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CeCe McDonald: Survivor and Leader

Transgender Day of Remembrance is the day when we memorialize those we've lost to anti-trans violence, but CeCe's story reminds me that many amongst us areof anti-trans violence. We must remember our survivors, too.
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This year I spent Transgender Day of Remembrance on the set of Orange Is the New Black, an original series for Netflix in which I play Sophia Burset. A large part of me felt that I should have been at events memorializing those we have lost this year to anti-trans violence, but sometimes we have to work, and thankfully I have a job at the moment. When I have an acting job, I am infinitely grateful, because acting is my number-one passion, and acting jobs are really hard to come by. When I woke up Nov. 20, 2012, I thought about all the trans folks we have lost this year and in previous years and how so many of them didn't get to live their dreams like I got to do that day. So many trans dreams deferred. I worked in honor of those dreams that day.

As an African-American trans woman from a working-class background, I am in a pretty high-risk category for having my dreams deferred through either discrimination or violence. When I am on set, I usually require myself to stay pretty focused on my character and her circumstances for that day, but Nov. 20 I found myself on my smartphone, reading various articles and profiles about trans people. I learned a few things I didn't know about our history. I read about African-American trans woman Sir Lady Java's story and her activism in the 1960s and '70s, and about trans man Reed Erickson's philanthropy starting in the early 1960s. But what moved me to tears as I sat in my trailer was CeCe McDonald's Trans Day of Remembrance proposal.

CeCe McDonald pled guilty to second-degree manslaughter earlier this year. On June 5, 2011, she defended herself against a racist and transphobic physical attack. One of her attackers was killed in the altercation. When much relevant evidence, like her deceased attacker's violent history, his white supremacist leanings and the fact that he had a swastika tattooed on his chest, were ruled inadmissible in pre-trial hearings, CeCe took a plea to a lesser charge to avoid 41 years in prison. She is currently serving 41 months in a Minnesota men's facility. CeCe's story shook me to my core, because her story could so easily be mine.

What moved me so much about CeCe's call for more collaboration among LGBTQ communities was her vision of stepping into a role of leadership, even from a prison cell, and her courage to do so. She writes:

After giving myself such a relevant and accurate [Tarot] reading, I know that this is where I belong (referring to being a leader). That most times in our lives we question our greatness, and sometimes feel that we won't or can't deal with the pressures of being leaders, to own the power to have authority and make changes, even if it's what we want the baddest in life. And from the Leadership Development Program review, I know that our beliefs can be passed on and taught to our future leaders of the LGBTQI community. To have rights and a voice. To be able to walk in this world, not afraid and actually feel like a human being and not a shadow in a corner. At [Trans Youth Support Network], we believe that our trans youth know themselves, believe in each other, can create the basis of respect by understanding our fears, are all teachers and learners all the time, that we are all mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons, but most importantly we are all worth it, worthy, beautiful, strong, more than a binary, are able to become self-actualized, can and have already succeeded as a person, and of course, leaders.

Transgender Day of Remembrance is the day when we memorialize those we've lost to anti-trans violence, but CeCe's story reminds me that many amongst us are survivors of anti-trans violence. We must remember our survivors, too.

I have been thinking a lot about CeCe over the past few months. In Orange Is the New Black, which is set in a federal women's prison, I play Sophia, an African-American trans woman who is incarcerated. Sophia's story is very different from CeCe's, but when I auditioned for this role, CeCe was in my heart. Every day I shoot, I think of CeCe and the many trans women of color who are incarcerated across this country. It is my hope that my performance will be guided, at least in part, by CeCe's courage, vision and fortitude. I am still angry that CeCe is in prison for defending herself, but I continue to be moved by her courage and leadership even from behind bars. In the wake of Transgender Day of Remembrance 2012, let us not forget CeCe McDonald, all our survivors and the lessons their voices and lives can teach us.

For more on CeCe McDonald, visit and