Friends honor slain trans activist’s life, legacy

  • Rev. Yohah Ralph speaks during a memorial service for Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, Saturday at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Deja Nicole Greenlaw sings during a memorial service for Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, Saturday at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Peter Ives speaks during a memorial service for Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, Saturday at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ben Power, of Holyoke, speaks during a memorial service for Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, Saturday at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ben Power, of Holyoke, speaks during a memorial service for Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, Saturday at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Danica Ali, of Springfield, speaks during a memorial service for Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, Saturday at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ben Power, of Holyoke, speaks during a memorial service for Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, Saturday at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lorelei Erisis speaks during a memorial service for Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, Saturday at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lorelei Erisis hugs Sky Sutton after a memorial service for Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, Saturday, at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ben Power, of Holyoke, left, chats with Marcia Garber, of Manchester, N.H., during a memorial service for Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, Saturday at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • CHRISTA STEELE-KNUDSLIEN

Staff Writer
Published: 1/27/2018 5:47:03 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien moved to the Pioneer Valley in 2005 in search of a community that would accept her identity as a woman and a transgender person. She arrived in the area homeless but determined and became a homeowner, trans activist and a central and influential figure in many people’s lives.

On Jan. 4, Steele-Knudslien, 42, was killed in her North Adams home. Mark Steele-Knudslien, her husband, has been charged with her murder and has pleaded not guilty.

Most of the 50 or so people at her memorial service Saturday, though, focused on the way she lived and the happiness she gave them. Steele-Knudslien’s grieving friends and fellow activists at the service at the Unitarian Society of Florence told of her impact on the community and their lives.

“Christa, in her dynamic, powerful way, shook the social constructions that define womanhood,” said the Rev. Yohah Ralph, a friend of Steele-Knudslien and United Church of Christ minister, who conducted the service. “She broke down the barriers that kept trans women from seeing themselves as beautiful.”

Ralph helped organize the first New England Transgender Pride March and Rally in Northampton. The June 2008 rally, which, organizers said drew roughly 1,000 people to Northampton’s downtown streets, was one of Steele-Knudslien’s many accomplishments as an activist for trans rights. Miss Major, a trans activist involved in the Stonewall riots and early gay rights movement, attended.

A gift

Lorelei Erisis, a trans woman who lived in California at the time, recalled her surprise at hearing that her hometown was the site of such an event.

“I had heard, in L.A., about the thing that had happened here, in the woods of western Mass.,” Erisis said at the memorial service. “And I wanted to be part of that, and I came back here to the town, strangely, that I was born in, and I met Christa.”

Erisis described Steele-Knudslien as a purposeful woman whom she saw as a sister. Though the two clashed at times, Erisis joined Steele-Knudslien in her activism and helped “prime” the second New England Transgender Pride March and Rally.

In 2009, Steele-Knudslien put on the first Miss Trans Northampton pageant, the first beauty pageant for transgender people in New England. Erisis competed.

“Christa gave me a gift that nobody else could have given me,” Erisis said. “Before I transitioned, all these people had told me, ‘You have to do what you have to do, but you know you’re going to be an ugly woman, right?’”

But in the end, Steele-Knudslien placed a crown and sash on Erisis, inaugurating her as the first Miss Trans Northampton, a title that gave Erisis great confidence. Miss Trans Northampton, first held at the Northampton Center for the Arts, became Miss Trans New England in 2010, and Steele-Knudslien was working on changing the pageant to Miss Trans America before her death.

“She had told me that she had done these gay pageants and that these pageants were filled with trans women who were transitioning, who were taking hormones, who were having surgeries, who were pretending to be gay men doing drag,” Erisis said.

“She wanted to start a pageant for transgender women to be proud of being transgender and women,” Erisis said.

After winning the Miss Trans New England title in 2010, Erisis went to the White House during the Obama administration to advocate for trans rights. Steele-Knudslien, however, did not compete in the pageants she created. Despite “loving the limelight,” Erisis said, Steele-Knudslien preferred to help others, and she coached her pageant contestants.

Ben Power, a trans rights activist who befriended Steele-Knudslien in 2006, similarly spoke of Steele-Knudslien’s supportive nature.

“Trans people had no visibility in Northampton or regionally at all until Christa,” said Power, who is known for his Sexual Minorities Archive of more than 15,000 documents.

“She got us on the Academy of Music electronic marquee that said, ‘Miss Trans New England Pageant,’” Power said. “That was one of the highlights of my life, just seeing that marquee just lift up that invisibility in this town. That was Christa.”

Power said, while Steele-Knudslien “had nothing, and then she had very little,” what she did have in spirit she used to help others.

But more needs to be done, Power said. Both Power and Erisis said Steele-Knudslien’s death is a trans issue, and that trans people are more likely to be victims of violence and domestic assault.

“Protest. There is a time for everything,” Power said. “There is a time today to mourn and be sad, though there is a time for our anger and our outrage, too.

Power is organizing a Feb. 7 protest in North Adams against the killings of trans people. At 9 a.m., at the Northern Berkshire District Court protesters will meet and head toward Steele-Knudslien’s house.

“We all must do something, because there’s intersections of oppression that led to this result. There’s sexism, transmisogyny, transphobia, domestic violence, poverty, classism,” Power said. “Pick one. Pick two, in the name of Christa, and do something.”

Power is in the process of collecting Steele-Knudslien’s activist possessions, sashes and pageantry artifacts for the Sexual Minorities Archive. “She will not be forgotten,” Power said.

Others reflected on the impression Steele-Knudslien has left with them as an outgoing, supportive, feminine and passionate person. Nikolas Fowler, of Springfield, said he met Steele-Knudslien’s first husband, John Hilfers, before meeting Steele-Knudslien. Fowler, a trans man, worked at a Burger King where Hilfers was abused for “being married to a man.”

Hilfers tried to make it to the service, according to Fowler, but could not. Instead, Hilfers wrote a letter about not forgetting his ex-wife that was read aloud.

Despite the negative experiences Steele-Knudslien faced for her identity, Fowler said she didn’t back down and left her mark on the trans community, who are devastated by her death.

“Like with bones that are shattered, where the break was is where it grows back stronger,” Fowler said. “She laid a foundation that will last for years.”

Danica Ali, who participated in Steele-Knudslien’s Miss Trans Northampton Pageant, said Steele-Knudslien helped her become comfortable living as both a trans woman and a lesbian. She read Romans 12:2 from the Bible in memory of Steele-Knudslien, a Christian, at the service: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Steele-Knudslien’s father, Willy, of Minnesota, disowned her and did not accept her identity, Ralph said. For 20 years, Steele-Knudslien was estranged from him. He was unable to attend the service, but penned a letter that Ralph partly read, and Ralph conveyed Willy’s thoughts.

“They parted ways for 20 years, and he has a very heavy heart about that. And he said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t do what I did,’” Ralph said.

Ralph also said there was a time when Steele-Knudslien and her father reconnected before her death, and her father went through “an intensive education on what it means to be trans, and he opened up. He said he is a better person than he was before.”

In the days following Steele-Knudslien’s death, her father, who passed on a love of cars to his daughter, was driving and heard the Elvis Presley rendition of “My Way,” as made famous by Frank Sinatra. He requested the song be played at the memorial service, and singer and guitarist Deja Nicole Greenlaw did so.

“I’ve lived a life that’s full,” she sang. “I’ve traveled each and every highway / but more, much more than this / I did it my way.”

David McLellan can be reached at dmclellan@gazettenet.com
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