Op-ed: CeCe McDonald Was Punished for Surviving
Earlier this week, I was in Minneapolis and Chicago supporting community activists seeking justice for two recent victims of anti-trans violence. In Chicago, I attended a rally for Paige Clay, who we lost two weeks ago to a gunshot to her head. In Minneapolis, the community has mobilized to support CeCe McDonald, a target of a racist and transphobic attack, who yesterday accepted a plea deal for defending herself from an attacker. And while I travelled, friends of Brandy Martell in Oakland began organizing in response to her murder this weekend, sitting in her car.
When attacked, both Paige and CeCe were 23-year-old Midwestern girls. Both were black transgender women. Paige was mortally shot; CeCe, a college student, was on trial, being punished for defending herself. Though in different ways, both stories tell the same truth about how society has come to accept, and even expect, the violence transgender people — especially young trans women of color — are often forced to face.
This Spring, there’s been so much hate violence against us: Coko Williams in Detroit, Brandy Martell in Oakland, Deoni Jones in Washington, D.C., and Paige Clay in Chicago—all transgender women of color killed because of who they were.
These are just the victims of murder and just the ones we know about. So much unreported violence occurred as well. Most decent Americans would be shocked and saddened to know how much violence many transgender people live with. We face higher levels of bullying violence, heightened domestic abuse, elevated assault by law enforcement, stunning rates of suicide attempts and off-the-scale levels of hate violence.
To steal a phrase from President Barack Obama, transgender people aren't a special interest group. Fighting for trans rights isn't really about anything other than ending violence. Whether it's the physical violence faced by Paige and CeCe, the violence of poverty, or the spiritual violence of rejection, trans people know violence too well.
We aren’t fighting for special rights. It’s hard to see how Paige or CeCe would have claimed or used “special rights” to protect themselves from these kinds of attacks. Such a suggestion is too painful even to hear. Let me be clear. We want the right to live and thrive. We want the right to protect our youth, who too often are rejected by their own families and learn early that they need to protect themselves and each other, and in CeCe's case, learn they can even face violence for protecting themselves from violence.
That night last summer, CeCe wanted the right to walk safely down a street to a grocery store. Instead, hate attacked her with broken glass to her face. That day a few weeks ago, like every day, Paige wanted the right to be Paige without having hate take aim at her at point blank range. That is what trans rights is about. I believe transgender people are special; the rights we demand, though, not special at all.
I can't imagine the pain being felt by the people who love Paige and CeCe. Both have families and friends who want them back so badly. And for CeCe, the prison sentence she will receive next month is a reminder of how the criminal justice system has failed us again. While CeCe’s family will get her back, and despite CeCe’s resolve, her future is now fraught with barriers like dangerous treatment in prison, and later problems with accessing public services and even her ability to vote. All of this will only make completing her education and finding work that much harder. Facing an attack motivated by fear of who CeCe is and its aftermath, the choices and circumstances of her life have not been and will not be entirely her own to make.
Months and hundreds of miles apart, the aspirations of these two young women were derailed by hate. Despite the temporal and geographic distance between the violence they faced, in some ways, they were together at the same intersection—the intersection of race, class, age and gender, where violence is shamefully common, committed against anyone who lives there, without regard to the content of their characters. In this country, if you are black or poor or young or transgender—any one of those things—you are so much more likely to face violence. If you are all of those things the danger is compounded and too frequently ends in death.
This intersection is also a place where the justice system often fails. And in my time in Minneapolis and Chicago, I had to face a hard truth: CeCe is supposedly lucky. Against the odds, she's alive. Paige Clay is dead and CeCe McDonald is being punished for surviving.