Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien has a distinction she obviously never wanted. She is the first known homicide of a transgender person in 2018.
Just nine months after she and her husband were married in an idyllic setting of the Berkshires of Massachusetts, Mark Steele-Knudslien walked into the local police department and confessed to — as the Boston Globe describes it — smashing her head with a hammer, and burying a stainless steel kitchen knife in her back.
She was Christopher Steele when she was born in Minnesota. When her parents split when she was 5, she went into the foster care system and, when she was in the fifth grade, went to live with Al and Madelyn Sisson. He was a Rochester, Minn., cop.
She left by the eighth grade and then lived in a group home. She transitioned in her late teens, the Globe said.
Between 1995 and 2005, she had frequent brushes with the law, racking up charges for domestic assault, prostitution, and escaping custody, online court records show. Rochester Police Captain John Sherwin said she was well-known for panhandling outside the Mayo Clinic with a man she called her husband, and two poodles.
The last time she saw her foster parents, they said, she was panhandling at their church, dressed as a woman. When Christa saw them, the Sissons said, she fled.
There was no place for Christa in Minnesota, she told her friends later. She moved to Northampton sometime in the mid-2000s, and married John Hilfers, a divorced cook from Minnesota, in 2007 at First Churches of Northampton.
Christa had found the community that would become her home, and she almost never spoke of the life she had left behind.
“I’ve known her since about 2008, gotten drunk and gone dancing with her. But for that, I had very little idea of who she had been before she was the person I knew in the present. . . . She was Christa,” said her longtime friend Lorelei Erisis. “I can’t even imagine her having had another name or identity.”
She tried to escape violence in Minnesota and, for a time, found happiness in a more liberal Massachusetts.
But transgender people are more vulnerable to violence than people whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth, the Globe notes.
“Most of the men I meet who are attracted to me as a trans woman or as a woman, they’re fragile flowers. They’re insecure,” a friend of hers said. “They’re afraid that being attracted to me is going to make them gay.”
In that context, she said, things can turn violent in a hurry.