Cece McDonald: victim not villain

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Having just completed watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix, and thoroughly enjoyed it, my attention was caught this week by a real life story that has also just finished playing out in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Cece McDonald is not a name that is known in the UK, but her case has made waves in the USA. As a transwoman, she was sentenced to 41 months in prison for second-degree manslaughter after defending herself against a racist and transphobic attack. She has been held in a men’s prison whilst serving her sentence. She was released this week after serving 19 months and will remain under the supervision of the Minnesota Department of Corrections until her 41-month sentence is complete.

It seems clear from reports of the incident that McDonald was defending herself, and that the stabbing may even have been caused by the victim charging at McDonald and running onto the murder weapon. Before the stabbing, McDonald was verbally abused by the victim and two of his friends who used racist and transphobic language against her and the friends she was with. She was then physically attacked by one of the victim’s friends. When McDonald’s friends and the victim weighed into the fight, McDonald and the victim became separated from the group, which is when the stabbing took place. The case hung on whether McDonald’s actions were reasonable when confronted with the possibility of bodily harm or death to herself.

McDonald’s case was never tried in court before a jury as the judge offered a plea bargain a matter of days before the trial. McDonald’s original sentence of second-degree murder would be reduced to second-degree manslaughter; in return McDonald had to relinquish her argument that she killed the victim in self-defense or by accident. McDonald accepted the bargain, not wanting to risk a longer sentence should a jury not find in her favour. (41 months is the minimum sentence for the crime of second-degree manslaughter.)

What interests me about this case is the question mark over whether there was the real possibility of bodily harm or death for McDonald and the motivation behind McDonald accepting the plea bargain when she had such a strong case. I think both aspects demonstrate the all-pervading current hostile climate, particularly in the Americas, for transwomen, especially transwomen of colour.

Putting yourself into McDonald’s shoes for a moment: you and your friends are going to buy groceries, you pass a public house and three people, you don’t know, who are smoking outside the bar, start hurling abuse at you. You move to walk away when one of the smokers decides they don’t like your face and glasses you. The words being shouted specifically refer to your race and your gender transition.

Someone with only half-an-eye on the LGBT press knows that the demographic into which McDonald falls is at high risk of violence and death at the hands of others. How likely is it that what flashes through your mind is that thought that transwomen of colour have a much higher chance of being a homicide victim? Maybe, in the panic of the moment, your thoughts don’t come to you coherently but somewhere, embedded into your psyche, is the knowledge that you are part of a vulnerable group. It’s bound to effect how you react to someone verbally and physically threatening you, especially if the words  coming out of their mouth target your transition. Now, ask yourself whether McDonald over-reacted or whether her self-defense was proportionate.

Moving the story on a little bit: you have confessed to killing the victim in self-defense, nobody believes it is self-defense and you are charged with murder. The judge offers you a 41 month jail sentence in exchange for you dropping the claim that the murder was self-defense. Your case is stronger than the prosecution’s based on the evidence alone, but you are a transwoman. You know that transgender people face discrimination and harassment everyday in the workplace. You also know that the legal system doesn’t tend to treat transgender people very well. Something like 7% of transgender people have been held in a police cell solely as a result of police transphobia and 16% of transgender people have been incarcerated at some point in their lives (compared to 2.7% in the general population). Crimes against transgender people are also more likely to remain unsolved. What do you do? Unsurprisingly, McDonald took the known sentence of 41 months against the unknown sentence handed down by a random selection of jurors whose personal feelings about transgender people would certainly have coloured their judgement of the case.

Right from the moment that Cece walked out of her front door, the cards were stacked against her, as they are against every other transwoman of colour who endeavours to have a life by venturing out of her house. She was more likely to be the victim of random verbal abuse; she was more likely to be the victim of physical abuse; she was more likely to be a homicide victim; she was more likely to be arrested by police; she was more likely to have any crime against her remain unsolved by police; and she was more likely to be incarcerated at some point in her life. And so, that last one came to pass…

If I was Cece right now, I’d be feeling thankful that I only had to serve a prison sentence and that I am not another homicide statistic. And that’s no way for anyone to feel. I haven’t even got started on the fact that Cece is a woman and was incarcerated in a men’s prison as, faced with everything else, it seems insignificant as an issue when one considers what society needs to address first on behalf of its transgender citizens.

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