Since former Olympian and reality star Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner, America has been fixated with transgender life. The Entertainment Tonight nation is obsessed with everything Caitlyn, and no detail is too small for contemplation, right down to the color of her pumps.
A Minnesota transgender woman who is gaining a modicum of that fame is happy for Jenner, but says that we have a long way to go to accept people who realize they were born into the wrong body.
“We have to realize that Caitlyn Jenner also leads a life of white privilege,” said Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald, who served time in prison for killing a man who had attacked her because she was a transgender black woman.
Jenner was a very famous, wealthy white male long before he decided to become a woman, so he has an enormous edge on most transgender people. “I’m still an African-American woman and have to deal with all the things I grew up with,” said McDonald.
McDonald was just going out to pick up some groceries on a warm June night in 2011, not knowing her life would be indelibly changed. She was a broke community college student living with friends in a south Minneapolis apartment, determined to move her life forward. She was in the middle of transitioning from a man to a woman and chose to shop late at night to avoid stares and taunts.
This night, it didn’t work. Outside the Schooner bar, McDonald and her friends were harassed by a small crowd. McDonald was hit in the face with a glass, slicing a deep gash in her face, then chased. She finally turned on her attacker, Dean Schmitz, and stabbed him in the heart with scissors, killing him.
The way the incident would be framed — simple bar fight? Transphobic and racist attack? Self-defense? — would play out over the next few years and galvanize a small community of transgender people across the country.
Charged with second-degree murder and facing 40 years in prison, McDonald eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was ordered to serve 41 months — in the male prison in St. Cloud, after authorities determined she was clinically still a man.
Asked if the same charges would be brought today, given the attention to Jenner, McDonald said yes.
“There’s no comparison between Caitlyn and me except that we’re trans,” said McDonald. “She has a bodyguard. She doesn’t have to worry if her medicine will get cut off or if she’ll lose her food stamps. I don’t think she would have had any effect on my prosecution at all.”
McDonald has been out of prison for 18 months, but what has happened since is remarkable.
She has become an inspiration for Laverne Cox, who plays the character Sophia Burset in the hit television show “Orange is the New Black,” currently in its third season. We won’t spoil the show, but upcoming episodes will portray some of what McDonald faced being a transgender woman living in a man’s prison.
Meanwhile, Cox is co-producer with Jacqueline Gares on a documentary, “Free CeCe,” that is nearing postproduction. They hope to have a rough cut of the documentary by early 2016, and plan to have openings in New York and Minneapolis some time after that.
The Advocate magazine named McDonald one of its top “40 under 40” in the nation, calling her “the poster child for transgender victims of the justice system,” and she has been called on to speak about her life at venues across the country.
McDonald’s case initially didn’t get a lot of national attention, but Gares heard about it while working on a public television show about the LGBT community. It’s also where she met Cox, before the actress’ stardom. When Gares’ show was canceled, she asked Cox to coproduce the McDonald film with her, and they raised enough money to begin production. They are currently raising money to finish the film (http://igg.me/at/freecece/x/3898742)
Gares and Cox traveled to the bleak, imposing St. Cloud prison for interviews with McDonald.
“What was amazing is that [McDonald] was incredible,” said Gares. “She was optimistic, courageous, gracious. She was someone who had an open heart.”
They talked about McDonald’s tough upbringing, in which she suffered violence and humiliation because of her femininity and race, and about her transition to a woman. They talked about her selling drugs and living on $10,000 a year because no one would employ her.
During the interview, McDonald told the moviemakers about the wrenching decision to plead guilty in order to save herself from a potential life sentence after a judge refused to allow testimony about the dead man’s criminal past and the swastika tattoo on his chest, or even a thorough explanation of transgender life. It was just a couple of short years before Jenner would put transgender issues on prime time.
“The most powerful thing is when she took us to that moment where the fight escalates and CeCe found herself staring into the eyes of people who wanted to do her serious harm,” said Gares. “It was an incredible experience, though it was really sad to have to leave her.”
The producers got a taste of CeCe’s life behind bars. “He has to go back to his cell now,” the guard said as the interview ended.
McDonald, 27, is now determined to “change the criminal injustice system and the criminal industrial complex.” She is unemployed and living on general assistance but has recently talked to people about work in transgender advocacy.
The most difficult thing about prison were the times McDonald was put in solitary confinement for her “safety” 23 hours a day.
“It breaks you down,” said McDonald. “You think about how you are going to spend that one hour outside. Do you take a shower? Make phone calls? It kind of feels like you are the only person in the world.”
In other words, a lot like being a transgender person.
“We’re dangling,” said McDonald. “We’re hanging on.”
For more information: www.freececedocumentary.net.
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