CeCe McDonald, the Girl Who Lived (And Why There is No Justice for Transgender Women of Color)

If CeCe McDonald had been a white woman who had successfully defended herself from a group of drunken attackers threatening rape and violence, she probably would not be in jail right now.

May 9, 2012 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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Paige Clay, shot and killed in an alley in Chicago. 

On Monday morning, April 16, Paige Clay was found dead in Chicago’s West Garfield Park, the victim of a single gunshot to her forehead. Paige was 23 years old, much beloved by her chosen family in Chicago’s Ball community, and a transgender woman of color. No one has been arrested for her murder, and little new information has surfaced since.

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Brandy Martell, shot and killed in Oakland. (Photo: Tiffany Woods)

Less than two weeks later, on Sunday morning, April 29, Brandy Martell was murdered as she sat in her car, talking with three trans friends in Oakland, CA. Brandy had been approached by two men with whom she had a brief conversation, in which she stated that she and her three friends were all transgender. 

According to one of the passengers in the car, the men then left, returning two hours later. One of them walked up to the car and fired a gun into the driver’s side window. Brandy was shot in the side, and tried to drive away. The man kept firing at her even then, and she died as a result of her injuries. No arrests have been made. Brandy was 37 years old, a peer advocate for trans people in need of psychological and medical help, and a transgender woman of color.

Last week in Minnesota, a woman named CeCe McDonald pled guilty to second-degree manslaughter. CeCe was walking to a grocery store in Minneapolis with some friends last June when several people standing outside a bar began shouting racist and transphobic slurs at them. One of the men allegedly asked CeCe, whom he identified as male, if she planned to “rape somebody in those girl clothes.” 

Words were exchanged after CeCe told the harassers to stop, and in response, one of the bar patrons hit CeCe in the face with a glass, slashing through her cheek and damaging her salivary gland, a wound that would require stitches. CeCe asserts that she then took out a pair of scissors to “scare” the harrassers, but as a result of her efforts to defend herself, one man (a man who, as it happens, had both a history of violence and a swastika tattooed on his chest, which would not be allowed as evidence in the trial) was stabbed once, and subsequently died. CeCe is 23 years old, and a transgender woman of color.

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CeCe McDonald, currently in jail for defending herself.

In November of last year, while awaiting trial, CeCe wrote:

I am truly sorry for the loss of a person who also was involved in the incident, but how would my mom and family feel if she heard that I was killed by a group of racist, homophobic/transphobic people only for walking to the store and being at the wrong place at the wrong time, which luckily I wasn’t by myself. Or even looking at it in different aspects, would the situation have been the same? Would they have taken the same lengths to prosecute him if he had killed me? Or would they have even cared if it were a black on black crime?

Given the magnitude of the violence perpetrated against transgender women of color, CeCe’s question demands a thoughtful answer. Had CeCe been alone, it’s entirely possible that she might not have survived this encounter; as it is, she has pled guilty to a crime in spite of her assertions that she was acting in self-defense, and will serve time simply because she managed to survive a violent attack. (No one else has been arrested or charged in the incident.)

Transgender women of color are at the highest risk of hate-based violence of any group, unsurprising for a group of people surviving under three oppressive yokes -- racism, sexism, and transphobia -- all at the same time. According to a 2011 report, 70 percent of LGBT murder victims were people of color. 44 percent were specifically women of color. 

If you search for her name, you won’t find CeCe McDonald’s story on CNN. Nor Paige Clay’s, nor Brandy Martell’s. Their stories are invisible, buried, devalued. Were a non-trans white woman found inexplicably shot in Chicago, or if a non-trans white woman were riddled with bullets in San Franscisco as she tried to escape, and both of their murderers were still at large, odds are good we would have heard about it. If a non-trans white woman defended herself from a group of drunken attackers threatening rape, she probably would not be in jail right now.

Culturally, black women being murdered is not considered a story that is upsetting, or scary or outrageous; nor is a story about black women going to jail. Culturally, this is understood as just a thing that happens. When these black women are also transgender, well, most mainstream American audiences really, really don’t want to hear any more about that. Sympathy is hard to come by. And so their deaths and survival go unnoticed, unmarked, except by those who know it could have been them.

Trans advocate (and xoJane contributor) Janet Mock recently gave a keynote at USC in which she touched upon these crimes; of first hearing about the murder of Paige Clay, she said:

I didn’t shout or cry in anger when I saw her story. Instead, I found myself with this numbing sense. I was desensitized because I had read Paige’s story before. Over and over again. I had read it in LaShai McLean’s story and Agnes Torres Sulca’s story and Shelley Hilliard’s story and Deoni Jones’s story. These women’s murders have become the harsh reality girls like us face.

For trans women of color, these women’s murders are constant reminders that who we are falls so outside of the box of what society says is acceptable that our deaths and even our lives don’t matter. We are in effect disposable.

CeCe McDonald currently sits in jail awaiting her sentencing. Some advocates have argued that she is being punished for surviving, for being one of the few victims of transphobic violence to fight back and live, and that a murder charge was totally unwarranted.

Were her actions justified? The answer is subjective; those who have had similar experiences may think so, while those whose circumstances mean they will likely never face such an attack might disagree. I am inclined to believe that CeCe was hit with a glass and knew, as all girls like her know, that her life was in danger, and I can’t say I wouldn’t have responded similarly were I in her shoes. The odds were never in favor of her living through a violent attack, and CeCe’s will to do her best to protect herself must be resonating with anyone who has faced harassment that turned into assault. 

CeCe has always insisted that she acted in self-defense, but it is not surprising that she and her lawyer would doubt her chances of a fair trial. CeCe’s plea deal stipulates that she is to be sentenced to 41 months -- that’s almost three and a half years -- in prison, where she is likely to be housed with male inmates, as prisons are not legally required to place inmates according to their gender identity, but rather do so by their sex at birth. This means CeCe, like many transgender inmates, will be at a huge risk of terrible sexual violence while in prison, and she will probably have no recourse to be moved to a safer (i.e., women-only) facility.

From one of CeCe’s letters from jail, before her trial:

Sometimes I wish people would use their minds, and actually think of what results can come from what they say to another person, before they let the words leave their mouth. I don’t understand how, or why, my sexuality is such a threat to someone. I never asked for this, but I’m not going to be ashamed of who I am, not only because I have strived so hard to get self-understanding and acceptance, but also because it isn’t in my nature to be ashamed of who I am, even when I was forced by others to believe that I am or should be. From many people I was told to hold my head high, and to do me, regardless of what anyone says or think. And me being able to accept who I am, I’m going to do just that, with no feelings of worry or shame. It just hurt, and can be very disturbing, when a person isn’t allowed to be comfortable in his or her own skin because of the ignorance of others, and dealing with all the isms and phobias there are in this world.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Trans memoirist and blogger Everett Maroon has assembled an excellent list of constructive opportunities to help. There is a petition asking for Minnesota governor Mark Dayton to pardon CeCe McDonald. You can also write to CeCe in jail to lend her your support.  More information on her case and continuing updates can be found on the Support CeCe website.