UPDATED: NE LGBTQ Community Continues to Mourn Tragic Death of W Mass. Trans Activist

Tragic DeathChrista Leigh Steele-Knudslien, formerly Christa Hilfers, is the first reported trans woman murdered in 2018. Christa was well known in Western Mass. and the surrounding areas for her work on behalf of trans women. Above, Christa posed for The Rainbow Times from 2011-2014. Some events were from her own Miss Trans New England Pageant, while others were taken at events she attended throughout the years
Photos: Lorelei Erisis, Glenn Koetzner / All TRT Archives

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Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien is first reported trans murder victim of 2018 in the United States

By: Nick Collins and Mike Givens/TRT Intern and TRT Assistant Editor, respectively—
Transgender activists and their allies are turning their sorrow into action after reeling from the murder of Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien in early January. Steele-Knudslien is the first reported trans woman to be murdered in the country this year.

According to press releases issued by the Berkshire County District Attorney’s (DA) Office, Christa, 42, died of multiple blows to the head and a stab wound to the torso. Information made available on the DA’s website states that she was found at her Veazie Street home in North Adams, Massachusetts on the evening of Friday, January 5 and her husband, Mark S. Steele-Knudslien, 47, was arrested for murder. He has subsequently pleaded not guilty at an arraignment hearing on January 8. He was held without bail at the Berkshire County House of Correction.

Fred Lantz, a spokesperson for the DA’s office, declined to provide any information related to a potential motive for the murder, but did confirm that Steele-Knudslien is tentatively scheduled to appear at a pre-trial hearing on February 7.

Christa, also known as Christa Hilfers, was well known in the Western Massachusetts trans community as the founder of the Miss Trans New England Pageant, the Miss Trans America Pageant, and as a vocal supporter of trans rights.

“I owe her a debt of gratitude,” said Trystan Marl Greist of Greenfield.

Marl Greist said he met Christa the day he had summoned the courage to come out as trans and marched in the Northampton Pride Parade in 2009. He said that as soon as he started talking to her, she was “immediately supportive” of him and invited him to be a judge at the first Miss Trans New England Pageant that year.

“Christa was a determined visionary,” he continued. “[She] often went into projects without a clue, but she always persevered and made it all happen anyway. She was magical that way. Without Christa, there wouldn’t have been much of a Pioneer Valley trans community … The trans pageants were really key efforts that brought us all together.”

 

“ … everybody has beauty, no matter who they are … ”

Born near Rochester, Minnesota in 1975, Christa graduated from Spring Valley High School in 1993. After graduation, she moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and later, to Ware, Massachusetts.

Ben Power, a personal friend of Christa’s and curator of the Sexual Minorities Archive (SMA) in Holyoke, Massachusetts, spoke about his friendship with Christa.

“Christa was homeless when she arrived in Northampton,” he said. “She was living in a van with a few belongings and she parked it in various locations around Northampton. I offered for her to park the van in my driveway but she only brought it by once, to introduce me to her first husband, John Hilfers. The three of us sometimes socialized and continued our talks.”

Power would go on to befriend Christa and introduced her to different groups within the trans community.

In 2009, Christa co-founded the New England Trans United March and Rally with Power, the first of which took place on October 3 of that year. In 2010, she started the Christa Hilfers Show podcast, a program in which she—along with other members of the trans community—discussed the struggles of being trans. Christa also frequently uploaded YouTube videos delving into similar topics and showing support for her community. She became the face of the New England trans community, described by others as “well-loved and known by many.”

The Rainbow Times was able to confirm that Christa divorced Hilfers in October 2014. On April 15, 2017 she married Steele-Knudslien and soon after moved with him to North Adams.

For Christa, expressing her trans identity was a difficult task in rural Massachusetts. She was no stranger to demeaning treatment on the basis of her gender identity. In a Facebook post from November 14, she described allegedly being, “ … threatened by a[n]… employee” that night at their local Wal-Mart.

She frequently posted pro-trans and pro-LGBTQ messages to her Facebook timeline, expressing outrage at the Trump administration and wishing cities like Boston and New York, “happy Pride Day.”

But what Christa was perhaps best known for, within the New England trans community, was her status as the C.E.O. and founder of the Miss Trans New England Pageant. In founding and running the event, she hoped to, in her own words, “liberate women” and show people that “everybody has beauty, no matter who they are … not just in the trans world, but in the everyday world.”

She founded the Miss Trans New England Pageant in 2009 after noticing a dearth of opportunities for trans women to showcase and take pride in their beauty. Christa intended for the event to, “[allow] transgender women to compete for a title that honors [them] and their talents while recognizing them as both women and transgender.”

But the pageant didn’t just honor them, according to Christa, it also empowered trans women, inspiring them “ … to achieve great things in their lives and continue to do activism in their communities.”

“Christa then talked with me at length about her dream of creating a space where trans women, particularly trans women of color, would feel safe, feel beautiful, and be publicly applauded for their skills and talents – in other words, for who they are,” Power said. “She informed me that other countries hold trans pageants and that she wanted to start them in the U.S. After a long back-and-forth about feminism, transfeminism, and bathing suits—which she did not want in her pageant—I agreed to support her in any way to make her dream a reality.

“Christa was a heck of a diva, she was really driven,” said Lorelei Erisis, The Rainbow Times’ columnist and the first winner of the Miss Trans New England Pageant. “The things that she did she was absolutely determined to make happen. A lot of the things she got done, she got done out of sheer force of personality.”

Erisis described her relationship with Christa as “contentious” given the fact that the two often butted heads on different issues, but said that she deeply respected and admired her.

“She started the Miss Trans New England Pageant as a way for trans women to stand up for who we are and be proud as trans women,” she said. “That spirit and everything she did kicked off almost everything I do as an activist.”

Power said in the last few years, he and Christa had grown distant, but they had recently reconnected last year.

“She came to the SMA grand opening in Holyoke in June 2017 and briefly introduced me to Mark,” he said. “Then she reconnected with me via text message in October 2017 and sent me what would be her final text on January 1 wishing me a rainbow Happy New Year.”

“I still haven’t processed it yet,” said Jasmina Andino, who won the Miss Trans New England Pageant in 2014. “I have a heavy heart. Christa has been a great friend and helped me get through some difficult times.”

Gunner Scott, a friend of Christa’s and a Miss Trans New England attendee, recalled her sense of humor.

“She was funny. I remember her … funny, sometimes self-deprecating humor, but she made me laugh,” he said. “She also had this enthusiasm for wanting to shine a big, positive, sparkly … bright spot [of] light on trans women in the community.”

“We are devastated,” said Dr. Shelley Janiczek Woodson, a psychologist in Granby, Massachusetts, and a close friend of Christa. Janiczek Woodson said she was the last non-family member to speak with Christa before her death.

“She was fierce,” she continued. “A whirlwind of a girl. She was passionate about pageants … [and] the Miss Trans New England Pageant was glorious.”

According to Janiczek Woodson, Christa was also passionate about restoring her home. “This is how she spent her last days: repairing, restoring, and decorating. She loved it, and she was good at it.

“She cared about people. One of the last messages I received from her was, ‘How’s it going girl? You okay? Here for you.’ For her to die the way she did is unbearable.”

 

“We need to start talking about the violence occurring within our communities”

“We are heartbroken and outraged,” said Janis Broderick, executive director of the

Elizabeth Freeman Center, the domestic and sexual violence response center for Berkshire County, in a joint statement with four other domestic violence agencies.

“As a transgender woman, Christa was a vital part of the LGBTQ community as well,” she said. “Her murder reminds us that trans and gender-nonconforming people face extraordinary levels of violence, and that sometimes they experience this violence at the hands of the people closest to them.”

Marl Greist voiced similar sentiments regarding the murder.

“I am appalled at the brutality of [it],” he said. “I live in Greenfield, which is a working-class town with a high domestic abuse statistic. But it’s … shocking when it happens to someone you know. It has made me realize that trans women need access to domestic abuse support services. All women need our support.”

“Christa’s murder was, in my opinion, a domestic violence homicide,” said Scott, former executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC). “The rampant homophobia and sexism in our society has helped to create an environment that allows for acts of partner violence to be ignored and for victims to be made invisible.

“As a transgender person, I … see her death as part of the epidemic crisis of violence and murder facing transgender women—a crisis which only seems to be accelerating in this political climate.”

Power agreed with Scott’s contention.

“We must all demand an end to the killings of trans people,” he declared. “We must take to the streets to express our outrage, call our representatives in congress and the senate, sign and circulate petitions, and more, to demand respect and equality for trans people.”

“The [LGBTQ] communities are no stranger to mourning the violent loss of community members,” said Sabrina Santiago, co-executive director of The Network/La Red (TNLR), in the joint statement with the Elizabeth Freeman Center. “We talk about homicide, especially towards trans women, as hate crimes rooted in homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia. However, we don’t talk about the [LGBTQ] homicides that occur in relation to domestic violence. We need to start talking about the violence occurring within our communities.”

Based in Boston, TNLR is a domestic violence agency that serves the LGBTQ, polyamorous, and sadomasochism communities.

JP Delgado Galdamez, an outreach and education associate for TNLR, described the murder as outrageous and noted that though Massachusetts is thought to be a progressive state, discrimination and violence still exist.

“For a state that is thought to be more ‘[LGBTQ]’ friendly than most, hate crimes still happen here, domestic violence still happens here,” they said (note: Delgado Galdamez uses the pronouns they and them). “Transphobia is everywhere, even in this ‘trans-friendlier’ state.

“For example, the Massachusetts Transgender Anti-Discrimination Veto Referendum is an example that even in places where transgender and gender non-conforming people are more accepted and visible, there will be people looking to be able to legally discriminate against them.”

Delgado Galdamez estimates that between 25 and 33 percent of LGBTQ people experience intimate partner violence and noted that the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey reported that 54 percent of respondents had experienced intimate partner violence.

They went on to state that a possible remedy for domestic abuse is to end the silence and stigmatization around it.

“When survivors are believed and are given spaces where they can speak their truth, and when organizations whose mission is to look out for the safety of all survivors are adequately funded, trained and staffed, then we will see less and less instances of partner abuse, especially within the [LGBTQ] community,” they said. “We cannot expect anything to change if we aren’t ending the silence around partner abuse. We need to educate ourselves about what abuse is, and be willing to hold abusers accountable to the choices they make in exerting power and control over their partner.”

 

An Alarming Trend

Dru Levasseur, Esq., a senior attorney and director of Lambda Legal’s Transgender Rights Project, said he met her at the first New England Trans Pride in Northampton, Massachusetts. He said that she was pivotal to empowering the trans community.

“Christa contributed so much to the trans community, particularly for trans women to feel empowered in their own skin, to have dignity, and to feel beautiful in a world that tells them they don’t belong,” he said. “She was a sister in our community, raising the platform for others. She was part of our trans family.”

Levasseur said that though the media has done more to shine a spotlight on violence against trans women, there’s still an uphill battle to ensure the violence ends.

“I attended the White House briefing in March 2015 where this issue was discussed,” he said. “But, we have since had an administration that has gone on record to try to harm and erase our lives, even at a moment when the statistics tell us that this is a highly marginalized, at-risk population.”

Power is mobilizing for an action in early February.

“I, through the SMA, am organizing with Gery Armsby, through the Trans Caucus of Workers World Party, Boston, a standout protest and rally led by trans people against the killings of trans people – nearly one trans murder each week! – primarily of trans women of color,” he said of the protest, which is tentatively scheduled for February 7. “We will gather outside the courthouse in Berkshire County when Christa’s killer will have a public hearing. Organizations and individuals from Boston to western MA and eastern NY state will be participating, including the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders, Berkshire Pride, Elizabeth Freeman Center, and more. We want to show our outrage and demand an end to trans killings, as well as to keep a watchful eye over how Christa’s murder case is handled by the court.”

Andino, who said that she is a survivor of domestic abuse, hopes that Christa’s death will help increase awareness.

“It’s sad that she is the first [reported] trans person murdered in 2018,” she said. “Hopefully through her death, more awareness is brought to the issues that trans people face. Especially domestic violence or abuse towards the trans community.”

Delgado Galdamez said education and advocacy are key to eradicating domestic violence.

“We need to educate ourselves about what abuse is, and be willing to hold abusers accountable to the choices they make in exerting power and control over their partner,” they said. “Real change is going to require mainstream domestic violence programs to fully integrate [LGBTQ] survivor experiences into all their work and then create competent services that serve all survivors regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.”

“I hope Christa is remembered for the good she tried to do in her life and the man that murdered her is forgotten once he is tried and convicted,” said Scott.

Andino said that Christa’s pageant work has done a lot to lift up the identities of trans women and that it needs to continue.

“Christa’s legacy was the Miss Trans New England pageant and trans rights,” she said. “I would love to run the pageant with the help of other former winners. It would be sad to see the pageant end, it should still happen. That’s Christa’s legacy.”

Levasseur said that it stings doubly to know that another trans person has died as a result of violence _and_ was a dear friend.

“I have lost many trans community members to suicide and death,” he said. “It is devastating to start another year off and learn about another murder, [and] for this person to be someone you know with whom you organized, someone who made a difference for her community, and to know the impact this is having on so many of my friends who are suffering and grieving. My heart goes out to her family and close friends, as well as everyone who is impacted by this murder. Christa was a powerful organizer and fierce activist.”

A GoFundMe page has been setup to help pay for Christa’s funeral services.

The Network/La Red has a hotline for members of the LGBTQ, polyamorous, and sadomasochism (SM) communities to talk about their experiences and relationships or for people who were triggered or traumatized by the death of Christa. The number is 617-742-4911 (voice), 617-227-4911 (TTY), and 800-832-1901 (toll-free). It is open 24 hours from Monday to Friday and from 8 a.m. to midnight on Saturdays and Sundays. Additionally, The Network/La Red offers support groups, housing assistance through its housing pathways program, and advocacy for survivors of abuse. The Network/La Red also provides trainings and technical assistance to organizations, especially domestic violence organizations, that want to move towards being more inclusive of the LGBTQ, polyamorous, and sadomasochism communities. Services and resources are also offered in Spanish. Organizations such as Safe Passage in Northampton, Jane Doe Inc. in Boston and the New England Learning Center for Women in Transition (NELCWIT) in Greenfield also provide services for victims of intimate partner violence. 

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