We Need to Listen – But What Are We Hearing?

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter –
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? ~ Isaiah 58: 6 & 7

Sometimes I will read an article and my reaction will be purely instinctive – it will immediately make me cross, or happy, or mad. Or it might trigger me emotionally and psychologically. And I will get that off my chest by praying and thinking it through, and occasionally it will result in one of my sporadic blog posts.  If I blog first, (and think later) I will usually read it afterward and groan to myself about any number of issues I will inevitably find with the language, or the structure.. I’m not a serious writer, but I like words you see.

I like how they can paint a picture in your mind of a time and a place, of complexity of purpose and character.. I like that they can be used to invoke and incite passion, even revolution.. and as a white, cis, able-bodied person I need to read (and in so doing, listen) to those whose colour, gender identity, disability or beliefs mean that the world see’s them as ‘other’.

By ‘the world’ I mean those who hold the dominant narrative. Think of words for a moment as music – indeed words spoken out loud for the sake of performance are music. They have rhythm and pitch and volume, and these are the properties of music, which has the ability to find and move and lift us up.. (err, yes, I did borrow that from The West Wing, but the point is still valid).

Back to my point.. the narrative that dominates the world in which we live is dominated – as it has been for centuries – by a white, cis, usually wealthy, elite. They drive how we see the world, how we understand it, how it is shaped in our minds. It is the view of the world which we first internalize, and if you are white and cis and able bodied, it is internalized to a degree we rarely, if ever, fully acknowledge.

And yet despite this dominant narrative, there are the stories that can draw us back from this status-quo, the words of those whose lives do not conform to that dominant narrative which can call out to us – and call us out.

If we read them. If we hear them. If we listen.

Sometimes, those words are taken by those who have control of that narrative and co-opt them. Words like.. justice and injustice. When that happens, there is an impact. The lived reality of actual injustice is one of oppression wrought daily. The so-called injustice done to a white cis man of wealth and power is worlds apart from the injustice done by society to trans*gendered woman of colour. But it is not her story that the media give the headlines to.

Injustice is a powerful word – but it’s meaning, it’s lived reality and it’s use to convey the appalling wrongs done to those whose lives are subject to the dominant kyriarchy becomes weakened, the parameters by which we judge what is unjust become warped. What do you hear, when Marissa Alexander tries to tell you of the crushing injustice done to her? Do you hear and understand the wrong she has suffered, or just another woman of colour complaining about her lot?

Women of colour, people of colour, the LGBITQ community, the sick and disabled – they needus to hear them, and to hear them properly, truly. To recognise and respond and stand with them, so that the narrative which shapes the world in which we live is, little by little, given back to those from whom it was taken.

If it sounds a little like revolution.. well, I would argue that it sounds like liberation and transformation, a world transforming from one of systemic oppression to one of systemic liberation.

So I loathe the cheapening of words too important to treat in such a manner: it was this article by Allison Pearson a few days ago when (not for the first time) I was struck by how the word ‘injustice’ can be used so flippantly. In writing about the supposed revelation that Nigella Lawson may have used drugs, she said:

“…if the Grillo sisters turn out to be telling the truth – and I hope they aren’t – then Charles Saatchi is the victim of an injustice.”

If you do not know anything about the case, or Charles Saatchi, then I am glad for you. Don’t Google it – there will inevitably pictures which you will find distressing.

Saatchi is a powerful and very wealthy man, who was photographed choking his then wife, Nigella Lawson. He has since insisted – because his reputation is frankly in tatters – that there was ‘another side’ to that story.  As if anything could possibly excuse, or explain away, this materially and physically powerful man’s act of violence against his wife.

What injustice has he suffered then?

No, there is none. His life will continue, and the perception of the general public will go on being unfavourable to him – but so what? It will not affect his wealth, or status, or power. The police caution he received will not prevent him from maintaining these things, and he has not been incarcerated, kept away from his family and robbed of his livelihood.

We who are white, cis, able bodied – who have some or all of the privileges that being those things mean – need to be quite so that we hear and listen.

Let us not make the hearing harder by distorting the words that might have the greatest impact.

CeCe: Punished for not being killed? (TW)

“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:

http://www.motherjones.com/documents/356409-mcdonald-chrishaun-11-16485-5-2-12-plea

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.”

http://inthesetimes.com/article/3372/transgendered_behind_bars/

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.