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Transphobia Killed Her Daughter, But Her Legacy Lives In New State Law

lisa woods

The murder of a trans teen in Washington shook the community to its core. Now, her mother is making sure she didn't die in vain.

Nikki Kuhnhausen

Pictured: Nikki Kuhnhausen, courtesy of Lisa Woods.

Nikki Kuhnhausen was like a lot of teenage girls. She loved makeup, spent hours perusing videos on TikTok, and had dreams of one day becoming a makeup artist.

Kuhnhausen owned her trans identity since she was a child. She summoned the strength her mother, Lisa Woods, helped instill in her to empower other young people to find their own voices -- specifically trans youth.

Though Kuhnhausen's parents split when she was a small child, both were supportive of Kuhnhausen's trans identity despite a few conservative relatives.

"On the first day of sixth grade, she walked out of her bedroom door and she was Nikki, and she was Nikki ever since then," Woods tells The Advocate. Kuhnhausen's pride in her identity inspired other trans students at her high school in Vancouver, Wash.

Woods tells the story of one particular trans teen, who had just transferred to Nikki's school, Hudson Bay, because she was being bullied at her other school.

"She was crying because a guy had picked on her and Nikki found her crying," Woods shares. "They became friends, and Nikki made her feel special and made her experience at Hudson Bay a pleasant one. She was such a rainbow. It rains so much in Oregon, you know, 10 months out of the year. But when she was around, it was bright and sunny. She brightened the room. Her presence was so captivating and all she wanted to do was make everybody in the room feel better and make sure they were laughing and having a good time."

"I knew she was special and I never discouraged her," Woods says, explaining that Kuhnhausen never shied away when asked by students about her trans identity.

In fact, she often used these discussions as an opportunity to educate. "I built her up to be whatever she wanted. She was confident and beautiful and so secure and courageous. She knew who she was inside and was not ashamed or embarrassed or afraid."

lisa woods

But everything changed June 6, 2019. After multiple failed attempts to reach her daughter by phone, Woods knew something was wrong. It wasn't like Kuhnhausen to not answer her calls. Four days of panic and uncertainty followed before she reported Kuhnhausen missing to the police.

Woods tears up reading a letter Kuhnhausen wrote weeks before she went missing: "To my beautiful mommy," it begins. "I love you so very much. You're the best mommy ever. Just thinking about you makes my whole world happy. I love you, Nikki."

Nikki Kuhnhausen

Pictured: mother and daughter. Courtesy Lisa Woods.

After Kuhnhausen went missing, a grueling six-month search was set into motion. Woods and her husband joined hundreds of volunteers across the country who launched a prominent social media campaign and passed out thousands of fliers at Pride parades and local businesses.

The search ended December 7, when a hiker discovered Kuhnhausen's body in a wooded area on Larch Mountain, a remote part of northeast Clark County, Wash. The news of her murder sparked a wave of protests as the LGBTQ community in nearby Portland, Ore., mourned her death and called for stronger efforts to end assaults on trans women.

Ten days later, police arrested 25-year-old David Bogdanov. A search of Bogdanov's Snapchat account determined that he and Kuhnhausen had been communicating on the app the night she disappeared. Cell phone data shows they met up that night. He reportedly provided her alcohol, then dropped her off at a friend's house.

But police say they reconnected later that evening with the intention of having a sexual encounter. Vancouver detective David Jensen says evidence indicates that upon realizing she was trans, Bogdanov became enraged and strangled the teen, before leaving her body in the woods.

"An LGBTQ person who was kidnapped by somebody, and then murdered and dumped in the woods. I can't recall the last time that's happened here. It's something of an outlier," Jensen says. "In this case, the suspect's statements suggest this was a crime of anger and hate, in the moment, as opposed to a [premeditated] kidnapping or a sexual fantasy. I don't believe that it was one of those things."

lisa woods

Courtesy Lisa Woods.

Bogdanov admitted to police he met up with Kuhnhausen that night, but he denied killing her. In January, he appeared before a judge and was charged with second-degree murder with bail set at $750,000 -- a low amount compared to the $6 million prosecutors had requested. Bogdanov's legal representation argued that the request was excessive because of Bogdanov's lack of a criminal record.

According to prosecutor Colin Hayes, Bogdanov was only charged with malicious harassment at the time. Then weeks later, new evidence emerged that ultimately shifted the framework of the prosecution.

Jensen, who worked on the case from the onset, discovered that within hours of Kuhnhausen's murder, Bogdanov hopped a flight to Russia, where he remained for six weeks before returning to Clark County. According to Jensen, Bogdanov, who was "constantly photographing" on social media before Kuhnhausen's murder, didn't post a single photo from the trip.

"It was very clear that that this wasn't a planned trip," Jensen explains to The Advocate. "So we took that information to the prosecutor."

Hayes argued in court that Bogdanov's last-minute flight to Russia was an attempt to escape paying for his crimes, thus proving he was a flight risk. The judge agreed and increased Bogdanov's bail to $2 million.

Furthermore, the sudden flight after the crime was committed could also work against Bogdanov should his team mount a defense that he was not of sound mind at the time of the murder.

Since the discovery of Kuhnhausen's body, LGBTQ+ activists and organizers have led a fervent public outcry. Many feared Bogdanov's attorneys would try to utilize the LGBTQ panic defense, a legal strategy that blames a victim for the hate crime committed against them. It argues that the revelation of someone being LGBTQ+ (and either coming on to or being the object of the killer's sexual attraction) is so upsetting that the assailant becomes temporarily incapacitated and unable to be held responsible for their crime.

lisa woods

Pictured: Lisa Woods (left) and Democratic Rep. Sharon Wylie on the day she told Woods the Senate was going to pass The Nikki Kuhnhausen Act, i.e. "Nikki's Law," which prohibits anyone in the state to use the panic defense.

Nikki Kuhnhausen

Pictured: Lisa Woods (left) and her husband Vincent Woods at Kuhnhausen's "Celebration of Life" on March 1, 2020. Courtesy Lisa Woods.

That legal argument was precluded this March, when Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed the Nikki Kuhnhausen Act into law. Dubbed "Nikki's Law," it prevents defendants in the state from claiming "diminished capacity" upon learning about a victim's actual or perceived gender identity.

Washington is only the 10th state to enact such a law. It went into effect last month. Bogdanov's trial is scheduled to begin July 6.

Woods worked closely with trans activists and legislators to craft the law named for her daughter.

"She was my best cheerleader," Woods recalls. "We'd be in a room with a whole bunch of people and it would just be us. I just want her to be proud of me."

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