Memorial planned for slain transgender activist


  • Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, center, appears at the first Miss Trans Northampton pageant in 2009 with, from left, Tammy Twotone, Lorelei Erisis, Samantha Cornell and Danica Marie Ali. Contributed Photo/GLENN KOETZNER

For The Recorder
Published: 1/24/2018 3:05:15 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A memorial for Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, a transgender activist with deep connections to the Pioneer Valley, will be held at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence on Saturday.

Steele-Knudslien, 42, was killed Jan. 4 in her North Adams home. Her husband, Mark Steele-Knudslien, allegedly told police that he killed her. He has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and is being held without right to bail.

Ben Power, a longtime friend, said Steele-Knudslien first moved to the area in 2005, because she had heard that trans people were moving to the state.

“She wanted a community for herself,” said Power, of Holyoke, who is the executive director of the Sexual Minorities Educational Foundation.

The two met in 2006, when Steele-Knudslien reached out to him about the existence of a support group for trans women, because Power was hosting a support group for trans men. Power said the two bonded over shared experiences of hard childhoods, poverty and anti-trans discrimination.

“We struck up a conversation that lasted for hours on the first day,” Power said.

Steele-Knudslien and Power were among the people who helped organize the first New England Transgender Pride March and Rally in Northampton in June 2008.

The Rev. Yohah Ralph is another friend of Steele-Knudslien’s who was among the organizers. A United Church of Christ minister, he has been tasked with officiating her memorial service.

Ralph first met Steele-Knudslien when he attended her wedding to her first husband, John Hilfers.

In remembering Steele-Knudslien, Ralph noted how positive she was, as well as her love of makeup and clothing.

“She was a high femme,” Ralph said.

Ralph also noted how Steele-Knudslien promoted living proudly and openly as a trans woman.

Part of her activism around this issue involved creating the first trans beauty pageant in New England, Miss Trans Northampton.

Steele-Knudslien first held the pageant in 2009 at the Northampton Center for the Arts, and Power was one of the judges.

“I cannot tell you what a blast that event was,” Power said.

The winner of that competition was Lorelei Erisis, who’d moved to the Northampton area in 2008 from Southern California. Erisis had started transitioning there in 2007, but had seen friends fall away in Los Angeles, and then feared for her life after she moved to San Diego.

Erisis said Northampton was a place she felt safe walking down the street.

“That’s rare,” she said. “Especially then.”

Erisis said this was also the reason behind Steele-Knudslien’s move.

“Western Massachusetts is a place where she could just be a woman,” she said. “There’s not a lot of places you can do that.”

Steele-Knudslien transformed Miss Trans Northampton into Miss Trans New England before the second pageant was held in 2010.

Steele-Knudslien was in the process of transforming Miss Trans New England into Miss Trans America when she was killed.

Steele-Knudslien is thought to have been the first trans woman slain in the United States in 2018, and the first woman killed in a domestic violence incident in Massachusetts this year.

The Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence is at 220 Main St. in Northampton. The memorial will begin at 11 a.m.


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