Nikki Kuhnhausen’s mother remembers the day her daughter officially came out as transgender. It was the first day of sixth grade.
“She wasn’t Nick anymore. She was Nikki,” Lisa Woods told media Friday night before a vigil for the slain teenager. “She had been Nikki behind closed doors since she was 2 years old. She had Hannah Montana and high heels and makeup. We would buy her girls clothes for her bedroom.”
Kuhnhausen was proud of who she was, Woods said, but the family worried that others may not be as accepting.
Their worst fears were realized when Kuhnhausen went missing in early June, and her remains were found Dec. 7 on Larch Mountain.
Vancouver police detectives say David Y. Bogdanov, 25, strangled the 17-year-old after learning she was transgender. The two reportedly met in downtown Vancouver that night and drank together. They later communicated via Snapchat and met up again early the next morning, court records say. That was the last time she was seen alive. Bogdanov is facing second-degree murder in Clark County Superior Court.
“She didn’t deserve this — that hatred, the last thing she felt on this Earth,” Woods said. “Yes, she was murdered out of hatred because she was transgender.”
About 300 community members attended a vigil for Kuhnhausen, organized by National Women’s Coalition Against Violence & Exploitation, at Vancouver United Church of Christ in Hazel Dell. The organization was contacted by the Vancouver Police Department early in the missing person case — overseeing the distribution of more than 2,400 flyers and social media outreach.
“This last six months has been the longest six months of our lives. It’s just been a roller-coaster ride, up and down, playing in our minds, ‘What has happened? Where is she?’ ” Kuhnhausen’s stepfather, Vincent Woods, told media. “People have been awesome with putting up flyers. A lot of people have put in a lot of hard work trying to bring her home. The outcome, we played with that in our head. We still wasn’t ready for the outcome when detectives talked to us.”
During the vigil, Michelle Bart, president of NWCAVE, said she believes Bogdanov won’t be the only person charged in Kuhnhausen’s death.
“We will not tolerate violence in Vancouver anymore,” she declared to a burst of applause. “This so far is not a hate crime, but it is a hate crime.”
Bart said Kuhnhausen will be NWCAVE’s cause for 2020. The organization is pushing for “Nikki’s law” to address hate crimes and has already reached out to legislators, including Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry,” Wylie told Kuhnhausen’s supporters. “This is a battle that may not be over for a long time. These days, it seems even worse.”
But she said it’s the people who care about Kuhnhausen who will inspire change.
Vancouver Councilman Ty Stober and Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle also attended the vigil.
“There’s been a lot of tragedy in our community this year. A lot of tragedy. A lot of trauma,” Stober said, choking up as he spoke.
Washington is a leader in transgender rights, he said, but there was a plea a decade ago for the trans community to not be left behind. The response then, he said, was to “wait their turn.”
“There is no more waiting,” he said. “The time is now to act.”
“There are no words for the ugliness that happened to Nikki,” McEnerny-Ogle said. “In our hearts, we know she’ll always be with us.”
De Stewart with PFLAG Southwest Washington, an organization that supports LGBTQ people, their parents and families, and allies, said with Kuhnhausen’s death, 2019 became the most dangerous year for transgender people.
“How can they justify taking someone as glorious as Nikki from our world?” she questioned. “It takes courage to live honestly. It is the coward who chooses violence.”
Counselor Mackenzie Dunham with Wild Heart Society said Kuhnhausen’s death is a painful reminder of the danger to living one’s truth. She encouraged those at the vigil to give themselves permission to feel the pain of Kuhnhausen’s loss — a young woman she described as being “tremendously brave.”
But to her mother, Kuhnhausen will be remembered as “a rainbow of light.”