Convicted for manslaughter, attacked for an identity she did not choose, a symbol of the many violences that transgender people in America face on a daily basis – this is CeCe McDonald, and on Monday, January 13, she was released from prison. While her name is not well known to the general public, she is a symbol of oppression, and of strength, to many in the transgender community, and her story is an important illustration of a much larger problem.
McDonald’s time in the public eye began on June 5, 2011, when she and four friends (all African-American) were walking past Schooner Tavern in Minneapolis. Outside the bar was a group of at least four white people who began to harass the friends, calling them “n****rs” and “fa***ts.” One man, Dean Schmitz, went so far as to say “look at that boy dressed like a girl tucking her dick in” in reference to CeCe, who is transgender. But things took an even uglier turn when Molly Flaherty, Schmitz’s ex-girlfriend, hit McDonald with a glass bottle and sliced open her cheek all the way down to her salivary gland, a wound which required 11 stitches. At this point a fight broke out, and McDonald attempted to leave the scene. When she did so, however, she was followed by Schmitz, and took out a pair of scissors from her purse as she turned to face him.
Dean Schmitz died from McDonald’s stab wound before paramedics could arrive, and most of the people involved left (some might say fled) the scene. Later that night, after being taken into custody by police, CeCe McDonald was charged with second-degree intentional murder – the only person to be arrested or charged, on either side of the fight (almost a year later, Flaherty was charged with second- and third-degree assault for hitting McDonald with the bottle; she pled guilty and was given 180 days in jail). McDonald denied the charges, stating that she had simply been defending herself against a man who was attacking and following her, but all she got was a plea deal for second-degree manslaughter, which she took, and was subsequently sentenced to 41 months in prison.
CeCe McDonald and Laverne Cox
Recently, though, things have begun looking up for McDonald. In a picture posted to Twitter after her release, she was shown smiling and listening to music — according to Laverne Cox, who was also in the picture, they had on Beyonce. It was also recently announced that a documentary about McDonald is in the works.
The film is being produced by Laverne Cox, herself a famous transgender actress who recently educated Katie Couric about the appropriate way to interview trans people after being asked offensive and deeply personal questions in an interview. In the role of Sophia, a transgender character, on the hit Netflix show Orange is the New Black, Cox is “feminine, fresh, and fierce” while bringing to light the struggles of one of the most discriminated-against groups in history, including prison-specific struggles like the denial of hormone treatments.
Based largely off an interview with McDonald conducted in the prison, Cox’s documentary Free CeCe is currently in production, with a release date not yet set, and is expected to bring much-needed attention to the problem of transgender violence in America.
Symptom of a Larger Problem
Although McDonald’s life can now begin to return to some semblance of normalcy, the issues brought to light by her case are certainly not isolated ones. Rather, transgender people, especially trans women of color, face discrimination and violence on a daily basis.
One major issue is single-sex prisons and the transgender community. When she was arrested, police had to make a decision regarding McDonald’s housing: did she belong in an all-male or all-female prison? Though to some this might seem obvious (she’s a woman, so she should go in a female prison), police were not quite as aware, and regrettably placed McDonald in a male prison, where she was forced to stay for the duration of her sentence.
The placing of trans prisoners in the wrong prison is, sadly, not limited to just McDonald’s case. Another high-profile prisoner, Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley, she leaked classified information about issues ranging from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to embassy cables to files on the Guantánamo Bay prison) is currently being held at the (male) Fort Leavenworth prison without being allowed to medically transition.
And, of course, there are many more women and men held in the wrong prison all around the country, with dire consequences; these are most significant for women wrongfully placed in male prisons, where they are often victims of sexual assault.
Additionally, coverage of 0ftentimes-much-needed hormone therapy and gender confirmation surgery is spotty at best for transgender prisoners. In 2011, the US Bureau of Prisons announced that it would allow prisoners with diagnosed Gender Identity Disorder to medically transition through the use of hormone treatments, in contrast to its earlier policy of only maintaing the level of care that inmates had been receiving before they entered the prison.
However, in states and private prisons, cases are handled on a much more individual basis; in fact, federal standards actually require that determinations about a male- or female-only prison be made individually for transgender prisoners. And prisoners who want to receive hormone therapy while in prison (either to maintain pre-prison levels or to begin therapy) in many cases have had to sue their prisons; one of the most important cases ended in 2011 when a federal judge struck down a Wisconsin law which had banned publicly-funded sex reassignment surgery and hormone therapy, calling it “torture.” Another is a federal judge who ruled that prisoner Michelle Kosilek was entitled to sex reassignment surgery, but that procedure has been delayed by appeal, and no other prisoner has been given that opportunity.
Trans* Women of Color: One of the Most Targeted Groups in America
However, as horrible as it might sound, in a way CeCe McDonald is lucky — she is, after all, still alive following her attack, which is something that cannot be said for many others like her.
According to the Huffington Post, the average life expectancy for a transgender person is “28, and it is estimated one [transgender] woman is killed ever[y] 35 hours;” statistics are even worse for trans women of color, who face oppression on multiple fronts. While many, many murders of transgender and gender-non-conforming people are not reported or are reported incorrectly, a small sampling have made it through to national news.
Some of those recently killed include Islan Nettles, an African-American trans woman killed in Harlem; after being unable to determine which of two men was her murderer, police dropped the misdemeanor assault charges that had been in place against one of them, drawing anger and accusations of bias from many in the transgender community.
Another example is that of Domonique Newburn, whose suspected killer Dantjier Powell (who may have been in a relationship with her, a common occurrence in hate crimes against trans people) is still on the loose. Yet another is Angie Zapata, who was brutally beaten to death when the man she’d had sex with the night before learned that she was biologically male; he was convicted of first degree murder as a hate crime, the first time that a victim’s gender identity was used as basis for a hate crime, and sentenced to life in prison plus 60 years.
Even more examples of violence like this are the murders of Paige Clay, Rosita Hidalgo, and Coco Williams… quite simply, the list just goes on. And, sadly, murders of trans* people do not happen just in the United States; the Trans Murder Monitoring Project collects information from around the world, and there is plenty of it.
Murder is not the only problem trans* people face, either — a 2011 study of transgender and gender-noncomforming people by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task force showed remarkably high levels of violence and discrimination against members of the trans* community on multiple fronts.
The Criminalization of Self-Defense
However, broadening the picture, McDonald’s case can also be seen as simply the latest in a string of examples of oppressed minorities being arrested for engaging in acts that are, arguably, self-defense.
The most famous case of this kind, of course, is that of Trayvon Martin, an African-American teenager who was killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman; Zimmerman was later acquitted. While the public will never know actually what happened that fateful afternoon, we do know that Zimmerman was the one who began the altercation, which means that even if Martin did in fact fight with him, it would have been in self-defense.
Another famous example of an African-American woman arrested for defending herself is that of Marissa Alexander, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing a warning shot at the ceiling during a violent attack by her husband (the sentence was subsequently overturned, and a new trial is scheduled for March).
Yet another example is that of seven lesbian women who were harassed by a man claiming he could turn them straight by having sex with them, and who allegedly jumped on and throttled one of them; a friend of the woman being throttled pulled out a knife at that point, and the man was stabbed, though not fatally. Some of the women pled guilty to attempted assault and spent six months in jail, while others were sentenced to between 3.5 and 11 years in prison. (While these are only a few examples, more can be found in Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, by Joey Mogul, Andrea Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock.)
Considering the statistics, it’s only logical that many trans* people, especially trans women of color, live in fear for their lives on a daily basis. However, they’re also caught between a rock and a hard place: in many cases, fighting back against a hate crime will get you arrested, while the other option can be being seriously injured or even killed.
Luckily, most Americans will never have to make that choice. For CeCe McDonald and others like her, though, it is a question that they must face regularly.
Photo credit: Billy Navarro Jr.