Trigger Warnings: racism, sexism, cissexism, transmisogyny, bashing, incarceration, rape culture, sexual assault, bullying
If you’ve paid any attention to recent reporting on how many people in the US are criminally faulted for defending themselves in the past few years, you’ve probably become familiar with a couple of names: Trayvon Martin comes to mind first, but more recently, Marissa Alexander quickly comes to mind as well. There’s an uncomfortable series of intersections of vulnerability, with Martin being an underage young man and Alexander an abused woman, in addition to both of them being Black. A similar story, but that’s not quite gotten the same level of attention nationally, has even more layers of violence to it. It’s what Cece McDonald survived.
A Black trans* woman, she and a group of friends (all likewise people of color and queer* or trans*) were targeted by a group of White people largely as a result of the egging on of a White, straight, cis man. After being struck with a glass bottle by that man and punched by his ex-girlfriend, someone, by most reports McDonald, stabbed the initial instigator in the process of breaking away from him. The wound was, according to forensics, from a pair of scissors, which did not appear to be intended to kill but to force the assailant off of her. In short, the death of one of her attackers wasn’t even an intended part of the group’s self defense (seemingly McDonald’s – but by some testimonies, someone else’s).
Thankfully, after serving the majority of a criminal sentence for manslaughter (in a men’s prison, which makes the whole situation even more horrifying), McDonald was released on January 13. She was greeted by actress Laverne Cox, who is in the process of filming a documentary on McDonald’s experiences; as such, a lot of media coverage has been focused on showing the situation as resolved. After all, McDonald is no longer in prison, a documentary is being made about the issue, and in the meantime Laverne Cox has stepped into the limelight on both talk shows and in dramas, making Black trans* women more visible (and as something other than a caricature) than ever before in modern US media.
In some of the more comprehensive articles, it’s noted as a sort of addendum that the lives of many other young trans* women of color are still profoundly difficult. In fact, McDonald’s story might not be the most triumphant, since it’s about surviving being blamed for defending yourself and managing to survive incarceration (after all, she was released, not granted a pardon or reprieve). For other women facing similar difficulties, the optimism here is about as cautious as optimism can get, and with good reason. McDonald’s case is merely a more extreme one that managed to become a part of a national discussion about anti-Black violence, with a unique element of transmisogyny (the combined sexism and cissexism that trans* women face).
It’s not an exaggeration, by the way, to view this as an issue of survival, as recent writings on the difficulties faced by trans, queer*, and gender non-conforming in US prisons show. As one of the comparatively widely circulated testimonies about what it’s like to be a trans* woman in our prison system explained – it’s a bit of a nightmarish space of both being misgendered by being forced into a “men’s prison” (like McDonald) and then exploited as a woman in policies that shockingly embrace rape culture and sexual assault as normal behavior within those spaces. That McDonald escaped that place at all is a good thing, and we should all be glad about it, but we can’t stop at just that.
Can we make sure that other trans* women of color facing similar difficulties can dream bigger than survival? One of the most pressing cases at the moment is that of Jewlyes Gutierrez, who’s facing criminal charges for hitting bullies who hit her first. Video evidence shows her running away from the confrontation at every opportunity – much like McDonald, she attempted to defend herself and if possible avoid the situation entirely. Unlike the instigators, however, Gutierrez is facing legal action, and not simply an in-school reprimand for being a part of the fight. There’s an on-going petition drive to ask the district attorney assigned to the case to kick it back down to an in-school level. Where McDonald’s hope was to be able to simply live through punishment for actions she had to do to survive an attack, Gutierrez’s hopes likewise hang fairly low – her punishment for being victimized and fighting back at all should be meted out in a minor way.
The least we can do is provide support (again, sign the petition), but more broadly, we as a society need to ask why we’re so uncomfortable with trans* women of color having any right to self defense.