2018 begins on a tragic note for the transgender community

Last year was the deadliest year for the transgender community in a decade.

CREDIT: Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien's Facebook page
CREDIT: Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien's Facebook page

Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien is the first trans person to be killed in 2018, a grim statistic that comes only a few days into the new year.

According to local reporting, Christa’s husband Mark Steele-Knudslien, 47, confessed to her murder and turned himself in to police in North Adams, Massachusetts on Friday. He reportedly told officers he had done “something very bad” and requested to be arrested.

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“[Mark] stated he killed Christa by striking her numerous times with a hammer and then finally killed her by stabbing her in the back with a large knife,” read a crime report. “Steele-Knudslien later wrapped Christa’s body in a tarp and moved her to the basement which is where the body could be found.”

Steele-Knudslien, who was 42 at the time of her murder, was deeply involved with her local transgender community. She founded two beauty pageants, Miss Trans America and Miss Trans New England, and devoted her efforts to queer and trans rights in the region. She and her husband married last year after moving to North Adams; they lived together in the wider area for several years prior to their marriage.

The deaths of transgender people, particularly trans women, are disproportionately high. Last year was the deadliest year for the transgender community in at least a decade, with trans women four times as likely to be homicide victims as their cisgender counterparts, according to Mother Jones. For trans women of color, statistics are even grimmer. In November of last year, 84 percent of transgender murder victims were people of color and 80 percent were women. Those numbers are also likely undercounting, as many transgender people are misgendered and misidentified in death.

That was last year. A week into 2018 and activists are already worried this year could be the same.

“There is an epidemic of violence targeting the transgender community, particularly transgender women of color who live at the intersection of the toxic combination of transphobia, racism and misogyny,” said Sarah McBride, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement. “When those existing and pernicious prejudices are met with political rhetoric and policies that dehumanize transgender and Black lives, we see the kind of rise in hate-based violence that has occurred over the last few years.”

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A source of heightened anxiety for many activists is the current political climate. President Trump has rolled back protections for LGBTQ workers and transgender students, while working to bar transgender military service members. That political reality is weighing on the transgender community, but Shelby Chestnut, a national organizing and policy strategist with the Transgender Law Center, told ThinkProgress that transphobic policy isn’t the only problem facing transgender people.

I think for us, it’s changed and it hasn’t changed. This current administration keeps attacking trans people, they’ve done nothing short of that. Daily, there’s something new,” Chestnut said, pointing to other policy decisions made by the White House. “Yesterday, the administration announced an end to TPS [Temporary Protected Status] for Salvadoran immigrants. We’ve got trans Latinas coming to the United States and fleeing El Salvador. This impacts them.”

Violence against the LGBTQ community, people of color, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, and minority communities more broadly has risen at an alarming rate since Trump took office, as ThinkProgress and other publications have documented. That has outsized implications for transgender people of color, something the last year has made painfully clear. While Steele-Knudslien’s death is only the first reported death of a transgender person in 2018, activists are emphasizing that, without broad systemic changes, the horrors of 2017 are likely to repeat themselves.

“Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien’s murder is a tragic reminder that transphobia and transmisogyny didn’t end in 2017 and remains an urgent issue in 2018. The systematic devaluation of trans existence that leads to these brutal acts of violence is pervasive in our society,” said Emmelia Talarico, steering committee chair for the Washington, D.C.-based group No Justice No Pride, in a statement to ThinkProgress. “Until we confront this head on, until trans issues are no longer erased but centered in when we talk about gender justice — street harassment, domestic violence, sexual assault, etc. — the devastating, near-weekly murders of trans people, particularly trans women of color, will continue.”

Talarico also noted that responsibility for action lies as much within the queer community as outside of it.

“Folks who want to end this pattern need to do more than express shock and outrage on the internet. They need to think about what it means to center trans leadership, to listen to trans people when they express concern for their safety,” Talarico said. “Too often the trans community is tokenized and conditionally supported by the LGB community in partisan political battles, but abandoned when it comes to the day-to-day struggle of meeting our basic needs, producing a society that discriminates against us at every turn.”

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As transgender advocates work to demand accountability within the queer community, they are also bracing themselves for the continuing onslaught from the White House.

“It’s tragic. It’s sort of like a terrible waiting game, where you’re just sort of waiting to see,” Chestnut said. “In the current political climate, you’re just kind of expecting this.”

That sense of anxiety isn’t helping the work many activists say they want to be doing — celebrating transgender people in life as much as in death. Chestnut said that working to center the vibrant lives of those within the community is crucial, but violence is a constant factor looming large.

“With trans people, so often their stories aren’t told until they’re dead. What does it mean to have people be the leader of their lives and telling their stories?” they asked. “How do we get to a point where we’re telling these stories while people are alive?”