“I wont let the actions of hateful people detour or distract me. I will continue on my path to loving myself, and others. But most importantly, to continue in my pursuit of happiness.”
~ CeCe McDonald
“People are being killed out there, and CeCe is being punished for not being killed.”
~ Mara Keisling, National Center for Transgender Equality.
This is a story about a young woman who, along with her friends one evening, was attacked whilst enjoying an evening out. It is the story of victim blaming in extremis; of a young, bright, well-loved trans woman of colour who was very possibly victimized for being African-American LBGTQ.
First, a little context: in 2010, 44% of those murdered in LBGTQH related hate crimes (US) were trans women. In a country where 2% of the population are likely to find themselves jailed at some point in their life, 21% of trans women, and 47% trans women of colour report being arrested and incarcerated. As Rai’vyn Cross – a friend of CeCe’s – told Democracy Now on April 27th 2012, threats and harassment are a ‘day-to-day’ occurence.
It was certainly the case on 5th June 2011. CeCe, along with four friends (all of whom were African-American), were out in Minneapolis one evening and walking past Schooner Tavern. At least four white men outside the bar began shouting abuse at the friends. One of them – Dean Schmitz – called out “look at that boy dressed like a girl tucking her dick in.” CeCe and her friends were walking away, but Molly Flaherty smashed a glass in CeCe’s face, resulting in an injury that required 11 stitches. Fighting ensued as her friends tried to defend her, and although CeCe tried to walk away, Schmitz followed her. Feeling scared and threatened, CeCe took a pair of scissors from her bag and in the ensuing scuffle, Schmitz was stabbed in the chest and died from his wounds. A court transcript of the facts can be found here:
Despite the injury to her face, and her insistence that the wounds inflicted on Schmitz were in self-defense – CeCe was arrested that night. No one else was arrested – none of the white men who shouted the transphobic, racist and anti-gay verbal abuse, and certainly not Molly Flaherty, who smashed CeCe in the face with a glass.
CeCe’s defense team, based at the Legal Rights Centre – http://www.legalrightscenter.org/News.html – had a number of problems to contend with.
- They were unable to submit details of Dean Schmitz’s swastika tatoo*, or his previous criminal record
- The judge ruled that defense could not provide expert witnesses to the every day violence experienced by transgendered people – despite the evidence of the racist and transphobic abuse that CeCe and her friends experienced.
*“At times he can be like that, yes…It depends on his mood, unfortunately,”
~ Charles Pelfrey, Schmitz’s brother
In fact, CeCe herself was no stranger to that violence – she had experienced this even at the hands of her own family, and you can read about that, in her own words, here: http://supportcece.wordpress.com/2011/11/05/pursuit-of-happiness-3/ (Trigger Warning)
You can also read CeCe’s testimony during her trial here: http://supportcece.wordpress.com/?attachment_id=1661
That CeCe and her friends were on the receiving end of a racist, transphobic attack is in little doubt. It is possible that CeCe pled guilty to the lesser manslaughter charge because her legal team were unable to provide the evidence to prove that she was acting in self-defense when Schmitz was stabbed. (Her legal team have pointed out the lesser charge to which she pled guilty is often given where the prosecution are aware of the more than a little culpability on the part of the person killed). She is serving out her sentence in the men’s facility at St Cloud MN., and that brings its own dangers and concerns.
A 2006 study (US) found that 59% of transgender prisoners reported being raped or sexually assaulted. For Alexis Giraldo, who was repeatedly raped whilst in Folsom State Prison in California, it’s simple:
“They are doing people wrong, and they are covering it up.”
There has not been a great deal of coverage of this case. However Mother Jones covered this in great detail and you can read that here: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/05/cece-mcdonald-transgender-hate-crime-murder
It was also covered by the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=KJOD_SYWKtI
You can also read the blog set up by CeCe’s supporters here: http://supportcece.wordpress.com
What CeCe is dealing with is not unusual for any trans woman of colour in the US – but it speaks of a system that not only systematically ‘others’ these women, but effectively and categorically blames them for the abuse they suffer. CeCe did not seek a fight – she actively tried to walk away from it. But in that moment that she felt her life was in danger, her decision to try to defend herself cost her dearly. It certainly cost her liberty and freedom.