Rosenblum: Murder case becomes a gauge of progress for transgender

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 28, 2011 - 7:36 PM

Lowered bail was a victory last week for supporters of Chrishaun McDonald, a transgender woman of color charged with second-degree murder after a fight outside a Minneapolis bar in June. But it's not the biggest victory.

The fact that McDonald's case is receiving media attention "is amazing," said Billy Navarro Jr., a community educator with the Minnesota Transgender Health Coalition.

Katie Burgess, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Trans Youth Support Network, agrees. "The victory is that she gets to speak out against her attackers," said Burgess, who visits McDonald in the Hennepin County jail a few times a week. "But that's likely as far as her victory will go, as long as our judicial system defends hate crimes."

McDonald, a 23-year-old fashion student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, is accused of fatally stabbing 47-year-old Dean Schmitz, of Richfield, outside the Schooner Tavern in south Minneapolis on June 5. She maintains her innocence.

According to the charges, Schmitz and his friends, all white, made transphobic and racist slurs against McDonald. A female companion of Schmitz allegedly bashed McDonald's face with a glass beer mug, requiring 12 stitches, McDonald reported. Schmitz, the father of four, died at the scene from a sharp-force injury to the chest. DNA testing on a recovered knife is due in December. McDonald's trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 9.

Whatever the outcome, the case highlights the challenges for transgender people, particularly those of color. Results from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, released in February, found "particularly devastating levels of discrimination."

Among the findings: Unemployment among black transgender people was 26 percent; 41 percent said they had been homeless at some point, and 34 percent had annual household income under $10,000.

Particularly troubling to Burgess were results about incarceration rates of transgender people of color and violence directed toward them in jail. Twenty-nine percent of survey respondents reported being physically assaulted, and 32 percent reported being sexually assaulted while in custody.

Outside of prison, challenges loom in school and housing, as well as in securing health care and work. "Thirty-five states can fire you if you are even perceived as being transgender," said Vanessa Sheridan, a Twin Cities-based transgender business consultant. "It could be 'incompatibility' with other workers, or 'not fitting in,' or 'causing a disturbance,'" Sheridan said.

But Sheridan prefers to talk about progress, particularly in Minnesota, the nation's first state to pass a law forbidding employment discrimination based on gender identity.

Almost half of Fortune 500 companies have transgender inclusion policies in place, Sheridan said. The push is partly practical, as a way to avoid discrimination lawsuits. But companies more often view such inclusion as a competitive strategy, she said. "It helps their public image."

Sheridan emphasizes to employees and employers that she is not "the thought police. People have the right to think or believe what they want. Some have religious objections, and I respect that, I really do. But [I say], 'Here in this workplace, management has decided that we are all going to treat each other with respect and I'm going to give you the tools you need to do that.'"

The first step, she said, is getting a respectful conversation going. While Sheridan is not a fan of "Dancing With the Stars," she did follow the controversy around Chaz Bono, the transgender son of Sonny and Cher. After Bono was added to this season's "DWTS" lineup, boycott threats flooded the network for weeks.

Sheridan hopes national attention focused on an openly transgender individual "will get people to talk about the issue."

Burgess has similar hopes. She's pleased McDonald's bail was lowered from $150,000 to $75,000, but her largely grass-roots supporters will be hard-pressed to raise even that much. She's heartened, too, that, in court, McDonald was addressed as "Miss," not "Mr."

But she worries the cards are stacked against McDonald, who is housed in the male Adult Detention Center psychiatric ward. "She's a fighter, and she is willing to speak out," Burgess said. "But this is a systemic issue."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com • 612-673-7350

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