Laverne Cox and CeCe McDonald Discuss the Epidemic of Violence Against Trans Women

Documentary ‘Free CeCe’ explores the injustices trans women of color face in their daily lives.
CeCe McDonald (left) and Laverne Cox. (Image: Courtesy 'Free CeCe')
Jun 3, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

“I have nightmares of walking through prison naked and having people just, like, peer at me,” CeCe McDonald said, sitting in a sun-filled office in West Los Angeles on Thursday. McDonald’s voice never faltered as she took sips of apple-cinnamon tea between discussing prison harassment and anxiety attacks. But even though she appears strong and whole, McDonald said the trauma of being brutally attacked and incarcerated for defending her own life isn’t something that just goes away.

“Every day I’m just, like, trying to piece my life back together,” McDonald told TakePart.

McDonald is the subject of the documentary Free Cece, which had its world premiere on Thursday night at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The 28-year-old transgender woman served 19 months in a men’s prison for killing a man who violently attacked her.

Her case caught the eye of trans actor Laverne Cox, who portrays an inmate on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black.

“Living as a trans woman in New York City, street harassment is a huge part of my life, and that’s part of the reason why [McDonald’s] story connected with me,” Cox, who is also the film’s executive producer, told TakePart. “How many times have I been walking down the street and heard everything [she] heard that night?” added Cox, ticking off a litany of verbal abuses she’s endured.

“I want people to understand the severity of violence that trans women of color are going through,” McDonald said. “This isn’t just something that happened to me.”

In 2011, a group of strangers standing outside a bar in Minneapolis started shouting racial and transphobic slurs at McDonald and a group of her friends. One woman smashed a glass into McDonald’s face, puncturing her salivary gland. A man, Dean Schmitz, started throwing beer bottles at her, ran after her as she tried to escape, and held her down by her hair. According to McDonald, she took a pair of fabric scissors out of her bag to defend herself as Schmitz lunged at her, impaling himself on the shears.

Fighting back against Schmitz saved McDonald’s life, but it led to her arrest. The district attorney refused to accept her self-defense claim. Facing 80 years in prison for second-degree murder, McDonald accepted a plea deal for a reduced charge of second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 41 months in prison.

Many trans women have not survived similar assaults. At least 21 transgender people were killed in 2015—the most violent year on record for trans homicides, according to a report from Human Rights Campaign. Of the trans people killed between 2013 and 2015, nearly 90 percent were people of color. One dozen transgender people have already been killed in 2016, and the majority were black women.

“We are in a terrible time right now where the humanity of trans people is being questioned,” said Jac Gares, the film’s director. “This film is about inspiring women who are attacked to fight and to defend themselves and their communities and each other.”

“You have to survive,” Cox said, noting that fighting back can be dangerous. “Sometimes that might be fighting back; sometimes it might mean getting the hell out of that situation.”

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McDonald served her time at a men’s facility in Minnesota. Although the Department of Justice requires prisons to consider an inmate’s gender identity for housing as part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, many incarcerated trans people are put in facilities based solely on their anatomy.

More than 30 percent of transgender inmates in prisons and jails have been sexually assaulted, compared with just 3 to 4 percent of the overall prison population, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That often leads correction officers to place trans inmates in solitary confinement or restrictive housing. It landed McDonald in a drug rehabilitation program.

“It had nothing to do with my case,” McDonald said. “But the system figured that this would be a good fit for me because the program was more confined, so I wouldn’t have to deal with more people.”

McDonald was also forced to wear baggy, extra large clothing. “[They’d say,] ‘Oh, you have a woman’s body, you have a woman’s parts’ or ‘You look like a woman, so we have to micromanage you for your safety,’ ” she said, adding that she never had any issues with other inmates. Because McDonald resisted those dress code requirements, she was kicked out of the drug rehabilitation program and served an additional 30 days in prison.

While Cox believes that men’s prisons are “inherently dangerous for trans women,” McDonald doesn’t feel she would have fared much better if she had served her time in a women’s facility.

“It doesn’t matter which prison I was in, because I would have been in a prison, and that’s not fun for anybody,” she said. Since being released, McDonald has become an outspoken advocate for the prison abolitionist movement, which works to reduce and eliminate the system entirely rather than reform or improve prisons.

“[My incarceration] took away from so many people. I’m someone’s daughter; I’m someone’s partner; I’m someone’s cousin,” McDonald said, noting that before she went to jail, she was housing homeless trans people and caring for her family.

“[Trans people] are human. We have lives. We have people who love us,” McDonald said. “We need the same opportunities in life to survive and to live and to thrive.”