Rolling Stone called her a “folk hero.” Her friends call her “Katniss,” the persistent protagonist from “The Hunger Games.” CeCe McDonald describes herself simply as “the girl who lived.”
In the five years since a brawl outside a Minneapolis bar left a Richfield man dead and McDonald convicted of manslaughter, McDonald has rewritten the script of her life. She has committed herself to fighting for the rights of transgender people, which has elevated her to legendary status among her supporters. And she’s inspired Laverne Cox, star of the hit Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black,” to create a documentary about her.
“CeCe is a survivor and she’s a leader, and she’s inspired so many folks,” said Cox, who credits McDonald with raising the visibility of transgender women of color — and the dangers that haunt them.
After 19 months in prison and 13 months on parole, McDonald, now 28, is an outspoken “prison abolitionist” and transgender rights advocate. She travels the country, speaking on panels with police chiefs, politicians, attorneys and professors about the impact of racism and transphobia on the criminal justice system — as well as on her own life.
“Free CeCe!” will have its Midwest premiere Saturday at the Twin Cities Film Festival. Cox produces and appears in the film, which traces McDonald’s journey from lockup to legend, as well as the grass-roots movement in Minneapolis that launched her to national recognition.
McDonald, whom Advocate magazine calls “the poster child for transgender victims of the justice system,” said she hopes that the movie, like her speaking engagements, helps make the world safer for other women like her.
In 2011, 23-year-old McDonald was a fashion student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College on a promising path. Previously homeless in her native Chicago, a friend’s extra bus ticket brought her to Minneapolis, where she found resources in the transgender community that helped her obtain housing and get into school.
One June night, McDonald and some friends were walking to a south Minneapolis grocery store. When they passed the Schooner Tavern, a group standing outside began to heckle McDonald and her friends, yelling racist and anti-transgender epithets. Suddenly, a woman attacked McDonald, slicing her face with a broken glass.
The two groups collided violently. McDonald tried to run, but Dean Schmitz, 47, pursued her, she said. She reached into her bag for a weapon to defend herself. It was a pair of fabric scissors.
McDonald claimed Schmitz charged at her, and into the scissors. Other witnesses claimed she intended to stab him. Schmitz was pierced in the heart and died.
McDonald’s role in the killing — was it murder or self-defense? — was debated in public, through news headlines and protests. The transgender community rallied to support McDonald’s assertion that she was a victim.
Transgender women, especially women of color, face a higher risk of violence than any other members of the LGBT community. Data on the number and type of crimes committed against the transgender population is limited, but a conservative estimate from the Human Rights Campaign puts transgender women at 4.3 times the risk of homicide than the general population of all women.
“We have to navigate society in a totally different way,” McDonald explained, “constantly having to look over our shoulders to protect ourselves from violence.”
To her community, McDonald’s survival was powerful: She became a hero because she fought back and lived.
. . .
Not everyone sees her that way.
Schmitz’s family declined to comment on McDonald’s national recognition, writing in an e-mail, “We loved our father.”
After the incident, McDonald was charged with second-degree murder. Transgender leaders protested outside Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis. Hundreds of letters on McDonald’s behalf flooded the county attorney’s office.
For almost a year, McDonald, who was jailed, refused to make a plea or to admit guilt. It wasn’t until after a jury was selected that Hennepin County offered a deal she could agree to: second-degree manslaughter and a sentence of 41 months. In all, she served 19 months — in a men’s prison.
“I think [CeCe’s story] touches just about every marginalized person who hears it,” said Roxanne Anderson, a community organizer and board chair of the Minnesota Transgender Health Coalition. “CeCe,” Anderson said, “is a superhero.”
But five years after the case, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman maintains that her prosecution and sentence were appropriate. In Minnesota, fearing for your life is not just cause to use deadly force, he explained.
“You’re supposed to do whatever you can to get away from that person,” Freeman said. “She had an opportunity to back off, and she didn’t.”
Freeman calls the incident “tragic.” “It was awful that CeCe was cut, and that CeCe killed Schmitz,” he said. “But there was no question that she killed him.”
. . .
McDonald grew up in a sprawling, “very respectable” family, whose lives revolved around church. Appearing feminine from a young age, she “was instantly made out to be the black sheep,” she said.
Whenever she got into trouble with her family, books were her punishment. She found comfort from digging into series such as R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” and “The Baby-Sitters Club.”
“I got into reading by being a bad-ass kid,” she said.
She turned to books again during her incarceration, part of which she spent in solitary confinement for her safety as a woman in a men’s prison. She was struck by Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” the New York Times bestseller about institutionalized racism and how people of color are affected by the criminal justice system.
“It was really ironic to be in this system and reading about it,” McDonald said. “That’s when I started to realize that my story, the incident, wasn’t just about me.”
Her father had been in prison for much of her childhood, and McDonald grew up telling herself that she didn’t want to follow the same path. “I wanted to be an upstanding citizen, but I didn’t get the opportunity, because I was constantly demonized and constantly criminalized,” she said.
She began talking to other inmates about race, justice and respect, developing friendships that helped get her through her term. It was then that she committed to continuing those conversations outside of prison.
“I realized that if I don’t do this work, I’m just as bad as everyone else who allows sexism and racism and homophobia and transphobia and all these other -isms to perpetuate the type of violence that already exists in this world,” she said.
Some people say McDonald already is making a difference. Just last month, the Minneapolis Police Department issued new guidelines on how officers interact with transgender people, something Anderson of the Minnesota Transgender Health Coalition believes couldn’t have happened without McDonald’s willingness to share her story.
. . .
McDonald has moved on, but the incident follows her. She still lives in the Longfellow neighborhood, still shops across from the Schooner — and still lives with fear of being attacked.
That everyday battle with fear struck a chord with Cox, who heard about McDonald while filming the first season of the prison drama “Orange Is the New Black.” Cox even used the case to inspire her portrayal of Sophia, a transgender inmate.
“I thought about CeCe every day I went to set,” Cox said. “I thought about the realities of transgender women all over the country who are incarcerated, whose stories are not being told.”
As the first season of “Orange” was wrapping up, Cox began collaborating with Jacqueline Gares, a New York City-based filmmaker, on the documentary. They came to Minnesota to meet and film McDonald at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud.
When McDonald was released from prison, the documentary team was on hand. They continued to follow her for several months in Minneapolis, Chicago and San Francisco, where she traveled for the film.
“It was clear to me from the beginning that she had emerged as a leader of sorts,” Gares said, “someone who evolved over time and is continuing to evolve as a leader for so many issues.”
McDonald hopes “Free CeCe!” humanizes her and other women like her for its audience.
“This film is very important for people to see,” she said. “Not just to see the violence that is happening to transgender women of color on a day-to-day basis, but also to get people to understand we’re human. We have to pay our bills. We have to take care of our families.
“People love us,” she said. “My mom loves me.”