On Sunday night at Clark College, about 150 friends, family members and others touched by the life and death of Nikki Kuhnhausen shared tears, hugs and an outpouring of funny and tender stories in a celebration of her life.
Nikki, a 17-year-old transgender woman, was murdered last June, and her accused killer, David K. Bogdanov, is being held on $750,000 bail and facing second degree murder charges and malicious harassment, a hate crime. But his name wasn’t mentioned at the gathering of those who loved the teenager; instead, they told tales of a bright, compassionate and feisty daughter, sister and friend.
“The one thing I hope everyone can take away from this is to be yourself,” Nikki’s brother Conrad said of her spirit. “Be who you were made to be. Don’t give up.”
Nikki’s mother, Lisa Kuhnhausen-Woods, described a very close, tight-knit relationship with her daughter. Nikki’s last words to her were “I love you mommy, we’ll talk tomorrow,” she said.
“She had so much love for all of you,” Kuhnhausen-Woods told the crowd. “I’m not ready to accept that she’s gone forever, so I really can’t talk about her in past tense yet.”
She read a letter Nikki wrote to her, addressed “to the best and most beautiful mommy, love always from your favorite.”
But Kuhnhausen-Woods’ grief over losing her daughter has been almost unbearable, she said. Nikki went missing in June, and her body was found on Dec. 7 near Larch Mountain.
“Since she went missing, there have been people supporting us that both knew her and didn’t know her,” said Kuhnhausen-Woods. “Tonight is more for them. I’m not there yet. She was my oxygen.”
Nikki’s step-father, Vince Woods, said he’s also having a hard time coming to terms with the death.
“We’ve been on a roller coaster ride,” Woods said. “It doesn’t get easier. They say time makes it easier, but it hasn’t been true for us.”
Nikki’s little sister, Echo, remembered all the fun she used to have with her big sister. She described a time when Nikki was babysitting and their mother told them to clean the kitchen, which ended up in a slurry of water on the floor.
“So she told me to put on my bathing suit, and we used the kitchen floor as a slip-n-slide until my parents came home,” Echo said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
Friends also spoke of Nikki as a powerful supportive force in their lives, strong, with a deep love of other people from all walks of life.
“My gosh, the sass,” said one friend and former youth pastor. “She had a way of just knowing what you needed, knowing what you really felt. … She was always with me, arm and arm, wherever we went.”
Another friend from the Vancouver homeless community, who goes by Pink, said Nikki’s support was critical in helping her to stop using heroin and get her life back together.
“Nikki was so kind and generous,” Pink said. “She would constantly make sure that everybody downtown had food, water. … I feel like I could never repay the happiness that Nikki brought to my life.”
Mikki Gillette, who’s been assisting the family with Basic Rights Oregon, said she was anticipating a larger turnout of about 400 people, but the fear of a growing coronavirus outbreak seems to have kept people home. A few visitors to the memorial wore protective masks, and refreshment stands included hand sanitizer for germ protection.
“At the vigil, we had more than 400 people, but I think the virus is keeping people home now,” Gillette said.
In the wake of the murder, the Washington house and senate have approved HB 1687, dubbed the Nikki Kuhnhausen Act, which bans the panic defense as a legal strategy for defendants accused with murdering members of the LGBT community.
Kuhnhausen-Woods said it may be the one bright spot for her in all the darkness.
“I think it’s a miracle,” she said. “Who better to name that bill after than Nikki? She’d be leading this march if she were here.”
A mention of the bill also got a loud round of applause from the gathering.
In the eulogy, Rev. Betty Campbell described a teenager that was always smiling, sassy and compassionate — always ready with a hug.
“We will miss that bubbly personality, we will wonder what would Nikki think of this or that,” Campbell said. “Nikki was a person of resolve. Never listening to what the norm would be, and ever ready to make a mark.”
The reverend described the teen as someone who could go from playing basketball with punk rockers to making her own designer clothing to sharing music with her friends.
“Today we mourn, but tomorrow we move forward in strength and beauty,” Campbell said.