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‘My Struggle Started When I Entered This World’: VICE News Interviews CeCe McDonald

The transgender activist, who pled guilty to manslaughter after defending herself, sat down to discuss her life after prison.

by Mary Emily O'Hara
Apr 25 2014, 3:25pm

Photo by Aaron Tredwell

On Wednesday, transgender activist CeCe McDonald appeared at a Barnard College panel celebrating her friend Janet Mock’s new memoir, Redefining Realness. McDonald, 25 years old and effervescently charming, has been on a whirlwind speaking tour since her release from prison this January after serving a sentence for second-degree manslaughter in the death of Dean Schmitz.

In 2011, Schmitz and two female friends attacked McDonald and a group of friends on the street outside of a Minneapolis bar, yelling racial insults and derogatory slurs before breaking a glass across McDonald’s face, causing a wound that required eleven stitches. McDonald, who was studying fashion design, took a pair of fabric scissors out of her purse. Schmitz ran toward her, and she used the scissors to defend herself.

McDonald and her friends had good reason to act in self-defense. A 2009 study by Transgender Europe, an NGO, found that the murder of a transgender person is reported somewhere in the world every three days. A report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that 87 percent of the 30 LGBT hate murders reported in the US in 2011 occurred against people of color; 12 of the 30 victims were transgender women.

McDonald’s trial was a mess. Judge Daniel Moreno ruled that Schmitz’s three previous assault convictions couldn’t be used as evidence, nor could his swastika tattoo. Schmitz’s autopsy revealed that he had methamphetamine and other compounds in his system that night, but the defense wasn’t allowed to discuss how they influenced Schmitz. McDonald was convicted and sent to a men’s prison, despite her gender identity, hormone regimen, and feminine appearance. Needless to say, LGBT and African-American advocates were pissed.

After serving 19 months of a 41-month sentence, McDonald was released for good behavior in January. Now she travels the country speaking about her experience. Thanks to the efforts of Laverne Cox, the transgender actress from Orange Is the New Black, a documentary film called Free CeCe is in production.

McDonald sat down with VICE News to discuss her life after prison, violence against women, and the profiling of black transgender women as sex workers.

VICE News: How does it feel to be out?
CeCe McDonald: It’s kind of like I have two separate lives now. There’s the person behind the scenes that’s struggling to pay rent and trying to figure out how to find a job. Having a felony criminal record now, it’s hard. And then there’s the CeCe that everybody sees on stage, who does panels and speaks, and is this strong person who seems to have it all together — which I really don’t. It’s kind of weird, because people always say I’m a celebrity and I’m like, ‘No, honey, I get food stamps. I am not a celebrity.’ The reality is, I’m just a sister in a struggle.

An important part of talking about prison is what happens when you get out, right?
Exactly. Not just leaving prison, but recidivism and the causes of mass incarceration are the really key factors of this issue. Getting out is a struggle because you have to deal with this record that determines your life now. I’m not the first person to be locked up, and I’m still trying to figure out why my case became so significant. But I’m trying to utilize my platform so that people can understand these things. And I’m fortunate enough to have a parole officer who understands and who lets me travel. She could have easily just been a total bitch. That’s her job, you know what I’m saying?

What was your life like before it was interrupted?
Let me just put it like this: any everyday task that any cisgendered [i.e., non-transgender] person has is so tedious for a trans person, especially an African-American trans woman. Finding an apartment, finding a job, going to school — you can easily get discriminated against. Those were things I had accomplished. I had my own place. I was in school. Coming from homelessness and poverty, paying my rent and going to school was a total accomplishment. And then all of a sudden, that incident happened. And everything I had built kind of just crumbled. Now I have to start over.

That night wasn’t the first time you were attacked, was it?
Oh, no! I’ve been jumped by six people. I’ve been harassed, and I’ve had to deal with gender policing even in my own household. It didn’t just start now. It started way back when I was five, when people started to see my femininity and make that their target. I was out on my own by the time I was thirteen. And I was homeless, lying to men and telling them I was 18 so I could sleep with them and get a little money. I’ve literally been so homeless that I was sleeping on park benches and eating things off the ground, eating grass so I didn’t die from hunger. My struggle didn’t start when I went to prison. My struggle started when I entered this world.

Why do you think the night that ended up changing your life so much was different?
Before, I pretty much accepted what people did to me, in fear of more retaliation. Sometimes I didn’t have a choice. If there are six people fighting me and I’m by myself, then what can I do? But as I got older I began to defend myself more, speaking out and letting people know that I don’t mind fighting if I have to. That’s what separated this incident from others: I chose to defend myself. I wasn’t going to allow this person to destroy me, to take me away from the people that I love because of ignorance and hate. I can’t live in fear. I can’t live in the shadows. I don’t want to feel like I’m walking on eggshells in this society.

So of all these things that happened to you, the one time you defend yourself you’re sent to prison. What does that say about our society?
We have to recognize and acknowledge the misogyny and the trans misogyny that’s in our society, and the fact that there’s so much hatred towards femininity. It’s sad that if I’m getting raped, or I’m getting jumped, you want to arrest me for protecting myself. It shows the lack of respect for the feminine body. There’s definitely a war on women. Even when it comes down to things like equal pay and work, safe spaces for women, domestic violence — these things exist. Before we can figure out how to solve those issues, we have to first acknowledge it. We’ve been really fucked up towards women in this country.

Some people face particularly unfair circumstances. What do you think of Monica Jones, who was profiled for prostitution just because shes a black trans woman?
When I read the Monica Jones case, I got really angry and upset. I know what it’s like. Plenty of times have I been at the bus stop going to school and had cops tell me, ‘You can’t be here, take your business somewhere else.’ I’ve been accused of sex working when I was going home or to school. I hope that she attacks them as hard as she can. How dare you arrest her and institutionalize this woman because you attach these stereotypes? I wish more people knew about the Monica Jones case and were talking about this.

The issue of sex work is difficult for trans women, isn’t it? On the one hand, you’re profiled even if you’re not a sex worker. But it can be hard to find work as a trans woman, so there are trans women who do sex work to survive, right?
Yes, I would say that’s true. But, trans women aren’t the only ones who do sex work: women do it, men do it. For anybody, it’s hard to find work in this economy. We do what we know is best. If we know we can’t get a job because there’s no room for African-American trans women to be successful in this country, then why not? I have to survive. When I did it, it was really not the thing I wanted for myself. But it was part of survival. And sex work isn’t the issue, it’s the criminalization of what we choose to do with our bodies. Would it have been any different if I didn’t get money for it? Why is it anyone’s goddamn business? The bottom line is, regardless of if I did it or not, you basically attach that stereotype to me.

Speaking of survival, what was it like being in a men’s prison? It just seems terrifying, like you would be the constant target of harassment or even sexual assault.
It was challenging being in a men’s prison because I faced a different level of discrimination being a trans woman, having this body, and being around all these men. The staff hyper-sexualized me and used my body to create policies only for me: ‘Oh, they can do that, but you can’t.’ But all prisons are fucked up. I don’t think I would have felt any safer if I was in a women’s prison. I would still have to deal with harassment from the guards, the fucked up policies, the discrimination. Prisons aren’t safe for anybody. Prisons were created to oppress and hold down and deteriorate you. I’ve met some really cool people in prison, who were in there for, like, petty drug cases. And they’ve become really close friends of mine. I got close to people who had a willingness to get to know me and had respect for me. There’s not really much difference between a male or female prison. Either one, they’re both fucked up.

Follow Mary Emily O’Hara on Twitter: @maryemilyohara