is also unsurprising that CeCe McDonald’s claims of self-defense were ignored and ultimately criminalized by police.
The injustices of McDonald’s case continued inside the courtroom. Throughout the trial, the judge and prosecution consistently and intentionally misgendered McDonald, referring to her by masculine pronouns, further demonstrating a refusal to acknowledge her as a woman. Despite considerable evidence -including medical evidence, toxicology reports, eyewitness accounts, and unrefuted testimony that Schmitz initiated the altercation- McDonald’s self-defense claim was dismissed by prosecutors. Even worse, the judge ignored the fact that McDonald was the target of a hate crime, despite the racist and homophobic language used by Schmitz seconds before the fight began. The court even refused to admit Schmitz’s criminal record into evidence, not to mention the swastika tattooed on his chest, as evidence of his history of violence and bigotry.
With the court refusing to hear exculpatory evidence, or even acknowledge the plight of transgender individuals, McDonald was forced to accept a plea deal that resulted in the three and half year sentence. This is an all-too-common occurrence for Black transgendered people in the criminal justice system, who often face an uphill battle against substandard legal representation, homo- and transphobia, and a judicial system that consistently reneges on constitutional promises of equal protection and due process.
Now, in the aftermath of her unjust conviction, the State continues to abuse the rights of CeCe McDonald. Immediately after her sentencing decision, Minnesota prison officials issued a statement confirming that CeCe McDonald would be sent to one of the state’s male facilities. In their statement, officials continued to misgender McDonald, referring to her as a man and showing little regard for the risks to which she would be exposed because of their decision to place her in a men’s prison.
By placing transgender women in men’s prisons, the government is asserting a right to define gender on its own terms (by birth) rather than how individuals identify, socialize, and function in the world. As a result of this choice, trans individuals are subjected to prison sentences during which they will be labeled and treated as a gender rather than their own. Such a practice, if done to straight cisexual individuals, would clearly be understood and challenged as torture.
But the risks aren’t merely psychological. By misgendering CeCe McDonald and placing her in a men’s facility, prison officials are also exposing CeCe to extreme physical danger. While sexual assault is a real threat for all inmates, trans populations are 13 times more likely to be abused by prisoners and prison officials. In the United States, 59% of trans inmates are sexually assaulted during the time in prison. Those who report abuse to officials often find themselves at greater risk by inmates and prison officials, who believe that transgender inmates deserve to be physically abused because of their gendered appearance. Disturbingly, 0% of transgender inmates consider prison officials to be allies in protecting their physical safety. In essence, CeCe McDonald has been sentenced to 41 months of sexual violence.
In addition to being unconscionable, the practice of placing transgender women in men’s prisons violates international laws against torture as well as their Eighth Amendment right to protection from cruel and unusual punishment. In addition, the practice constitutes a deprivation of individual dignity protected by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments’ due process clause. Irrespective of one’s position on CecCe McDonald’s guilt or innocence, her placement in a men’s prison is immoral, illegal, and unimaginable if she were anything other than transgender.
In the final analysis, CeCe McDonald is a transgender Black woman who had the courage to “stand her ground” and defend herself from a hate attack. As a punishment for surviving, she has been sentenced to 41 months of torture inside of a men’s prison.
We must send a different message.
We must send a message that this shameful miscarriage of justice is unacceptable. We must send a message that transgender people have the right to defend themselves from hate and violence. We must send a message that we are committed to defending the rights and humanity of everyone.
The case of CeCe McDonald must be an urgent matter for anyone interested in justice. This requires support not only from Black LGBTQ organizations and movements, but White mainstream gay and lesbian organizations, which have too often focused on white victims like Tyler Clemente or alleged Black violators like Isaiah Washington. This also means that mainstream Black advocacy organizations like the NAACP and Urban League must take up McDonald’s cause with the same intensity as the Trayvon Martin case.
Most importantly, we must view the case of CeCe McDonald as more than an isolated incident of injustice. Instead, we must use the case as a springboard into deeper conversation and engaged action against a criminal justice system that abuses transgender bodies at every level.
We cannot wait another minute.
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