Jenna Talackova Can Compete, But the Fight Against Trans Injustice Rages On

Jenna's victory against discrimination in the Miss Universe pageant will be for naught if we don't use it to shine a light on the struggles that have yet to be won for trans people around the world.
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Many of the trans folks I have talked to were over the moon when Donald Trump announced on Friday's 20/20 that the discriminatory ban on trans women competing in the Miss Universe pageant would be lifted, not only allowing Jenna Talackova to compete but opening the pageant to trans women who want to compete in the future. This is something many of us called for just last week. If only other transgender-related civil rights struggles could be resolved this quickly! For example, we have been trying to get the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) passed in New York for the past 10 years. In the state of New York It's still legal to fire transgender people from our jobs just for being trans. Trans people face disproportionate amounts of discrimination in housing and health care and are often victims of violence simply for being who we are. Jenna's victory against discrimination in the Miss Universe pageant will be for naught if we don't use it to shine a light on the struggles that have yet to be won for trans people around the world.

I initially wanted this piece to go on to talk about the problematic line of questioning Barbara Walters used to interview Jenna on 20/20, a line of questioning that transgender people all over the country were dismayed by and found cringeworthy. Walters asked Jenna a series of questions that sensationalized Jenna's story by focusing too much on surgery and body parts, under the rubric of asking questions everyone wants to know the answers to without really questioning why people want to know these things. This is a huge issue when it comes to representing trans people in the media. I encourage everyone to read the chapter of Julia Serrano's book Whipping Girl titled "Before and After: Class and Body Transformation." She illuminates this problem brilliantly.

But today I received an email on Facebook from Jean Smith reminding me of the CeCe McDonald case. CeCe, like Jenna, is also 23 years old and transgender. But unlike Jenna, CeCe is an African-American woman from Minneapolis, Minn., and she is currently incarcerated, facing two counts of second-degree murder. On June 5, 2011 CeCe and a group of her friends, all of whom were LGBT youth of color, were walking in South Minneapolis when a group of white adults began screaming racist and transphobic slurs like "niggers," "faggots" and "chicks with dicks" at the youth. According to reports CeCe stood up for herself and her friends, stating that they would not tolerate hate speech. Then one of the white adult women smashed her glass into CeCe's face. The broken glass sliced all the way through CeCe's cheek, lacerating a salivary gland. A fight ensued, resulting in the death of one of the attackers, Dean Schmitz. CeCe was the only person arrested. She was detained by the police for hours before questioning, and then she was placed in solitary confinement.

What strikes me about this case is that often trans people end up dead when these kinds of incidents happen. An African-American trans woman, Coko Williams, was murdered in Detroit just last week. Qasim Raqib was sentenced last month to 25 to 40 years in prison for the brutal killing of 19-year-old trans woman Michele "Shelley" Hilliard, whom he dismembered and burned last year. I believe it's a tragedy when anyone loses his or her life, particularly as a result of violence, but according to all accounts, CeCe was just defending herself against a racist and transphobic assault. Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman has the power to drop the charges based on self-defense, as he has done before. The Support CeCe McDonald website writes:

While Chrishaun "CeCe" McDonald is being prosecuted for murder after being violently attacked for her race and gender, Freeman's office recently declined to prosecute the killer of Darrell Evanovich, a black man who was shot dead by a white man after an alleged robbery. While no person should be thrown to the mercy of the soulless, so-called "justice" system, the fact that CeCe is on trial after being assaulted, while a white man who killed someone after chasing them down is touted as a "good Samaritan," highlights the racist and transphobic nature of the prosecution of CeCe. Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman and Marlene Senechal have the power to drop the charges against CeCe. So far, though, he has implicitly sided with CeCe's white supremacist attackers by failing to acknowledge the racist, transphobic assault that she survived as a mitigating factor in the unintentional death of Dean Schmitz.

CeCe has no criminal record, was enrolled in school at the time of the incident, and was also working to help take care of her family. This case highlights how even when trans people, particularly trans people of color, are lucky enough to survive the brutal violence that is a part of so many of our lives, we are all too often victimized all over again by the criminal justice system. This is the definition of injustice.

CeCe's trial is on April 30. We can all take action to pressure the Hennepin County attorney to drop the charges by contacting them directly, as well as by signing the petition.

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