Although Peterson’s story may sound exceptional, it's the harsh reality for tens of thousands of transgender people currently incarcerated, most of whom are people of color.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force's 2011 survey, Injustice at Every Turn, trans and gender-nonconforming people are jailed at nearly six times the rate of their cisgender (nontrans) counterparts. While just 2.7 percent of the cisgender population had been imprisoned, 16 percent of trans respondents reported spending time in jail. The incidence of incarceration jumped to 47 percent if a respondent was black — with 41 percent reporting that they were imprisoned because of their race and gender identity alone. A 2011 report from Pennsylvania’s Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative found that 80 percent of that state’s trans inmates were people of color, with 68 percent identifying as black, and many respondents listing themselves as mixed-race.
Overall, black individuals are vastly overrepresented in American prisons — black Americans face six times the incarceration rate of their white peers. But the intersection of being a racial minority and a gender minority leaves black trans people, and especially black trans women, particularly vulnerable to criminalization. The phenomena is so common that, according to black trans sex workers' rights advocate Monica Jones, many trans women of color use the term “walking while trans” to describe how they are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement simply for being themselves in public.
Even when trans people of color are arrested for breaking the law, advocates are quick to point out that many infractions are so-called survival crimes: nonviolent offenses, like theft or sex work, committed by people who have few other economic options after being unable to find employment due to transphobia, sexism, racism, or — more likely — a compounded combination of such prejudices.
As a 2015 report from the Movement Advancement Project and the Center for American Progress makes clear, rampant discrimination in employment, education, and housing results in a poverty rate for trans people four to six times the national average, often pushing trans individuals into underground economies that make them vulnerable to police encounters and incarceration.
Peterson's background reflects this reality. In October 2011, the then-20-year-old had not graduated high school, was unemployed, and living at home with a mother who police reports indicate was a sex worker. In fact, Peterson's mother and friends told police that Peterson often accompanied them when meeting "johns" to provide "protection." But everyone agreed that Peterson himself never engaged in sex work.
Georgia has been no exception to these rules. Indeed, as Peterson tells The Advocate, his home state has become a place where men and women like him — who exist at multiple intersections of marginalization — have come to expect bias and neglect from authorities who claim to be there to “protect” citizens.
“Any time anything ever happened and I would go to the law enforcement in my town, they never did anything about it,” Peterson says. “I was attacked by a family member a lot and they didn’t do anything, and they still done nothing. They investigated it and they say, ‘This is all we’re gonna do,’ and they just let him go free.”
Indeed, black people — and black gay or trans people, especially — "know better than anyone that the police have historically not been there to protect you," explains ACLU attorney Strangio. "So if something happens to you, you have good reason to doubt that the police will help. And so for so many trans people of color, and particularly black trans people, turning to the police can itself be a death sentence, as we've seen with so many black people in this country."
Two recent cases help paint an even clearer picture. Ashley Diamond, a 36-year-old black trans woman, filed a lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Corrections in February for the system’s alleged failure to protect her from repeated rapes and to provide her medically necessary hormone treatments during the three years she’s been jailed in men’s prisons for a 2012 burglary and theft conviction. Just this month, the Department of Justice joined that lawsuit, agreeing with Diamond's attorneys that the denial of medically necessary gender-affirming treatment is unconstitutional.
Last October, Juan Evans, a black trans man, was pulled over in East Point, Ga., for speeding. Evans informed two officers he was trans after one accused him of lying about his identity. In response, an officer allegedly demanded to search Evans' genitals on the side of the road to determine his gender. When Evans refused, he says the officer laughed and stated, "I have a right to search your mother's genitals to find out who you are." Evans was then arrested and taken to a police station. Once there, he says he was threatened multiple times with forced genital searches, yelled at, outed in front of his cellmates, and called "it" and "a thing." Evans was ultimately released without charges.
Cases of self-defense add their own damning patch to the quilt — and no story within recent memory has been quite so telling as that of CeCe McDonald. A young black trans woman from Minneapolis, McDonald and a group of young black queer and trans friends were attacked by a group of white adults while the friends were walking home from a grocery store one night in June 2011. Pelted with racist, transphobic language, McDonald, then 22, and her friends yelled back at their attackers; the fight escalated when a white woman struck McDonald in the face with a beer glass, lacerating her cheek through to her mouth.
The melee that ensued left both McDonald and one of her attackers, 47-year-old Dean Schmitz, injured and bleeding. By the time police arrived, Schmitz had lost a fatal amount of blood from a stab wound caused by a pair of scissors McDonald carried in her purse. Authorities arrested only McDonald, who was then charged with second-degree murder despite her claim of self-defense. Accepting a plea bargain to avoid a potential 25-year prison sentence, McDonald ultimately served 19 months in an all-male facility. Initially hopeful that she would be imprisoned with other women, McDonald (much like Diamond) had to face the common dangers of sexual assault and pervasive verbal abuse while incarcerated with men — as well as the often psychologically damaging experience of solitary confinement, imposed upon her, as it is for many trans prisoners, reportedly for “her protection.”
A similar fate has also faced 26-year-old black trans woman Eisha Love, who was attacked in March 2012 outside a Chicago gas station by a group of men yelling transphobic epithets. When one man attempted to pull Love out of her car as she and a friend tried to flee, Love ran into him and pinned him against a wall with her vehicle in what she and supporters say was self-defense. While her attacker ultimately survived, Love now sits in Cook County Jail awaiting trial on a charge of first-degree attempted murder, which could bring her 10 years in prison, according to a Change.org petition seeking to dismiss the charge. Tiffany Goodwin, the friend who was in the car with Love at the time of the attack, according to GLAAD, was found murdered in an abandoned apartment building on Chicago's west side in August 2012.
The eerie similarities between McDonald’s, Love’s, and Peterson’s cases are not mere coincidence. The combination of being poor, young, black, and trans is “the intersection … where the justice system often fails,” National Center for Transgender Equality director Mara Keisling explained in an Advocate op-ed about McDonald’s case. And most often in such cases, Keisling noted, the trans victim is far more likely to end up killed — making the treatment of those who survive through self-defense all the more ironic. “CeCe is supposedly lucky. Against the odds, she’s alive. [Murdered Chicago trans woman of color] Paige Clay is dead and CeCeMcDonald is being punished for surviving.”
The U.S. is currently facing what many trans advocates term an “epidemic” of fatal violence against transgender women of color, with six murdered in the first seven weeks of 2015, along with one black gender-nonconforming man and one white trans woman before March. They are often murdered by intimate partners who then claim a "trans panic" defense. These women's bodies are feared as so inherently deviant that their attackers contend it is justifiable to destroy them.
"When you look at the intersection of the history of antiblack racism, plus the violence [against] the people who don't conform to expectations of gender roles based on a person's assigned sex at birth, you have this epidemic of violence targeting black trans people," explains Strangio.
When a victim’s race and gender nonconformity obscure their humanity, an attacker may feel more easily justified in their assault — and messages received from society at large give a tacit go-ahead long before violence flares. A similar trend emerges in cases of violence against trans masculine people, which, like violence against trans women, likely goes underreported in the media, with victims often misgendered. No cases of trans men killing in self-defense have yet received national attention, and the most recent reported murder of a black trans man — 22-year-old Milwaukee-based rapper Evon Young in 2013 — was allegedly a gang-related crime.
Indeed, cases that reflect Peterson’s experiences are more often categorized among a group the young man is commonly mistaken to be as part of: masculine lesbians. Peterson tells The Advocate he’s been repeatedly assumed to be a lesbian by law enforcement, prison staff, his legal defense, and prosecution — and by his attacker, as Peterson has judged from the slurs aimed at him right before his assault. As a result, Peterson has faced added layers of assumption that may have contributed to authorities being unable to perceive him as a true victim: his masculinity is equated with a certain invulnerability, while his presumed sexuality fuels incredulity that he he could face unprovoked sexual attention from a man.
"I think it goes back to this idea that certain people can't be victims," says Strangio of the skepticism that Peterson could be a rape victim. "And it connects to this misunderstanding of rape on lots of different levels, but perhaps to the [mis]understanding of rape as not being about power and not being an act of violence. [Law enforcement and medical officials are basically] saying, 'Well, you don't look like a person who would be sexually attractive to others.' Not recognizing that that's not what rape is about [is] erasing the experience of so many people who are men or gender-nonconforming."
Similar discourse swirled around the 2003 murder of New Jersey lesbian teen Sakia Gunn. The black, masculine 15-year-old woman was fatally stabbed at a bus stop by a black man after she and a group of four female friends allegedly rebuffed his and a friend’s sexual advances and informed the men they were gay. “It is sadly not that unusual for men who make overtures to lesbians to respond with hostility and sometimes even with violence in these kinds of situations,” Michael Adams, then a Lambda Legal lawyer, explained to reporters at the time. This reaction, added Richard Haynes, New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Program director at the time, is akin to many cases he’d seen of trans women being attacked by intimate partners.
Further, when it comes to a case of self-defense like Peterson’s, it appears that a victim’s lack of attraction to men can potentially be considered “evidence” of their guilt. Peterson, who identifies as a heterosexual man, described to The Advocate how during a court hearing, “the [prosecution] was making me seem like a really bad person. The guy actually mentioned that, well, ‘This one never had a boyfriend, never liked boys. That would be the perfect reason for you to understand why [he] was not dealing with this guy.’”
To date, McDonald’s case remains by far the best-known story of a trans person criminalized for killing in self-defense, garnering national attention — including from trans activists Laverne Cox and Leslie Feinberg — that the now-26-year-old says she was surprised to receive.
“I do not want to sensationalize my story as a black trans woman in prison,” she explained in a 2014 LGBT criminalization report from the Center for American Progress and Columbia University. “I was one of millions of people who are wrongfully put in jail; many of whom will never have the opportunity to tell their story.”
Now a prison rights activist, McDonald was honored in 2014 as one of The Advocate's “40 Under 40” for “becoming the face of a problem too few even knew existed.” The national “Free CeCe” movement that bloomed on social media and in street protests continues to give hope to the countless others that black trans lives matter to the national conscience in a way they have not before.