We Have Enough Martyrs

“So many transgender women of color are attacked and violently killed.  In this case, CeCe is basically being prosecuted for surviving.” – Billy Navarro Jr.

A couple nights ago I read this compelling piece by twitter-friend and colleague Erica Inchoate, regarding the curious silence from certain prominent figures in the trans community, such as Dean Spade, on the prosecution and incarceration of CeCe McDonald. CeCe is currently being charged with second-degree murder on account of one of her attackers being inadvertently killed as she defended herself from a group of white, cisgender men against a violent hate crime, clearly motivated by her gender and race.

What followed was a conversation on twitter regarding why the trans community seems comparatively so much more invested in those trans women of colour who lose their lives to such violence than those who survive, those who are still living with those risks, and those who are presently suffering from the injustices inherent in the system that produces this violence, like CeCe. Why, exactly, do we seem so much more keen on “remembering our dead” than fighting for our living?

And whose dead? Whose living?

Certainly I wouldn’t want to suggest for a single solitary moment that we should forget about the dead bodies piling up year after year. Those victims, like Paige Clay or Shelley Hilliard or Coko Williams, deserve our acknowledgment and mourning. And neither would I want to suggest that there’s some overwhelming surplus of trans ink spilled on the subject of lethal violence against trans women of colour. If anything, recognition of this fact of trans lives is still woefully inadequate. But relative to the degree of energy being invested in those living under injustice, like CeCe, there’s a noticeable discrepancy. And does this remembrance or recognition of the deceased serve any meaningful agenda if it’s not done with an eye to how circumstances could be improved for the living? And to how to keep our living with us? How to ensure no further blood is so spilled?

There’s a lot to unpack in that discrepancy, and the motives behind it, but what initially leaps out at me is the relatively limited way in which the problem is typically framed by the trans community. More often than not, we speak of these victims as our dead. We speak of them as victims of transphobic violence. There are three extremely important issues missing from the picture in this manner of interpreting things: 1) this form of violence doesn’t simply affect “trans people” in some broad and sweeping sense. It specifically targets trans women. 2) this violence is not targeted towards trans women indiscriminately. It is vastly disproportionately represented amongst trans women of colour, particularly black, aboriginal and latina trans women. 3) this violence does not occur in a socio-economic vacuum. There’s a noticeable tilt towards the victims being economically disadvantaged, the crimes occurring in economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and the victims often being involved in sex work.

When we think about the curious silence regarding these mitigating factors, we can also illuminate some of what might be driving the manner in which emphasis is placed on the dead while the surviving and still yet living (and still yet to transition, yet to be born) are left out in the cold. Presenting this violence as simply an issue of transphobia in some general and abstracted sense, rather than an intersection of trans-misogyny, racism and poverty, allows us to more easily appropriate these deaths to help commodify and market the plight and suffering of trans people as a collective whole. Remembering the dead, rather than fighting for social justice in the here and now, provides an opportunity for selling our narrative as a community defined by shared victimization. What’s lost in that process is recognition of how that victimization is not shared equally amongst us.

Trans women of colour, particularly sex workers or those living in poverty, essentially end up operating as “expendable” martyrs for the cause of the trans community itself, with little attention paid to the dynamics of who, exactly, is benefiting from their martyrship. Is it trans women of colour themselves who experience any marked improvement in their safety and quality of life as a result of us holding up their lost as the face of transphobic violence? Or is it simply those trans people already positioned with the social privileges – male privilege, white privilege, middle-class privilege – requisite to access any sympathy at all who end up benefiting from selling these statistics? I’m sorry to say so, but there’s something immensely creepy about a middle-class white trans guy holding up an image of a deceased black trans woman sex worker as in any way representative of his struggle.

Of course, it should hopefully go without saying that I don’t think any trans person, regardless of gender, race, income, ability level, nationality, relative binary status, etc. in any way “has it easy”, nor do I think any of us are magically freed from oppression on the basis of our gender variance simply because we have access to other social privileges. In terms of the current cultural climate, and who does and doesn’t “count” in our society, we’re all very seriously fucked and deserve a whole lot better. And while certain privileges will still confer certain advantages relative to those who lack them, the absence of cis privilege is still going to mean you’ll never be on the winning end of kyriarchy. And being trans, especially a trans woman, always leaves the shadow of murder and assault hanging over you.

That said, trying to raise awareness of the oppression you’re experiencing by blithely ignoring the intersectional discrepancies between it and that of another trans person who has been far less fortunate is a disturbingly cynical act. The reason the dead fit better into this structure is that they’re unable to object and unable to request we actually do anything for them rather than for ourselves using them as a martyr, warning, or scare tactic with which to help drive home a given narrative.

An even darker element is the fact that as a whole, much of the trans community still buys into and wishes to propagate certain victim-blaming concepts that suggest we’re meant to lie low, blend in, not be noticed. If you get hurt it’s your own fault. Playing against this is another element of the community that says you must be out, must be open, must be heard. If we don’t progress forward, it’s your own fault. Nowhere in that discourse is the fact that trans lives inhabit differing circumstances, with differing risks and differing options, taken into consideration. For some, blending in is an impossibility. For some, blending in is a necessity for safety. For many, both of those are true simultaneously.

At this point, we have enough martyrs. We don’t need any more names to recite at Transgender Day Of Remembrance. We don’t need our statistics to be any grimmer. And we certainly don’t need to internally reenact the sensibility that certain lives are disposable, or that anyone ever had it coming.

It’s time we redirected our resources and focus on providing actual answers and actual improvements for trans lives. The countless trans lives that are being lived, right now. This very moment. Often in immense suffering and injustice, like CeCe, who right now, as you read this, is sitting in a cell because she had the audacity to refuse becoming another martyr. Are we going to allow her to be forced into that role anyway?

Engaging in this redirection, and enacting actual improvements in quality of life for trans people, requires acknowledging the inequities in our community, and the disproportionate manner in which trans people are victimized. It requires acknowledgment that transphobia and cissexism are not flat, evenly distributed oppressions, but something that is meted out in accordance with how vulnerable you are on account of other, intersecting axes of oppression. It requires acknowledging that transphobia and trans-misogyny are not interchangeable, that race makes a shockingly big difference in how hard and dangerous your life as a trans person is going to be, and that we still live in a world where human rights and safety cost money.

Let’s look at this. Let’s talk about it. Let’s figure out what we can do about it. Let’s be willing to ditch our venerable status as victims and start figuring out how we can make things better. Preferably before the next Paige Clay gets buried.


  1. says

    Has there been an explanation of the charges against CeCe? It seems pretty clear that she couldn’t be reasonably expected to flee under the circumstances and had good reason to think he life was in danger, which is usually what it takes to make self-defense valid. Any statement from the prosecutor?

  2. genuinely curious says

    I was under the impression that Cece’s case was proving troublesome to people because it seems to be wrapped in a larger ethical conundrum of “is it ever right to kill, even in self defence?”

    It’s much more difficult to ‘market’ victimhood if in the end somone is killed.

    Talking to some people about this and the fantastically high proportion of assault/murder in the trans+POC demographic occasionally leads the same way affirmative action discussions; i.e.
    “so it’s okay to ‘stand your ground’ if you’re trans/black?”

    sure, there’s probably ways that Cece could have nonlethally defended herself, but society can’t expect vunerable groups to be ninja masters of unarmed martial arts; just in case you know, some college bros decide to beat the shit out of them for shits and giggles.

    an interesting semi-related question is what can(and should) be done to get rid of trans-mysogyny?

    If you were monarch of the world, what would you do to make the world a happier place for trans people?

    • Anders says

      I don’t even see how that is an ethical conundrum. If someone tries to kill me I have no obligations to keep them alive. Killing them if they end up helpless… that could be a problem. But this? *laughs*

      • genuinely curious says

        “If someone tries to kill me I have no obligations to keep them alive. ”

        That’s a bold assertion- explain your reasoning?

        Eye for an Eye Tooth for a Tooth is a pretty old way of thinking- because it’s simple and requires no thought.

        What about extenuating circumstances? (extreme example) I’m close to somone whose job is to care for the severely handicapped-

        one of the patients has a combination of neurological conditions (downs, severe autism, ADD) that makes it very difficult for him to interact in society. Oftentimes he has to be restrained to prevent attacking passers by. you can see where this heads.

        There’s a matter of proportional response here- is it okay to kill if you’re in a better position than your assailant? or only vice versa?

        How does one assess intent to kill? A lot of deaths are ‘unintentional’ in that the assailant didn’t premeditate the murder, and just wanted to beat the shit out of somone.

        Is it okay to kill somone who mugs you? what about a fleeing intruder?

        What about in the broader sense- is it harmful to society if you kill somone who could legitamately be rehabilitated? Is the death penalty sensible?

        Is it okay to kill a Bad Person even if they have lots of family that will be upset by their death?

        I’m not arguing one way or the other; but I don’t think that
        “oh yeah, I’ll just kill you back!” is as rich as this issue gets.

        • Anders says

          Hard cases make bad laws. This is a general law, it should be equipped to deal with average cases.

          In general, a person who is fighting for hir life should not be obliged to weigh difficult epistemological and moral questions.

          It’s difficult to answer your first case properly, because that means having to go to a theory of reason and I’m not finished with that yet… 🙂

          The handicapped person is in such a state that he cannot understand what he’s doing, is that correct? He should not be legally culpable if he kills someone – if you cannot understand your actions you’re not legally culpable. Still, if he comes at me with an axe and I have a pistol, I shoot. And I don’t think I should go to prison if he dies.

          If you have good reasons to believe that the fight is over, the normal rules of society re-establish themselves. A court of law will have to decide if you had good reasons. That’s why we have judges.

          Assess intent to kill… you’re asking the wrong person here – I haven’t been in danger from other people for twenty years (and even then it was a matter of schoolyard bullies, not someone who seriously wanted to put me out of comission). I don’t know what signals a person would give off, but people seem to be able to do it. You’ll have to ask someone who’s more streetwise than I am.

          In principle, yes, you have the right kill a mugger. The mugger made hir choice to rob me, I did not set out to kill hir. A fleeing intruder – I’d probably say that the fight was over by then.

          I don’t really care whether it’s harmful to society. I’m not a utilitarian. The death penalty… it’s not wrong in principle, but I wouldn’t trust the government with the right to kill its own citizens (and no one else should have it, of course).

          Is it okay to kill a Bad Person if ze has lots of family who would grieve? Well, look at Anders Behring Breivik who killed seven people with a homemade bomb and gunned down seventy more in cold blood at the Social Democratic Party’s youth camp at Utöya. If one of them had had a suitable weapon and killed him, would the fact that he has parents who’ll grieve make that a wrong act? No.

          And again, your premise is that the number of people who grieve matters. I’m don’t think it even makes sense to aggregate suffering like that. Is a sentence like “A suffers twice as much as B” even coherent. I would say no.

          • genuinely curious says

            I don;t disagree with 90% of what you say, but giving the citenzry a ‘right to kill’ under any circumstances makes me deeply uneasy.

            A right to defend yourself, sure, but a right to kill is a different kettle of fish.

            “In principle, yes, you have the right kill a mugger. The mugger made hir choice to rob me, I did not set out to kill hir.”

            I disagree with your wording here; and I’ll admit it’s probably a product of how I parsed the question (and this actually makes this disagreement my own fault, sorry!)- but I’d say that if you have any choice in the matter that effects the outcome (do I shoot at the head or somewhere less vunerable, do I phone an ambulance and law enforcement? etc) then yes. you *do* set about to cause that person’s death.

            Of course we’re not all rational unemotional actors, so we can’t hold people in dangerous situations to that kind of standard- but I want to think that two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because somone stole from you doesn’t mean you can steal from them.

            Of course, deaths resulting from genuine accident or extreme emotional duress are excuseable. but I wouldn’t go so far to say they’re a ‘right’.

            but yeah. I’m generally a pacifist, so that’s just me- it’s not a very rigourous position

          • says

            It’s not about a “right to kill”. It’s simply about taking mitigating circumstances, like SELF-DEFENSE, into consideration when looking at a death.

          • beneficii says

            genuinely curious,

            Who on God’s green earth was talking about a right to kill under any circumstances? I honestly don’t understand you.

          • Anders says

            In Sweden you can do what’s needed as long your deeds are not “clearly indefensible.” In practice, you can go very far without committing a crime. If the laws were applied fairly, there would be no question that this was self-defence. Even if a person’s deeds were ‘clearly indefensible’ ze can go free if circumstances were such that ze could not restrain hirself.

            So if the laws were applied fairly, this probably wouldn’t go to court. Are they applied fairly? I don’t know enough to say to what extent they are.

          • G.curious says

            Yeah okay I think I got off topic there.

            I just got hooked up on Anders comment about having no obligation to keep his assailant alive- which is something I disagree with on a personal level.

            nothing that I said about that really has any bearing on Cece’s case, where a trans woman has had the disproportionate force of the law leveled at her despite her acting in self defense.

            So yeah- apparently the only person talking about the ethics of killing (in isolation) was me.


          • says

            The death penalty… it’s not wrong in principle,

            It has no relevance to this case, but I strongly disagree with that.

            There’s a huge difference between killing someone in self-defense in the heat of the moment, and killing someone as revenge. Don’t conflate the two. The death penalty is wrong, always, because it’s not self-defense; it’s an act of vengeance, and vengeance is wrong.

            I strongly agree that CeCe Macdonald should be freed, for all the reasons Natalie outlined; and I just donated to her legal defense fund as you suggested. But let’s not bring irrelevant issues into it.

          • Eva says

            Most people generally justify the creation of laws in terms of single instances and how they make you feel. It would be nice if we were able to see the effect that the death penalty has on crime rates.
            Maybe if we give everyone handguns then they will be safe from murder?

    • says

      Although I agree in the general case about trying to avoid responding to violence with more violence, I don’t think it is practically applicable to the case. From the accounts I’ve read, the attack and response all went down very quickly. In that kind of time frame, you’re essentially acting on instinct. When someone launches their attack and misses or otherwise doesn’t do enough damage, your first and most natural reaction is going to be to strike back about as hard as you can (including with whatever weapons you might have on hand).

      Moreover, I think it ignores the gender, race, and class issues applicable to Cece’s case to focus on the moral ambiguities of escalated self defense. It’s very unlikely anyone would challenge the self defense standing of a rich, white, cis man in that context. I very much doubt he would be charged. If we’re to have any sense of fairness, then, we need to apply the standard that would be used for the most privileged in the cases of the least privileged.

  3. says

    I am slightly confused about one bit of this otherwise phenomenal (as usual) piece – Erica Inchoate is imploring Dean Spade to speak up for CeCe McDonald, whereas you say it would be creepy for him to do so. Maybe I’m reading it wrong, or maybe I don’t know enough about Dean Spade’s prior academic work to understand what’s going on, but this seems contradictory to me. I can’t tell if you’re refuting her statement or if you two are in agreement here and I’m just missing a crucial piece of the story.

    • says

      No, it would creepy for Dean Spade to speak up about Paige Clay and say “this represents my struggle as trans!”.

      A trans man fighting on behalf of trans women isn’t creepy at all.

  4. says

    Speaking of the fight to make it better in this world for trans people. How about this website. Granted it is solely for the US and I hope there are similar sites for other countries.


    This sight is designed to help LGBT people find LGBT friendly cancer screening locations.

    These are the small steps that we take toward making the world not only safer but more comfortable for LGBT persons. There are even better examples I am sure but I was all giddy inside about how proactive instead of reactive this is when I read about it.

    • Eva says

      I believe the NRA would be funding her defence and paying off politicians right left and center. Wait sorry this is the USA, just right then.

  5. lochaber says

    “I have no obligations to keep them alive.”

    excellent wording there.

    I haven’t been in a lot of fights. Not altogether certain whether I’ve even been in anything that would meet my definition of a “fight”. But I’ve had my share of interactions/confrontations/conflicts that went bad quick. In almost every case, I can remember the events leading up to it, and certain instances during the event, and what happened after, but I certainly couldn’t give a fully detailed and accurate response as to what happened during.

    Unless you are (and I’m making a bit of an assumption here…) a highly trained combatant (high-level martial artist, or something) you are not going to have much control over your actions in a situation where you feel your life is in danger and your body is dumping adrenaline into your bloodstream. Even if you have training, you may attempt (and even succeed) to use it, but I highly doubt it will be a nice, cautious, contemplative and rational thought process that triggers it.

    And as to dying (or say, not killing people); it’s tricky business. every person and situation is different. there have been individuals killed by a punch to the head (from an untrained opponent), while other individuals have taken a couple dozen bullets and continued fighting. So, some well trained individuals can subdue and control opponents without harming them, but then again, the individuals who possess this skill set were never really in danger to begin with. But most people are going to be running pretty much entirely on instinct and adranaline, and not stop until either: a) they feel they are safe (running away worked, someone else came in and defused the situation (violently or otherwise), their opponent stopped moving, etc.); or b) they are incapable of fighting (loosing consciousness, exhaustion, restraint, injuries, pain, etc.)

    Sorry if I’m a bit ranty, but I feel strongly about self defense – I’d argue that if there are any ‘natural’ rights, that this one would be paramount. and especially after the previous post, it sorta hits a nerve.

    I understand trying to find the solution with the least harm, but sometimes, the individual in the situation just doesn’t have the option to search for it. Someone I briefly knew a while back stated his viewpoint as “whatever it takes to get you home” – whether that means apologizing and walking away, slamming someone into the wall and choking them out, dropping your wallet and backing away, or whatever. pretty much a pragmatic, do-what-you-need-to-do, morals and pride be damned sort of mentality. I feel like the ‘no obligation to keep them alive’ sorta fits in with this. Granted, most fights are over pretty trivial and dumb shit, but if someone is not an aggressor, I believe they have every right to use whatever means necessary for self defense. If they can do so without conflict, great. If they can do so without harming the other(s), great. If the aggressors happen to get injured in the process… *shrugs* I’m not sure I really care…

    The previous posting kinda hit a nerve with me (the subject matter/story/situation), and the responses to this post just sorta hammered it in…

    • genuinely curious says

      yeah- pragmatism is king is highly charged situations like this.

      Though I still disagree strongly with saying there’s *no obligation to keep somone alive*

      It’s cases like the assailant being severely injured and incapacitated, and the victim not calling an ambulance or worse, adding to the injury of their assailant that worry me a little.

      Such cases are rare, however and fall under ‘vengance’ rather than ‘self defence’.

      I donno- I’m lucky enough that I live somewhere where the population doesn’t have easy access to firearms so the lethality of these kind of conflicts isn’t as high as it could be.

      I don’t think that in the real world anyone should be judged for taking action to save their own life; it’s unhelpful to try to analyse this situation unless you’ve really been there.

      I guess my problem stems from the generally cavalier attitude towards life in certain circles- i.e. “it’s okay to kill somone if they’re bad/poor/brown enough”

      In that case that’s my problem, not anyone elses, and I apolagise for going so off topic

      • christophburschka says

        It’s cases like the assailant being severely injured and incapacitated, and the victim not calling an ambulance or worse, adding to the injury of their assailant that worry me a little.

        That doesn’t fall under self-defense anymore. The emergency is over; normal societal rules are reestablished. If the attacker is alive and not a danger, all nearby have the obligation to keep him or her alive.

        • says

          I’m not sure that it’s so simple. If I have just survived an attack where rape and/or murder was intended, and ensuring my survival resulted in severe injury to my attacker, expecting me to then try to keep them alive is rather… unreasonable. I’m not saying that would take revenge, I wouldn’t, but I would just want to be out of there, home, somewhere safe… add into this the fact that the police are not renowned for regarding trans women favourably… Calling an ambulance (which would result in the police being involved) would result in the ordeal being prolonged (simply for the benefit of someone who only had just tried to destroy me), and possibly another ordeal beginning…

          • Anders says

            As the resident evil libertarian I have to agree with Miri – no you don’t have any obligations to keep your attacker alive and well. Unless leaving them to die would leave you crippled with guilt, but that’s only because it’s affecting you. You have obligations to people you care about, you should treat strangers with an “innocent until proven guilty” attitude but someone who tried to rape you? Or kill you? No. Why?

  6. says

    I’ve been thinking lately, maybe what we should have down like a couple weeks ago or so is to start a campaign asking Democracy Now! to cover CeCe’s arrest and upcoming trial. I think there’s some chance that it might have worked because they’ve really taken on a few different stories about recent racist violence in the wake of the Trayvon Martin murder. Only thing is we’re getting real close to the trial and maybe it’s too late… but maybe the trial will take some time anyways? I’m not sure. In any case I kind of wish I had thought of it and brought up the idea with other activists a bit sooner.

  7. Eva says

    A group of people shouted slurs at her.
    CeCe walked over to them and confronted them.
    A woman in the group hit CeCe with a bottle.
    A fight ensued in which Dean Schmitz was stabbed by CeCe with a fabric scissors that CeCe carried in her bag (she is a fashion designer).
    She has been in jail for months now awaiting trial.

    I noticed that a nazi rally in Minnesota (where this happened) got a lot of people out on the street.
    I wonder if the issue is lack of publicity or do people just not value the life of a transwoman of colour (incidentally I was unaware that saying black isn’t ok).

    I would say that what she was brave in one way, she was standing up for herself and her community, foolish in another, she faced down a group of thugs.

    If only we could all be as foolish as she was.


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