Imagine that you’re taking a late-night walk to the grocery store. As you’re passing a dive bar, a group of White men and women standing outside call you and your friends n@#gers, f@#*ots, chicks with d@#s and suggest that by wearing what you have on, you’re out to rape one of the White men yelling the slurs.
Now, when you inform the bullies that you won’t tolerate their abuse, picture a White woman smashing a glass in your face, which cuts through your cheek and lacerates your salivary gland.
If one of the bullies pulls you toward him in the resulting melee and then receives a fatal stab in the chest with the scissors you’ve taken out of your bag to defend yourself, should you be the only person arrested?
Should you face two counts of second-degree murder and 80 years in prison? Spend a month in solitary confinement? Have your cheek swell to the size of a golf ball due to delayed medical care?
Should it require a national and international advocacy campaign to make it clear to the local prosecutor that a murder charge makes no sense in this case?
And, even with all of this support, should you feel so pressured by this prosecutor who maintains that “gender, race, sexual orientation and class are not part of the decision-making process” that you plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter, a change that carries 41 months in prison?
At this point if you’re saying, “This sounds too absurd to be anything but a ‘Law and Order SVU episode,’” consider Minneapolis fashion student Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald. On June 5, 2011, the 23-year-old Black transgender woman defended herself against Dean Schmitz, a 47-year-old White assailant who reportedly bore a Swastika tattoo on his chest. Facing 80 years in prison, she pleaded guilty to manslaughter yesterday. In a post-plea statement, Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman said, “What makes it tragic is one man is dead and another person will spend 41 months in jail.”
Actually what makes “it” tragic—a travesty, in fact—is that CeCe McDonald is being punished for surviving. (Advocates including People.com’s Janet Mock have pointed this out repeatedly over the past year.)
What also makes “it” so tragic is that by last June, McDonald already had an abundance of transphobic violence under her belt. On the site that activists from the Minneapolis-based Trans Youth Support Network created for her, she recalls beatings, racial discrimination and blame:
"I grew up in a community that was predominately African-American people. And with the fact of me just being a minority in this society was bad, being African American and trans is an ultimate challenge. I can remember having loaded guns being put to my head and being beat until bloody. Or walking downs the street and being yelled “ a faggot.” I thought because of their ignorance I decided to change my surroundings. So I moved to a suburban community, which were predominately white people. Then, I remember people grabbing their purses and children, like I was a thief and was going to steal their money and kids, and to still be yelled “queer” or “faggot”, which made me feel upset and that my efforts of leaving one community to another, went without victory."
Here’s McDonald on a particularly painful bashing where she felt guilty for not “properly” defending herself:
"I remember being harassed everywhere from school to even the people in my own neighborhood. One incident where I came from my local store and being harassed there, but I spoke up for myself and I guess the men didn’t like that. When I walked out the store I was followed and then jumped by 5 guys, all who were in high school while I was only in the 7th grade. And it seemed that when I tried defending myself, [they] retaliated more. I can remember hearing them yell, “Kill that faggot” as they [stomped] and [punched] me. I begged them to stop, but they continued. After they took my money, they ran off leaving me there. No one was there to help me, and I was scared to even move, even though I was only a couple feet from my house. When I walked in the house, my mom asked why it took so long, and then she turned around and noticed that I was bloody and distraught. It hurt me for my mom to have to see me like that. Her reaction was grabbing her shoes and the closest thing she could use for a weapon, and asked who they were and where they lived. I told her to forget about it, and she was furious that I could just let that happen to me and not retaliate. My biggest fear was my mom or siblings getting hurt in the process of defending me, or even being associated with me. I went to the bathroom and cleaned myself up. And as I washed my face blood continued to run, which is when I noticed that during the jumping my lip went through my tooth which caused me to have a scar over my top lip, and it’s still there."
Stories like McDonald’s aren’t at all unusual. Research shows that Black transgender people weather a disproportionate amount of discrimination, brutality, police harassment, sexual assault and incarceration. Instances abound of transgender women of color being murdered because of their assailants’ individual bias or systemic bias that makes them so much more vulnerable to homelessness and participation in an underground economy. The crimes often go unpunished, unrecognized, misreported and unnoticed outside of their immediate communities.
In the aftermath of McDonald’s case, some activists are calling for systemic change. I agree with them, of course. But I also want to use this space to say, point blank, Crishaun “CeCe” McDonald should not be in prison for defending herself against a racist transphobe who decided to pick a fight with her and her friends. If she weren’t a Black transgender woman, she wouldn’t be expected to stand for that kind of abuse.
Actually, she would be considered a survivor.
Akiba Solomon is an NABJ-Award winning writer, freelance journalist, editor and essayist from West Philadelphia. She writes about the intersection between gender and race for Colorlines and is the co-editor of Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips, and Other Parts .