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Whey Laverne Cox Decided To Help ‘Free Cece’

Shedding light on the injustices transgender women of colour face daily…

By Courtney Hardwick

When Laverne Cox first heard CeCe McDonald’s story, it’s no surprise she felt she could relate. Both are transgender women of colour, and while Cox portrays a transgender woman who is also an inmate at a women’s prison on the Netflix show Orange Is the New Black, McDonald spent 19 months as a female transgender inmate in a real-life men’s prison.

On the night of June 5, 2011, McDonald was walking with a few friends to a store near her home in Minneapolis when they were stopped by a group of white bar patrons. The group, made up of males and females, yelled racist, transphobic and homophobic slurs at McDonald and her friends before physically attacking them. At one point McDonald went up against one of the male attackers, and he ended up dead after being stabbed with a pair of scissors—which came out of McDonald’s purse.

Although McDonald was taken to hospital with lacerations caused by broken glass, and her friends vouched for the fact that she was acting in self-defence, she was charged with second-degree murder. She ended up taking a plea deal of 41 months for second-degree manslaughter rather than face the possibility of a 20-year prison sentence.

During the pretrial, it came out the victim, Dean Schmitz, had a record as a violent criminal, and had methamphetamine in his system at the time of the incident; however, the judge presiding over the case ruled that this would not be admissible in court. Also inadmissible were expert testimonies that spoke to the atmosphere of transphobia and how it might have caused McDonald to fear for her life, therefore motivating her to act in self-defence. Given those decisions, McDonald felt her only option was to take the plea bargain.

The case attracted national attention in the US from LGBT activists and news agencies, and eventually support from Laverne Cox. Cox teamed up with documentary filmmaker Jac Gares to tell McDonald’s story in the documentary Free CeCe, which is framed by the larger issue of violence against transgender women of colour and premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June of this year.
The film follows McDonald over three years through interviews done by Cox, and was partially crowdfunded by Indiegogo campaigns. Cox also talked about how she too has experienced transphobia and harassment first-hand. “I might not be here if one day someone decided to take it too far or I felt the need to defend myself and ended up in prison,” Cox said. “But for the grace of God, I haven’t had to fight for my life in the same way CeCe had to that day.”

Cox decided to lend her support as an executive producer on the documentary because she wanted to bring attention to the things transgender women of colour have to face on a daily basis. The Los Angeles Times reported that according to the Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color Coalition, there were 52 transgender victims of violence in the United States from 2013 to 2015. Of those, 46 were people of colour and 39 were black. But that is only what has been reported.

Discrimination, harassment and violence against transgender people is often inaccurately reported because police officers don’t always acknowledge the gender someone identifies as—they only care about the gender the victim was assigned at birth. That way of thinking is reflected in the fact that the 19 months McDonald spent incarcerated were all spent in a men’s prison. She was provided with the hormones she needed, but not even petitions, a public outcry and legal attempts to assign her to a women’s prison could get her out of the male prison system.

McDonald was released from prison on January 13, 2014, and Cox was one of the people there to greet her. Since then McDonald has stayed active in the transgender community, and was awarded the Bayard Rustin Civil Rights Award by the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club in 2014. “I want people to challenge their ideas of gender identity and sexual orientation, challenge the status quo. Give other people a chance to live,” McDonald said about why she wanted to tell her story.

Cox hopes the documentary will shed some much-needed light on the things transgender women face on a daily basis. As Cox says, for transgender women of colour to thrive, “we need to have a culture that doesn’t stigmatize, criminalize and try to erase us through various forms of violence, by the state and by individuals—but one that embraces and loves us.”

COURTNEY HARDWICK is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared online at AmongMen, Complex Canada, Elle Canada and TheBolde.

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