Last week, Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald, a 23-year-old Black transgender woman, was sentenced to 41 months in prison for second-degree manslaughter despite clear evidence of self-defense. Making matters worse, she is now being forced to serve her time in a men’s prison. CeCe McDonald’s case not only represents a tragic miscarriage of justice, but also speaks to the fundamental unfairness of the criminal justice system for the Black trans community.
On June 5th 2011, McDonald, a Minnesota based college student, was out having a good time with her friends. They walked past the Schooner Tavern, where McDonald and her friends were harassed and verbally assaulted by two White women and Dean Schmitz, a White man, who referred to them as “n*ggers,” “faggots,” and “chicks with dicks.”
The assault quickly became physical when one of the women hit McDonald with a cocktail glass, puncturing her cheek and salivary gland. A fight ensued that resulted in the stabbing death of Schmitz. McDonald was arrested, charged, and ultimately convicted of the crime. She was the only person arrested that night.
Although state officials on every level insist they hold no bias against the Black transgender community, their behavior at every stage of the CeCe McDonald case suggests otherwise. More importantly, the state’s mistreatment of McDonald is a reflection of a criminal justice system that systematically denies the fundamental rights, safety, and humanity of transgender bodies.
Even a casual review of the facts demonstrates that CeCe McDonald and her friends (all of whom were LGBTQ youth or allies) were the targets of hate and violence on the night of her arrest. By ignoring the evidence against her attackers, police reinforced the notion that violence against the Black trans community is not a significant concern for law enforcement. Studies show that, despite comprising only 8 percent of the LGBTQ community, transgender women account for nearly half of all LGBTQ hate crime murders. Among this group, transgender women of color are nearly twice as vulnerable to violence as their white counterparts. In addition, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 50% of Black transgender individuals face harassment at school and 15% are physically assaulted at their jobs. Such evidence speaks not only to the rising tide of violence against transgender populations, but a lack of commitment from law enforcement to protect and serve them.
As we see in the case of CeCe McDonald, police agencies tend to expend their time, energy, and resources criminalizing rather than protecting the Black trans community. By ignoring her obvious self-defense claim, instead arresting her and no one else at night, McDonald was legally punished for surviving a transphobic hate attack. This is a common occurrence, as transgender Blacks are routinely targeted, profiled, and often arrested for crimes linked to their gender, race and class rather than their behavior.
More than any population, transgender people are unfairly brought into the criminal justice system as the targets of false or unlawful arrests. Transgender women are regularly stopped and arrested for prostitution simply for walking or standing in public space. Male and female trans people are often charged with presenting false identification or using the “wrong” bathroom. Because of law enforcement’s lack of understanding or respect for transgendered citizens, many trans people end up with criminal records simply for being transgendered.
The Black trans community is also further criminalized for being poor. Members of the Black transgender community regularly live in extreme poverty, with 34% reporting a household income of less than $10,000, more than four times the general Black population rate, and eight times the national rate. The poverty numbers are enhanced by staggering levels of job discrimination -studies show up to 90% rates of job discrimination among trans populations- all of which contributes to the 41% homeless rate among Black transgender people. These conditions, combined with excessive police presence in poor Black neighborhoods, cause the trans community to also be routinely charged with “survival crimes” like sex work and petty theft, as well as “quality of life crimes” like loitering and sleeping outside.
At the same time that Black transgender people are unfairly targeted by police, acts committed against them are typically rejected by law enforcement. Every day, victims of transphobic violence are ignored by police or treated in ways that only exacerbate the situation. This is often due to the belief among law enforcement that transgendered people deserve the violent acts committed against them. As a result of this belief, police are often openly hostile to transgendered victims. According to studies, 38% of Black trans people indicate that they have been harassed by the police. Even worse, 20% state that they have been physically or sexual assaulted by police. Given this pattern of criminalization and abuse over protection, it is no surprise that most victims of transgender violence (52%) do not report the crimes to law enforcement. It 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.
Find out how you can get involved in Cece’s fight for justice here.