In June of 2011, CeCe McDonald, a transgender woman, was attacked while walking to the grocery store. In the ensuing fight, she killed one of her attackers, Dean Schmitz. McDonald was arrested and sentenced to 41 months in prison. Her case drew international attention, and after being released from prison earlier this year, McDonald has been touring the country talking about transgender and racial justice. She sat down with the *Maroon* to discuss issues faced by trans people, liberalizing drug and sex laws, and the difference between herself and George Zimmerman.
Chicago Maroon (CM): Can you talk about the indignities you’ve faced as a transgender woman and the indignities faced in general by trans people?
CeCe McDonald (CCM): I wouldn’t say that it’s just being trans alone, because a lot of trans people have certain privileges that trans women of color don’t have. But there is definitely a significant unacknowledgment [sic] of trans women in society today. And it seems like we’re starting to get the momentum and the acknowledgment that we deserve and have the right to, but there are definitely still certain tribulations that trans women face, like criminalization and mass incarceration. Equality in employment in housing and education, which causes trans women to kind of fall back into these stereotypes and just, say self-destructive habits that can be detrimental to them and the people around them.
CM: What are the extra indignities faced by trans people of color?
CCM: It’s not so much trans people of color, it’s just people of color in general, where we face higher rates of unemployment, higher rates of incarceration, police brutality, and that all has to do with the way that people of color have been targeted. But trans women of color are targeted in ways that more involve hypersexualization, transmisogyny, violence, whether it be from our partners or from just people in our communities. It has a lot to do with the detachment of our humanity, which causes people to see us less than, and causes them to treat us less than.
CM: What do you think needs to be done to stop society from treating trans people as less than, as lower on the totem pole?
CCM: There has to be acknowledgment of who we are as people...I feel like once people kind of attach our humanity back to us and see us for more than props or sex objects, to see that we deserve and want loving and caring partners, and that we need housing, and employment, and education to be progressive in this society. When people see that we deserve and need all the things that any cis or hetero person has, that helps a lot.
CM: You’re saying there’s a psychological effect on trans people that society puts on them?
CCM: ...With people of color in general. We’re always stereotyped as the welfare recipient or the drug dealer or so on and so forth. I feel like people tend to internalize that and not know that there are opportunities that are out there, but also not having all the opportunities and same resources that other privileged people get. And that is definitely a psychological manipulation in a way where people kind of don’t know how to deal with that or unintentionally don’t know that it’s happening, and that kind of keeps this cycle going that it’s okay to be this way, which is fine too, but there are also ways that we can better ourselves….I feel like it’s not just a trans issue, it’s an everybody issue.
CM: You grew up in Chicago. How did your childhood in Chicago impact you?
CCM: Once I moved from Chicago to Minnesota, I was granted different resources that I didn’t have in Chicago, and that made me think of ways that I would like to advocate for this city. Being born and raised here, there are a lot of things that need to be fixed and changed…But I have so much love for Chicago, and being from here really gives me a lot of insight in the way that I advocate, the way that I do my work, the way that I plan for the way that I do my work, and it gave me the tenacity and the strength and the gumption and the platform that I needed to be as vocal and as unfiltered as I am now.
CM: You left home at an early age. Is this a typical experience for a trans person? Leaving home and sort of drifting?
CCM: Being a rebellious teenager but also dealing with identity and sexuality is definitely taxing. And that caused me to either get put out or run away, and it was a lot of back and forth, and I know it had a lot to do with the way I wanted to identify myself...That’s why I eventually moved to Minnesota because I felt like that was a burden that I couldn’t bear, and I had time to grow for myself and figure out who I was.
CM: What did you have to do to survive after you left home?
CCM: A lot of it was sex work and drug dealing. Because like I said there weren’t real resources up here that are beneficial for trans women of color. And that led me to have sex with people if I didn’t want to, but I knew that it was good money. Or sell drugs and risk getting in trouble doing that. But those were all lessons learned, and I still don't see anything wrong with those things today, it’s just because of criminalization of those things that made it immoral or unfit for society by other standards.
CM: Are you saying that we should liberalize drug laws and laws around sex work?
CCM: Definitely. I feel like what one does with their body shouldn’t be the choice of other people…I would never say somebody shouldn’t indulge in whatever they want to, because I feel like it wasn’t wrong. Each person has to go through their own experience and we can make arguments all day about why it’s wrong…So that kind of puts a dent in the prison-industrial complex and the mass incarceration, and why is there so many people in prison? Because everything that people, well not people–certain people in higher positions–feel go against their ideology or their religious beliefs or whatever. They take it upon themselves to inflict that, enforce that, on everybody.
And everybody doesn’t have the same views or ideas that they have. So it’s definitely something that should be considered, and the liberalization of those things not only gives people personal freedoms and not have to deal with the criminal injustice system and police in militarized environments, and be able to breath more easily and let people decide how they want to deal with those situations by themselves.
CM: If you liberalize those laws, wouldn’t it become more prevalent, and wouldn’t more people get caught in that trap of drugs or the sex trade?
CCM: I feel like there’s always a safe way to do it. You can teach people about doing things. That’s a lot of the work that I do, teaching people about safe sex and it doesn’t necessarily have to go in that route. It goes in that route because it’s criminalized, and once it’s criminalized it becomes a criminal activity. So sex trade becomes a criminal activity because people aren’t allowed to do it safely or freely, and they get caught up in this system where it’s unsafe. Just like drugs are.
CM: Going back to the incident that started all of this. You went to the store at night because of the reaction you often get when you walk about during the day?
CM: Is that a serious problem? Where trans people don’t feel comfortable going to places during the day, and they have to go during the night, and that creates other problems?
CCM: That definitely, I mean, I feel like there aren’t enough safe spaces where people–not even so much gays and lesbians because they have more of a cis privilege thing, but I feel like trans and queer people, gender nonconforming people, have this situation where they’re usually gawked at or talked about, or whispered about, or whatever. Safe space don’t just end at organizations or places where we gather…We tend to go the alternate route, and sometimes it becomes unsafe because it’s late at night...Things like that are usually done in the shadows, in the dark, and once those things are liberalized, once there are safe spaces, once those things are [not] criminalized or immoralized [sic], then those things can be handled in the different manner that it’s more safe and appealing and safe for trans, queer, and gender nonconforming people.
CM: Can you take me through a quick summary of what happened the night of June 5 when you got into the altercation?
CCM: In 2011, me, my boyfriend, and some friends were walking down the street and we came across a group of neo-Nazis who pretty much verbally attacked us by saying things like go back to Africa you nigger babies, and you’re nothing but chicks with dicks, and you dress like that to rape men, and so on and so forth. Anything you can think of in that moment that dealt with transphobia, homophobia, and racism pretty much was said.
And the incident became physical when Molly Flaugherty attacked me, and that led to a group melee. In me defending myself, my attacker, Dean Schmitz, was killed, and I ended up having to do time for self-defense and I’m currently still on parole. The situation at hand was really complex, and throughout the whole situation, when it was the incident itself, dealing with the police, interactions with the police, after the incident, my trial, everything was pretty much biased, and filled with misogyny, transmisogyny, racism, injustice. Just, everything was not in my favor.
CM: Can you be more specific? What are some examples of how there was transmisogyny and racial issues in your trial?
CCM: They wanted to leave out the fact that my attacker had a swastika tattooed on his chest. They deemed that that was irrelevant to the case. Or the fact that he had previous domestic violence cases. Also we wanted to bring a specialist in to talk about how trans women are affected by violence in society, and they felt that that wasn’t important to the case. And how it would not be relevant to the case, which was the exact opposite. And some times there was misgendering, and just total disrespect in the courtroom.
CM: You talked a little about the societal problems trans people face. So do you think the societal conditions that are faced by trans people as a whole are relevant to acts committed by individual trans people?
CM: How do you think that? Because a lot of people say that even if a group of people faces a problem, isn’t it the individual that’s at issue right here?
CCM: For me, and this is from my own experience, a lot of the times I can meet a trans women that I’ve never seen a day in my life, and have went through so many of the same things together. And I feel like, with transmisogyny and the violence that trans women face, there are a lot of excuses that people use to get away with the things that they do and how they treat trans women.
And the first one is the queer panic rule where the first thing people use as an excuse to the violence or killing of trans women is that they feel tricked, and I feel like that isn’t a legitimate excuse for a person to get away with murder. I mean, I don’t know. It’s like, and finally in California they’re ending the queer panic rule because so many people have literally gotten away with murder because of that. And I feel like it affects us all because that gives people the idea that “oh, if I can kill this one person then I can kill anybody and find another excuse to get away with it.”
Next thing you know it’s going to be the person of color panic. It can continue. And a lot of time people do us those ideas to give their actions reason. And it’s time that we acknowledge that, yeah it might not affect me as a cis person or a hetero person, but it affects me. It affects my community, it affects the way we treat each other, it affects the way we trust each other. And once we kind of acknowledge that, it would kind of help the way that we treat each other and the way that we respect and acknowledge trans women.
CM: Some people were comparing your case to that of George Zimmerman. What would you say to those people who compared you to Zimmerman?
CCM: Depending on how it’s compared, if they’re referring to people of color being attacked and then criminalized, then yeah there’s definitely connections in that. But I would never want anybody to actually compare me to George Zimmerman. His idea of self-defense was him chasing someone and then attacking them. I was someone who was actually attacked, minding my business walking down the street, and my self defense is unequal to his, which wasn’t really self defense, because you can’t initiate something and then…Everything that the victim, which was Trayvon Martin, faced, was placed upon him. Everything that my attacker, nothing was placed upon him. I don’t see, I don’t understand how it was compared, and I know a lot of times people did compare that. Like I said, I wouldn’t mind people comparing me to the actual idea of people of color being criminalized and how the system favors certain people, certain privileges, other than people of color. And I really don’t like that. I get angry just thinking about it. Definitely there’s no comparison between me and George Zimmerman, but definitely lots of comparison between me and Trayvon Martin…
I would never to ally myself, even be compared to George Zimmerman, because what he did was not considered self-defense. That was you attacking someone. We didn’t have the other side of the other person. It was only two people. In cases of me, where there were numerous people out there–“oh yeah, she was attacked and this and that.” I still wasn’t awarded the same gratitude or the same reasoning for self-defense as George Zimmerman was, because again, he has privilege. He was awarded that. In cases like me and Marissa [Alexander]’s and so many other people of color who have been in this position, where we claim self-defense, where it’s true self-defense, and we’re still criminalized. We’re still deemed the criminal; we’re still deemed the attacker.
CM: What do you hope will be the end result of that tragic incident? How do you hope it will galvanize a change in the way that trans people and people of color are treated?
CCM: I know my incident is one of millions, since the beginning of time. That’s nothing new. But definitely it has garnered some spotlight on the violence that trans women face. Fortunately, I’m one of few that get to live and talk about it, one, and one of few who aren’t in prison for half their lives because they defended themselves. And that in itself has given me a platform to talk about this, and talk about those issues, because like I said, a lot of trans women don’t live…
And it’s really important that I talk about my incident, but like I said, my incident is like so many others, and I want to make sure that trans women have room to talk about their issues, the issues that affect them, and how violence affects them, and how these things are real and true and how do we find alternatives and solutions and how do we fix this problem. Because talking about it all day long really is not as important as taking action. And that’s really what I want. I want people to take action. I want people to not just hear me, but to live through me, to live through this experience to give themselves a platform. To talk about what they face, and so many beautiful, strong trans women now that are coming forward, and it’s definitely a revolution coming and I’m glad that I am here for that, that I’m alive for that, that I lived through that situation, through that incident, and can share this so that people can kind of build themselves up, build momentum, and move forward with this revolution.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.