Miss Trans America founder was first transgender murder of 2018: Here's why it's important to keep count

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor

A transgender beauty pageant founder was reportedly killed by her husband this week, making her the first transgender person to be murdered in 2018. The grim statistic — the number of transgender people who are murdered — is tracked annually by LGBT groups.

Transgender beauty pageant founder Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien was reportedly killed by her husband, making her the first transgender murder victim of 2018. (Photo: Facebook/Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien)

The woman, Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, 42, founded both Miss Trans New England and Miss Trans America; her husband allegedly “snapped” before carrying out her brutal murder in their Massachusetts home and then confessing to local police.

The Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT-rights lobbying organization, is one of many queer organizations that keep count of transgender killings, and notes on its website: “In 2017, advocates tracked at least 28 deaths of transgender people in the United States due to fatal violence, the most ever recorded. These victims were killed by acquaintances, partners and strangers, some of whom have been arrested and charged, while others have yet to be identified. Some of these cases involve clear anti-transgender bias. In others, the victim’s transgender status may have put them at risk in other ways, such as forcing them into homelessness.”

The organization then named Steele-Knudslien as the year’s first victim: “Sadly, 2018 has already seen at least one transgender person fatally shot or killed by other violent means. As HRC continues to work toward justice and equality for transgender people, we mourn those we have lost.”

Other advocacy organizations and individual activists acknowledged Steele-Knudslien’s death on social media, many sharing heartbreaking statistics:

So why is it so important to keep track of transgender murders and speak out about them — something done regularly not only by HRC but by the Transgender Law Center, GLAAD, and the International Transgender Day of Remembrance organizers?

“As we found in the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, transgender people face disproportionately high levels of discrimination and violence. Unfortunately, that violence can sometimes be fatal,” Jay Wu, spokesperson for the National Center for Transgender Equality, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Keeping track of transgender people who have been killed is a way to document one of the symptoms of the more widespread problem of discrimination, and to make it clear that it is indeed a problem.”

According to those who keep track, 2017 was the most violent year on record for transgender people.

“Transgender people have been killed this year in Chicago and in Waxahachie, Texas; in the Ozarks of Missouri and on the sidewalks of Manhattan,” the New York Times reported in November. “They have been shot, stabbed, burned and, in at least one case, pushed into a river. On average, one to two have been killed somewhere in the United States every week.

“And experts say these numbers almost certainly understate the problem. Local officials are not required to report such killings to any central database, and because the police sometimes release incorrect names or genders, it can be difficult to know that a homicide victim was transgender. So advocacy groups are left to comb news reports and talk to victims’ friends or family.”

Some of the findings regarding violence in the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, referenced above, included the following:

  • Ten percent of those who were out to their immediate family reported that a family member was violent toward them because they were transgender, and 8 percent were kicked out of the house because they were transgender.
  • The majority of respondents who were out or perceived as transgender while in school (K-12) experienced some form of mistreatment, including being verbally harassed (54 percent), physically attacked (24 percent), or sexually assaulted (13 percent) because they were transgender. Further, 17 percent experienced such severe mistreatment that they left a school as a result.
  • In the year prior to completing the survey, 30 percent of respondents who had a job reported being fired, denied a promotion, or experiencing some other form of mistreatment in the workplace due to their gender identity or expression, such as being verbally harassed or physically or sexually assaulted at work.
  • In the year prior to completing the survey, 46 percent of respondents were verbally harassed and 9 percent were physically attacked because of being transgender. During that same period, 10 percent of respondents were sexually assaulted, and 47 percent were sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime.
  • Regarding the effects of all this on mental health: 39 percent of respondents experienced serious psychological distress in the month prior to completing the survey, compared with only 5 percent of the U.S. population. And 40 percent of respondents have attempted suicide in their lifetime — nearly nine times the attempted suicide rate (4.6 percent) in the U.S. population.

Further, when it comes to domestic violence, the transgender community is victimized at higher rates than the general population, according to the Williams Institute. That report found that 30 to 50 percent of transgender people experience intimate partner violence at some point in their lifetime, as compared with 28 to 33 percent in the general population.

According to the New York Times story on transgender violence, “Advocates say the violence is inseparable from the social climate: that anti-transgender violence and anti-transgender laws — like so-called bathroom bills, which aim to police who may use gender-specific public facilities — are outgrowths of the same prejudice.”

For general observers, the facts about murder can be difficult to square, when considering what could indeed be the perception of a more tolerant, trans-visible culture, both in Hollywood and in the press.

But, explains Wu, “while transgender people are becoming more visible and more widely accepted around the country, that visibility can come with a backlash. In addition, many states still don’t have laws banning discrimination against transgender people. While societal attitudes are somewhat changing, there is a long way to go.”

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