The first reported murder of a transgender person in 2018 took place just five days into the new year.
Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, the 42-year-old founder of the Miss Trans America and Miss Trans New England pageants, was found stabbed and beaten in her own home on Jan. 5, as the Associated Press reported—and her husband, 47-year-old Mark Steele-Knudslien, has already been charged with the murder.
Citing a police statement, MassLive reported that the husband entered a nearby police station of his own volition and told an officer that he had done “something very bad” before admitting to the killing in detail during an interview—although he would go on to plead not guilty when he was arraigned earlier this week.
The Berkshire Eagle also reported that police were “familiar” with the couple from previous calls.
The horrific killing directly follows a year when the number of reported killings of transgender people reached an all-time high of 28, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Anti-violence advocates say it’s important not just to count the number of transgender murders this year as it ticks ever higher, but to begin to understand the social dynamics behind the violence.
In particular, they say, the Steele-Knudslien case speaks to the disproportionately high rates of domestic violence that transgender people experience—and our transphobic culture’s often-unspoken role in sanctioning that violence.
“I think there’s a way in which society responds to trans individuals that perhaps gives permission to abusers to use power and control over their partners around a partner’s trans identity,” said Sabrina Santiago, co-executive director of The Network/La Red, a social justice organization focusing on LGBT partner abuse, in an interview with The Daily Beast.
According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, over half of respondents reported experiencing “some form of intimate partner violence,” with 35 percent reporting physical violence and 24 percent reporting “severe” physical violence from a current or ex-partner.
Those latter two figures are noticeably higher than those for the general population, which fall at 30 percent and 18 percent respectively, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality’s report on the survey.
To understand that disparity requires an understanding of the many ways in which transgender people are marginalized, say anti-violence advocates.
Because so many different factors inform intimate partner violence against transgender people, studying the phenomenon is a tragically effective way to elucidate that social marginalization.
As Beverly Tillery, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, told The Daily Beast, the persistence of anti-transgender violence “shows a lot of the ways that our society needs to change in relationship to trans and gender non-conforming people in particular.”
For one, transgender people may be more likely to be cut off from support systems that could help them through the experience of intimate partner violence.
The U.S. Transgender Survey found that 40 percent of transgender respondents came from families that were either “neutral or not supportive” of them, with 26 percent reporting that a nuclear family member had “stopped speaking to them for a long time or ended their relationship altogether” after coming out.
“[Transgender people] may already be in an isolated place and may not have the same kind of support that others might have,” Santiago explained.
Another factor is the fraught relationship between the transgender community and law enforcement. The U.S. Transgender Survey found that over half of respondents who had interacted with police in the last year reported being mistreated in ways that ranged from verbal harassment to sexual assault.
“I think there’s a way in which the history of trans individuals’ experience with police may prevent them from calling for help,” Santiago suggested.
In this context, a violent murder like the reported killing of Steele-Knudslien isn’t an exceptional form of violence that defies understanding but rather the logical symptom of a culture that devalues the lives of transgender people, especially transgender women.
If transgender people are more likely to be cut off from family members, afraid to contact the police, and living with partners who have internalized the notion that they are less than human, it’s easy to see why rates of intimate partner violence for the community would be higher than they are for the population at large—and why these killings often appear to fit a pattern.
Indeed, the current details Steele-Knudslien case echoes the fatal 2017 stabbing of a transgender man named Kashmir Nazier Redd, whose partner Doris E. Carrasquillo was subsequently charged with second-degree murder.
As the Democrat & Chronicle reported, Carrasquillo was charged with stabbing Redd during a “domestic dispute.” LGBT groups cited the incident as proof of the need to discuss intimate partner violence within the community—and the same is true of the Steele-Knudslien murder.
“I think for the LGBT community, for a long time, we really focused on violence that felt like it was more external, that was about people who are biased against us, who hate us because of who we are,” Tillery told The Daily Beast. “It’s harder to wrap our heads around, or talk about, the fact there are ways in which we sometimes inflict violence on each other.”
Understanding intimate partner violence against transgender people requires not just a handle on domestic violence in general but a knowledge of specific social factors like the stigma attached to dating transgender people—and the potentially violence-inducing “shame,” as Tillery observed, that some men feel when dating a transgender women.
Until transgender people are seen as fully human, the violence will continue. The first transgender murder of 2018 will, unfortunately, be far from the last.
“If we don’t even see trans individuals as people—as having the right to make choices for themselves about their bodies, about their lives—then I don’t think things are going to get better for trans individuals,” said Santiago.