender people. Now as her community mourns her loss, they want to forge their grief into better services and more understanding for trans victims of domestic violence.