Cece McDonald was subjected to a brutal hate crime, then incarceration for a prolonged “state crime”.
Cece McDonald survived extraordinary discrimination and prejudice, motivated by transphobia and racism.
Cece McDonald is a black transgender woman whose journey to justice was a demonstration of remarkable and deeply moving strength in the face of adversity.
Her story now in BBC iPlayer is one that has been told many times over, championed by acclaimed advocate Laverne Cox who produced the ‘Free Cece’ documentary which you can find on BBC Iplayer.
Her story is one of transphobia, racism and systemic failure.
Her story is one that reached the public conscience, and in doing so has shone a spotlight on those that don’t.
Let’s talk about Cece.
In June 2011 Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald was attacked by a group of people at a bar in Minneapolis. She was subjected to transphobic and racial slurs, as well as having a cup smashed in her face. An altercation with one of the group, Dean Schmitz, resulted in him receiving a fatal stab wound to the heart with a pair of scissors.
That injury, that death, is all that was talked about.
When arrested, the headline read that a ’23-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of murder’.
There was no additional narrative, no acknowledgement of Cece’s gender or that she acted in self-defence. As Cece herself said, the authorities ‘demonised’ her. This skewed reporting incited a vociferous reaction within the transgender community that saw Cece catapult to national attention. And that’s where Laverne Cox stepped in.
Cox met Cece in November 2013 and documented her experiences with her. She acknowledged that luck alone prevented her from walking in Cece’s shoes, such are the dangers facing black trans women in everyday life.
She said: ‘When trans women are attacked in these situations, they don’t survive. But Cece did survive, and her gift for survival was a prison sentence when she was just defending herself’.
There’s the reality. Defending herself against hate crime resulted in Cece being portrayed as a violent monster.
That portrayal epitomises the systemic problems that permeate the American ‘justice’ system. As Chase Strangio, Attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union said, ‘this is a system which does not understand trans people to occupy the status of victimhood’.
There was a blatant refusal to even contemplate that Cece could’ve been the true victim. That did not fit with the story the authorities wanted to tell. Cece’s defence team reportedly wanted to admit evidence to court of Dean Schmitz’s violent background. That request was denied. Cece’s defence team also apparently wanted to admit evidence to court of the fact that Schmitz had a swastika tattoo. That request was denied. Why? Allegedly because any evidence suggesting fault on the part of the white, straight man was considered too compromising. Fairness was disregarded, because ‘her life was not as important as the white straight man’ (Shelby Chestnut – NYC Anti-violence project).
It’s that same broken system that resulted in Cece forcibly accepting a plea deal for 2nd degree manslaughter. Not because she felt truly guilty of the offence, but because a trial would’ve resulted in lifelong imprisonment. There can only be one outcome when legal proceedings are structured in what seems such an inherently unfair way. She received a sentence of 41 months in prison. A 41 month long state crime.
For context, Molly Flaherty (who attacked Cece with the cup), received a 6 month sentence.
On the outside the trans community were angry, aghast that any type of prison sentence for self-defence could be considered a ‘win’.
They were also angry about Cece’s treatment in prison. Cece went from withstanding transphobia on the outside world to suffering the same within the prison walls.
She was assigned to a male prison.
She was placed in solitary confinement for a total period of 3 months, ‘for her own safety’. She was stripped of her transgender identity. Cece lamented the fact that ‘as a trans woman they still view us as men’.
But there is a positive part to this story. Cece did survive everything. She should never have had to, but she did. And she did it with the help of the trans community behind her, whose tireless campaigning saw her released from solitary confinement. Upon her release in January 2014 she was greeted by Laverne Cox, and was clearly overawed by the support in her corner.
Cece has since reunited with her family whom she left at age 14. She has a loving partner. She has become an activist in her own right. She doesn’t consider it her job, but who she is. She remembers that her story is that of ‘so many women like me’.
People like Cece will always inspire the power of the collective, who want to change a system that is so entrenched in wrong that it may never be right.
Cece is a trans woman. She is also a human being, a friend, a daughter and a partner. She has been subjected to transphobia and racism at every juncture. But she’s on top now, and she’ll surely stay there.