In North Adams, a vigil for a slain friend, and against domestic violence

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NORTH ADAMS — One murder is one murder too many.

Closing with that message, dozens of Berkshire residents gathered in downtown North Adams on Monday to pay tribute to homicide victim Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien and condemn the violence that took her life.

"To know her is to be forever changed, to be forever blessed," said Jahaira DeAlto, trans/intersex activist. "We are gathered here tonight in a shared sense of solidarity, in a shared sense of community outreach, and with a newfound determination to keep the streets of Berkshire County safe for all people."

Steele-Knudslien, a transgender woman credited with launching the Miss Trans America and Miss Trans New England pageants, was allegedly slain by her husband last Friday inside their Veazie Street home.

"Christa was a proud woman of trans experience, but it is not her transness that resulted in the loss of her life. It is simply the result of experiencing violence," DeAlto said.

Steele-Knudslien's murder has sparked a broad response from transgender advocates and media throughout the country, including Planet Transgender and LGBTQ Nation.

Locally, Berkshire Pride quickly rallied to organize a vigil both to honor Steele-Knudslien's memory and as a way to spread the word about the services available to victims of domestic violence locally.

"We wanted to highlight her as a human being. Being trans is one of those things, but we didn't want to make it all about that, because she's a person," said Kenneth Mercure, a co-chair of Berkshire Pride. "We also want to make sure a conversation is started about domestic violence."

Earlier on Monday, Steele-Knudslien's husband, Mark S. Steele-Knudslien, was held without bail after being charged in Northern Berkshire District Court with her murder.

He allegedly went to the Adams Police Station on Friday evening to turn himself in. It was the city's first homicide in more than four years.

Word about Steele-Knudslien's death spread quickly through the LGBTQ community on Saturday.

"It's been an amazing reaction to a tragedy that people have had. They've come together, they've been working to help spread the word," Mercure said.

A GoFundMe page was launched to help pay Steele-Knudslien's funeral expenses and quickly garnered more than $1,500 in donations.

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The quickly organized rally drew dozens of people who withstood brisk winter conditions and marched in a process around Main Street.

Ashley Shade got to know Steele-Knudslien while running for North Adams City Council as a transgender woman.

"We spoke around that time a lot and she was really helpful," Shade said. "It was very shocking and devastating, something I didn't expect to happen here of all places. I'm still a bit shocked."

Despite Steele-Knudslien's death, Shade stressed that North Adams is "safe for transgender people, and if you find yourself in a situation of domestic violence there are resources."

The Elizabeth Freeman Center offers counseling, a shelter, court advocates, safety planning, and a variety of other services. The center hotline is 866-401-2425. 

"I really hope that people take away from this that domnestic violence really does happen within the LGBTQ community, and that that's not a shameful thing — it happens just like in every other community," said Jennifer Wahr, a counselor-advocate at the Elizabeth Freeman Center.

The LGBTQ community is based around equality and fight for rights, Wahr added.

"We should also be the leaders when it comes to being open about violence within our own relationships," Wahr said.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 23 transgender people were victims of fatal violence, the most on record. That number is believed to have been exceeded in 2017.

It has been widely reported by LGBTQ blogs and publications that Steele-Knudslien was the first victim of such violence in 2018, but that could not be independently verified by The Berkshire Eagle.

Mercure noted that Berkshire Pride had hosted a Transgender Day of Remembrance fewer than two months ago.

"We never would have thought a member of our community [in the Berkshires] would be killed," Mercure said.

North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard said that the city is resolved to support organizations like Berkshire Pride and the Elizabeth Freeman Center "who work to change our culture, who work to make our institutions more responsibe to the needs of victims and survivors."

Adam Shanks can be reached at 413-496-6376 or @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter


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