This is the first feature in a series that aims to elevate some of the transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals who have played a significant role in the ongoing fight for trans and queer liberation.
In a time when conversations surrounding transgender identity are taking shape at a continually increasing rate in mainstream culture, the images and stories of trans people being broadcast to the public oftentimes don’t reflect the nuances of the vast spectrum of trans experiences. In an effort to challenge and combat this, HuffPost Gay Voices is bringing together significant and historic trans and gender non-conforming figures to share their stories and discuss the ongoing struggle to achieve liberation for all marginalized people.
CeCe McDonald is a name that continually resonates in the hearts and minds of the queer community, and CeCe herself is an individual whose name holds an immense amount weight in conversations surrounding the incarceration of trans women of color and the prison industrial complex.
McDonald was sentenced in May 2012 to spend 41 months in a men's prison facility, despite identifying as female, for the death of Dean Schmitz in June 2011. McDonald was walking past a local bar on the night of Schmitz's death when she became the recipient of racist, transphobic and violent language that evolved into an altercation with Schmitz and other bar patrons. After the group hurled a glass at McDonald's face, she attempted to defended herself with a pair of scissors, resulting in Schmitz's death.
Amidst large-scale outcry and support from the queer community, she was released in January 2014 after serving 19 months of her sentence. She now opens up to The Huffington Post about her life since leaving prison, her thoughts about Caitlyn Jenner and her growth as both an activist and a trans woman of color.
The Huffington Post: How has your life changed both as an activist and as a black trans woman in America since your release from prison?
CeCe McDonald: Well, as an activist I have come to know a lot of people who are just as motivated and inspired to do activist work, especially around liberation for black trans women. But I’ve also come to a point where I have been calling out people on their falsehood and saying that they’re about that life when they’re really not. I’ve been really diligent about making sure people are adamant about the work that they do and who they do it for. And to not co-opt movements – you know, using certain movements for their own personal agenda or gain.
But as an activist I have grown a lot. I have come to know and understand and learn about different cultures – to respect them. As a black person I do sometimes find myself in my own bigotry, so I’m just learning to decolonize my mind around a lot of shit that I’ve been taught for so long. It’s a process and luckily I have a very supportive, loving community and colleagues that work with me, help me with certain things and let me know. They motivate me more in the work that I do. As an activist I feel like we tend to box ourselves and fight for things that affect us directly, and with intersections of oppression I have learned that I’m connected to every fucked up thing that happens in the world regardless of if I want to see it that way or not.
Right now I’m really focused on the Black Trans Lives Matter movement here in Minneapolis with other trans, queer and gender-nonconforming people of color on doing some more physical action work and just bringing a different forefront to Minnesota in general.
The Huffington Post: Caitlyn Jenner has completely changed the landscape when it comes to the way mainstream cultures conceptualizes transgender identity. Do you think there are productive things that could come from her form of visibility or do you think that she’s merely another conservative Republican trying to co-opt a movement for her own use?
I feel like me and Caitlyn Jenner only have one thing in common and that is being trans. I’m a black trans woman, she’s a white trans woman. She comes from a background of class and privilege, I don’t. She has money, I don’t.
I feel like society’s idea of "what trans women are" have loosely been based on Caitlyn Jenner coming out, so we fail to realize that this is a person that is definitely a conservative Republican and goes against all the things that we’re fighting for on a daily basis... conservative Republican politics are against women, are against trans women, are against the LGBTQIA community, are against impoverished communities. She seems to have this idea that if "they" can do it, we all can do it -- and that’s just not the rhetoric that I feel our community needs to be internalizing. It’s actually laced with so much misogyny and transmisogyny anti-woman politics flowing around. We have trans women who don’t have the ability to transition the way that they want to because of funds and accessibility, having to deal with dysphoria on a day to day basis, and then we have this one trans woman in the media who somehow garnered more attention than Laverne Cox or Janet Mock or Carmen Carrera or any trans woman of color .
“I feel like me and Caitlyn Jenner only have one thing in common -- and that is being trans.”
I'm not saying that she turned trans [to get attention] or anything like that but she's definitely using our movement to push her own agenda and that’s very frustrating. Just take a look at the trans women and trans women of color who are working so hard to beat these stigmas, stereotypes and ideologies -- so all I can say is I support her as a trans woman but that’s as far as it goes.
The Huffington Post: Let’s talk a bit about issues like prison reform and the incarceration of trans women. How do we get people in America to care about these issues and actually seem them as worthy of their time and resources to invest in them?
That’s a good question. We are given this false idea that prisons are safe or prisons protect you or prisons reform the people within them -- we have come to see that’s not the case. People come out of prison sometimes worse than when they went in. Prisons not only affect the inmates but they affect the people that work there. We see that prisons take up resources, they take up space and we need to get people to understand that as long as people are using prisons for their own agendas and fear mongering tactics and having people believe that prisons are safe, then that’s what we’re doing to believe. But we need to decolonize our minds around prisons and what prison reform is. We don’t need any more prisons -- we need those funds and resources that are put into prisons to be put into our communities, like our schools, our hospitals, our mental health facilities, fair housing and housing programs, employment agencies, places that will actually help people not turn to certain things that will tend to criminalize them and either have them incarcerated or dead.
“We are given this false idea that prisons are safe or prisons protect you or prisons reform the people within them, we have come to see that’s not the case. People come out of prison sometimes worse than when they went in.”
The Huffington Post: What’s the best way for people that don't identify as trans or gender-nonconforming to be allies to trans people, and black trans women specifically, and all of the issues that you’ve been talking about?
That’s an extensive list [laughs]. I feel like one of the ways that people can advocate for trans women in an everyday way is calling out bigotry, sexism, misogny, transmisogny, transphobia and homophobia when you see it... You have to think about how much of yourself that you’re putting out there in relation to you being an advocate for a trans woman. And that goes further than saying “I’m an advocate for a trans person,” you actually have to put in some work. Call out bullshit when it needs to be called out and call it in when it needs to be called in... Also, just supporting trans women on a day to day basis, whether supporting funding for them or helping them register for school or letting trans women know that you are there for them. You know, being an advocate for trans women isn’t just speaking up for trans women, it’s actively being there for trans women. Be able to share your space, do not co-copt our movements or our lives, don’t just tokenize us, don’t use our stories and our images for your own agenda or your own gain and make sure that if you are requesting something from a trans woman that you can pay her. People don’t understand that transitioning, especially medically, is really hard and a lot of trans women don’t have the funds or the resources to do those things. Just think about how we are uplifting and supporting and appreciating trans women – not just tolerating us but actually appreciating us and our stories and our struggles and our transcestors struggles.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I just want people to know that I strive so hard to be an outstanding advocate, not just for my own personal movements but for movements across the globe. I just want people to know that regardless of how I comes across, it’s about me calling things out when they need to be called out and I don’t have an issue with that. I’m tired of feeling like I, or any trans woman of color, feel like they have to walk around on eggshells or be coy and pretend that everything is ok when that’s not the case. And that’s the legacy that I want people to know – that I fought tooth and nail for trans women. That I fought so hard for trans liberation and the liberation of people of color and the ending of conservative politics so that we can try to live and be liberated like we really want to.
Somebody said to me last night that “the work isn’t done until it’s done.” A lot of people just gave up after gay marriage and so many things that they fought for that trans women were a part of, and once they had their victory trans women didn’t seem to matter anymore. And so I’m just saying that I’m not going to continue to support movements that are not supporting trans women because people are, again, co-opting our movement, tokenizing our movements, fantasizing and glamorizing our movements, white-washing our movements, gay-washing our movements and we, as trans women and trans women of color, need to take back our legacies. We need to take back our right to be who we are and not have people taking away our struggles and our transcestors struggles. My legacy is all of our legacies. And it started with Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major and the Stonewall Riots and the cafeteria riots, and those movements gave me the ability to even have this interview right now. Trans people have existed for centuries and we thrive and we will never be extinct. And as long as the human race exists there will always be trans people, there will always be queer people, there will always be gender-nonconforming people and we’re not going anywhere. I want that reality to live on through the lives of generations that come after us. We have to keep fighting ― because the work isn’t done until it’s done.
“Free CeCe,” a documentary about the life and incarceration of CeCe McDonald co-produced by Laverne Cox, is currently in post-production and slated for an expected release date of April 2016. Head here for more info or to make a donation.
Check Huffington Post Gay Voices regularly for further conversations with other significant and historic trans and gender-nonconforming figures.