Nikki Kuhnhausen knew who she was from a very young age.
"To be honest, the word 'transgender' never entered our house, because it was just Nikki," her mom, Lisa Woods, tells PEOPLE. As early as sixth grade and the start of middle school, Nikki confidently wore her hair long, and displayed a growing talent with the use of eyeliner and lipstick.
"The cheerleaders were on her side instantly, because she was really good at it," says Woods, 52, of Vancouver, Washington. "If the cheerleaders are on your side, who's going to pick on you?"
Nikki, who aspired to be a makeup artist for Nicki Minaj and compete on America's Next Top Model, "knew exactly who she wanted to be and who she was," says her longtime friend Taylor Watts, 19. "She inspired a lot of people to actually feel free to come out as who they want to be."
But on June 6, 2019, after prosecutors say Nikki, 17, arranged a date with a man on Snapchat, she disappeared. Her remains were found six months later in a remote wooded area. A probable cause statement alleges that suspect David Bogdanov, 26, "became enraged at the realization that he had engaged in sexual contact with a male whom he believed to be female and strangled Nikki to death."
The killing — one of at least 26 murders of transgender people in 2019, based on data from the National Center for Transgender Equality — presaged a continuing rise in transgender homicides, with more than 28 so far this year. The American Medical Association last year called it an "epidemic of violence" with a full accounting that may never be known, as law enforcement and families do not always accurately report the victims' identity.
Washington state Rep. Sharon Wylie took note. "Lots and lots of us looked for her," she says of Nikki, whose mom met the lawmaker and affirmed Wylie's awareness of the trends of violence, suicide and risk in the transgender community — "particularly trans people of color," Wylie says.
Wylie resurrected another lawmaker's stalled bill that sought to ban the so-called "gay-panic defense," in which accused assailants blame the victims for crimes committed against them. "There are states where this defense works," says Wylie. "But this makes a public statement that this is not a good defense."
Using Nikki's example and Woods' pain to put a face on the issue, Wylie won her colleagues' support — and in March, Gov. Jay Inslee signed the Nikki Kuhnhausen Act, making Washington the 10th state to enact such a ban.
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"I've been impressed not just by Lisa, but by the way Nikki's friends have rallied around her," says Wylie. "And I think it's brave for a mother to try to make sure that her child's life means something and to prevent horrible things from happening to somebody else."
Says Woods, who stood beside the governor at the bill's signing: "I don't want anyone to think that it's okay to murder someone because of their gender."
Her daughter, she says, "was the most beautiful baby girl that the whole world's ever seen, and he had no right to take her from me."
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