The Unspeakable

Yesterday morning, on the third day of her trial, CeCe McDonald accepted a bargain for reduced charges and pled guilty to one charge of second degree manslaughter, with a probable sentence of 41 months. Three and a half years in a men’s prison, where she will undoubtedly be again subjected to exactly the forms of assault that landed her in this position, along with worse and more devastating forms, for refusing to die where so many women like her do. Like Brandy Martell. Like Paige Clay. Like Coko Williams.

Those names are from the past month alone.

CeCe had the will to survive an attempt on her life motivated by hatred of her gender and race, fundamental elements of her being. To them, she was simply the wrong kind of person, something that couldn’t fit into their worlds, and they wanted to make her go away. For daring to refuse the narrative of unremarkable- no, simply unremarked upon- death imposed by our present system on women like her, that system’s direct arm chose to punish her survival. The criminal justice system in the United States, and their media, had already sent a clear and horrifying message for years that the lives and deaths of trans women of colour simply don’t count enough to bother investigating or reporting. But now an even darker message has been sent: Don’t you dare survive, either. Yours is to suffer, and we will ensure it regardless of what you do.

CeCe’s survival is amazing. She is amazing. She did not back down. She did not accept what others mandated as her fate. A crowd of white supremacists surrounded her, assailed her with racist and transphobic slurs, smashed a bottle in her face, gave her every reason to think they meant to kill her. Even if they hadn’t been so overt, CeCe was undoubtedly well aware of the long list of names of women like herself, in exactly situations like her own, who had ended up as names on the TDoR website. She did not wish to be reduced to such a name. She managed to break free of the jeering crowd to escape, and ran. But one of her attackers wouldn’t accept that, wouldn’t accept her refusal of the painfully common narrative. He chased her down. And again CeCe refused to become another victim. She drew a pair of scissors from her bag (which were never intended as a weapon), and turned to face him.

And in his charge, he fell on them, and he lost the presence in our world he had intended to strip from CeCe.

What CeCe did was something important and vital. It shouldn’t be, but it was. It was something that doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should. It’s something that most people take for granted, but is vanishingly rare and fleeting amongst others. It’s something that should be embraced and celebrated. Something we (really? “We”? Do I have any right to consider myself amongst this category of person? Maybe. Maybe not.) should all know is at least a possibility. Something that isn’t totally lost, that we needn’t give up on when presented with the ugly violence that she faced. Something that is not nearly often enough given its due priority by the trans community, and its due acknowledgment as a precious and beautiful thing. Something far more important than theory, voice, visibility. She survived.

What that survival represents is worth more than a thousand acts of “remembering our dead”. It’s an act that represents hope, and the capacity to at least have some small say in what happens to you, to determine your own narrative, amongst a population who are repeatedly denied any semblance of power in their lives, or capacity to determine their futures, if they even get one. Actually… I suppose that’s one of the most important hopes CeCe’s survival presents. The ability to keep your future. Not have it taken away from you on the whims of the privileged, powerful and hateful.

And what does it mean to punish that survival? To reprimand an act that grants hope and empowerment to women like her? To toss her into a prison, amongst exactly the same sorts of men as those who attacked her, where she will undoubtedly be attacked again, for holding on to her survival, hope, her future? To go ahead and take the latter two away from her anyway?

It means something beyond terrible. Something that goes beyond CeCe herself. It’s a direct effort to crush the hope and empowerment that CeCe’s survival could have meant. It’s an attempt to put all the women who would see themselves in CeCe, and be inspired through that reflection, back in “their place”.

CeCe’s act says “We are human beings. We have a right to survive.” The decision of the court says “No, you’re still sub-human. You have no rights. And if you ever forget it, we will remind you.” It suggests a world where justice is only ever a fluke, and its inclusion in the name of a system that so often suppresses it is a cruel irony. In this instance, justice would have been better served by the total non-participation of the “criminal justice system”.

There are no words for this. Well… except for one.

I have a deep fondness for the word “unspeakable”. It’s an adjective that describes something when all others fall short. That is the only word for yesterday morning’s plea bargain, and the conditions that produced it. Unspeakable. Any other words would be meaningless. Just a selfish, superficial attempt to hem in something horrible, to recuperate it, to make sense of something deeply and frighteningly senseless. To try to speak to it or articulate it is to insult its weight.

Last night I sat in the Billy Bishop legion drinking a beer with Joe Fulgham, and I told him what had happened, described the story. He encouraged me to go home and write. I wanted to. I needed to. I coudn’t bear the fact that we were there in the comfort of the pub, with our drinks and the fire and our health and freedom and everything, while that same night, the night of the second worst day of her life, CeCe sat in a cell somewhere, awaiting transfer to a men’s prison. And it would be what, another 1260 bad days before she ever gets another good one? As a skeptic, I want to acknowledge the facts, regardless of how awful they are or how they make me feel. But this was one fact I just didn’t want to be there. Something that just shouldn’t be true, shouldn’t be really happening to someone.

I wanted, needed, to go home and write. But for what? Was I, the great Natalie Reed, going to tell her story, and the immense power of my brilliant prose suddenly change the minds of the men in power who’d incarcerated her? Fuck no. Was I going to add anything to the conversation? Did I even have any new insight that hadn’t already been articulated? Could I say anything that would make this is any way any less horrible? Less unspeakable?

No, it’s for me. This is just for me. It’s selfish, and stupid, and presumptuous. Thinking that somehow I can put this into words enough to make it meaningful to me in some way, to make it articulate and comprehensible and tuck it away in my intellectual filing cabinet for future reference in theoretical constructs? Stupid, Natalie. Stupid and selfish.

The words that could do that don’t exist. And groping for them isn’t doing anyone any favours, certainly not CeCe. What happened to her was horrible. Her survival was beautiful. But the plea bargain, the decision of the court, the sentence? Unspeakable.

The best I can possibly confer is a silence in which something might resonate.


  1. northstargirl says

    Don’t sell yourself short, Natalie. You managed to find some words that fit the situation, and shared them with us. I’m too busy trying to deal with the nausea this case has left me with.

    • Megan says

      It can’t hurt. Here’s the letter I wrote:

      Dear Governor Dayton:

      I am writing you to ask that you grant a pardon to CeCe MacDonald,
      who recently stood trial for the death of Dean Schmitz. Faced with a
      possible sentence of forty years in prison for second degree murder,
      Ms. MacDonald accepted a plea bargain and plead guilty to one charge of
      second degree manslaughter.

      I am asking that you issue a pardon for Ms. MacDonald because I feel that
      she has been treated unjustly from the beginning. She did not start the
      confrontation that led to Mr. Schmitz’s death. Mr. Schmitz and several
      others with him instigated the confrontation. One of Mr. Schmitz’s
      companions smashed a glass on CeCe’s face, and Mr. Schmitz chased her
      down as she tried to flee with blood streaming down her face. In light
      of this, I can only consider his death a result of self-defense. Yet
      despite not being the one to start the incident, CeCe was the only one
      arrested. When her case went to trial this last Monday, the judge would
      not allow Mr. Schmitz’s criminal record, which includes three previous
      assault convictions, nor the fact that a swastika tattoo was found on Mr.
      Schmitz’s chest by the medical examiner, to be mentioned to the jury
      as evidence of his hateful and violent tendencies, yet he allowed one
      conviction for writing a bad check to be used to discredit Ms. MacDonald.
      Faced with such bias from the judge, I’m not at all surprised that Ms. MacDonald felt that a plea bargain was her best option.

      I feel that the fact that nobody who initiated the assault against Ms.
      MacDonald and her companions was arrested sends the message that assault
      and murder are acceptable, so long as your victim is low enough on
      society’s totem pole. Coupled with the fact that Ms. MacDonald was
      railroaded into a plea bargain solely for the act of not letting herself
      become another dead trans woman of color, this clearly sends the message
      that not all people are entitled to the same level of protection in our
      society. If this isn’t the message you want your state’s justice system to send, please pardon Ms. MacDonald.

      You can send your letter to:

      Governor Mark Dayton
      Office of the Governor
      130 State Capitol
      75 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
      St. Paul, MN 55155

      • Megan says

        Good thing I didn’t drop this in the mail yet; I just realized that I misspelled CeCe’s last name. Also, apologies for the poor formatting in the blockquote.

        • inflection says

          There is also a contact form for the governor, at .

          I sent this letter:

          To the Honorable Governor Dayton:

          I write to request your intervention in the case of CeCe McDonald, a transsexual woman of color who recently pled to second degree manslaughter for the death of one of her attackers, defending herself in a confrontation motivated by racist and homophobic hatred. She had been faced with the regrettably common specter of over 40 years in prosecutor-piled charges, and took the rational option of a plea bargain, in a prosecution that should never have been necessary. The weapon of desperation was a pair of scissors; the trial judge repeatedly ruled for the admission of evidence that posed difficulties for the defense (a bad check conviction for Ms. McDonald) and against the admission of favorable evidence (such as her attackers’ theft convictions).

          Sir, I am not black. I am not transsexual. I am not even a Minnesotan. I write to you as a human being concerned about the fate of a woman who defended herself under assault and now faces four years in prison. You have the power to perform two acts which will render significant service to justice.

          First, know that Ms. McDonald is to be assigned to a men’s prison. Transsexuals who present as female are at grave risk of rape and murder in men’s prisons. Quickly, before any damage may be done, I ask that i Ms. McDonald is sentenced to any prison time, you direct the relevant officers to see that Ms. McDonald is assigned to a women’s prison, or another setting within your power where she may be safe from sexual violence.

          Second, although others involved with this case are more appropriate persons to file the formal application, I add my voice to those who will ask that you and the Board render a pardon to Ms. McDonald. Be the jury she never had a chance to face. Don’t let a justice system stacked against people of color and the differently-gendered victimize her in place of her attackers.

  2. Sarah says

    The case should never have been prosecuted, and the fact that it was, and that CeCe was convicted not by a jury after considering all the evidence but on nothing more than the threat of prosecution is a frightening reminder of the horrible injustice that can result from plea bargain arrangements.

  3. says

    Ugh. This makes me so upset and angry. It’s exactly why I hate the criminal justice system. I’m genuinely sick of our society’s bloodlust, the desire deliberately to inflict suffering in the name of “punishment”. We, as a society, intentionally lock people away in places where we know perfectly well that they will be violently abused, by guards and by other prisoners. We know it doesn’t reduce crime; if anything, mass imprisonment increases crime. We know that the vast majority of people sent to prison are not dangerous; some, like CeCe, were just defending themselves against an attack. Yet, as a society, we assent to the state destroying lives like CeCe’s in the name of “punishment”.

    Every aspect of this situation is awful, but I think the worst thing of all is that a trans woman can be sent to a men’s prison. Courts and legislatures and prison authorities know what happens to LGBT people in prisons. But they don’t care.

  4. cami says

    Today, I hurt.

    Yesterday, I drank beer and wallowed in self-pity and, like you Natalie, I ended up feeling selfish after hours of sorrow and lament. Cece is a friend of a friend. So this case hits close to my little circle. But I’m safe. I have a cozy squat right now where I sleep soundly and I am even invited to a party tonight. However, even though I am safe, I sometimes feel the spectre of violence is lurking nearby. Sometimes I feel like I’m just waiting for the axe to fall. Is it just a matter of time before it’s my turn to be bashed? I’ve had several close calls that involved me running like hell to get away. Luckily I am fast. I always wear sneakers and I always keep my sneakers tied tight. Fuck, I hurt today. I’ve lost three people in the last week and a half. I’m meeting with some friends today and planning a memorial service for Saturday. Three of my homeless friends were found face down in the creek. Three friends in ten days. Fuck. I was going to say something about Cece and instead I’m talking about myself. Damn, I’m selfish.

  5. says

    I don’t know from “stupid and selfish” in this case – it’s a bit beyond me to make judgements on this one, but there is one thing that you have done that you should be satisfied with.

    I would not have heard about this had you not written about it a number of times.

    After the first Cece-related blog post I read here, I actually went to a couple other websites to try to find articles on this case, and wasn’t able to.

    If it wasn’t for you, I would never have known about Cece, her case, the backdrop to it, or this latest event.

    That a person feels strongly about something does not mean that the subject of their feelings is worthwhile (just look at religion), but it does mean, especially if it’s somebody you respect, that the subject merits further attention.

    Cece’s story and the whole iceberg lying beneath the surface are just that, for most of us in privilege – beneath the surface. Even if all you do is plant a red flag on the tip of the iceberg to show is that it’s there (and you DO do much more than that), that much can make all the difference.

    Your writing doesn’t change what happened. You may not be adding things other people haven’t said, and maybe this entire comment is just a reminder of how much work remains to be done, but you DO add to the discourse on this issue in that without your “stupid and selfish” urge to write about it, I wouldn’t know about it, and I doubt I’m the only one.

  6. Dalillama says

    I can’t even wrap my head around the horror of this situation. I feel sick, and helpless, and enraged, but I have nothing to say that doesn’t degenerate into helpless swearing.

  7. says

    When I read that this had happened, earlier today, I was in shock… somehow I’d let myself think that it wouldn’t come to this… The whole thing is so repulsive and so utterly wrong, there really are no words… unspeakable is the perfect way to describe this vile travesty…

    (this has some further details regarding how this final result came about…)

  8. says

    Augh, this is just… infuriating. What the hell goes on in someone’s head to actually call this justice? The fact that she’s innocent is clear as fucking day, as is the fact that if the races/genders were switched she wouldn’t have even been tried.

    What complete bullshit. And the fact that she’s going to a men’s prison… dammit. I had been holding out hope that at the least she’d be in a woman’s prison, but I suppose if the justice system had that much empathy they wouldn’t have tried her in the first place.

    It’s like they’re hearing us call her a survivor, and taking it as a challenge.

    This is a wonderful post though, Natalie. It really just sums up the whole damned situation very well, right down to how entirely infuriating it is.

  9. No Light says

    Talk about cruel and unusual punishment…

    What a fucking travesty. Where a wealthy, white cis woman would be branded a victim, women like Cece are branded as the aggressor and victimised for daring to be.


  10. genuinely curious says

    What happened is abohhrent in multiple levels, but sadly (and maybe worst of all) was that it wasn’t unexpected.

    Plea bargins in the US coupled with the extreme falliability of juries and lawyers at finding the truth are designed to put the thumbscrews on. Gambling with your livelihood.

    • Sarah says

      IIRC, Joseph Hallinan showed in his book Going Up the River that over 90% of convictions in the US are obtained by plea bargain. Continuous changes to our system of laws that make it possible to that deliver punishments vastly disproportionate to offenses provide prosecutors with a very big stick to obtain plea bargain convictions. The fact that our judicial system is very heavily biased to convict anyone who is not wealthy, white and male greatly amplifies the injustice. Effectively, we have empowered prosecutors to decide who will be charged and convicted, and who will not face charges at all.

      CeCe served so much time while awaiting trial, that even had she been found innocent, she would have been severely punished, regardless of the facts of her case.

      The injustice in CeCe’s case is truly horrifying. The fact that this kind of injustice is systemic in a country that has turned prisons into an enormous profit center for private corporations who spend millions every year lobbying for ever more draconian laws is beyond Orwellian.

  11. says

    Oh, and Natalie…

    Was I going to add anything to the conversation?

    Yes. You are. If not for you, I’d never have known about what happened to CeCe Macdonald. In fact, if not for your blog I would still be largely ignorant about trans* issues. You are helping people to understand, one step at a time.

    • northstargirl says

      You are helping people to understand, one step at a time.

      This, what Walton said – and I will include even some of us who are trans, but who wouldn’t hear or think about some things unless you brought them up here and made us think about them. For that, and for so much else, Natalie, thank you. Never underestimate the service you provide each and every one of us, no matter where we may be on the gender continuum.

  12. says


    Has anyone contacted the ACLU? Horrible biased miscarriages of justice seem to be the sort of thing they’re interested in…

  13. says

    Natalie, shouting about this from the rooftops is at least some sort of start. I doubt that sidhe3141 would have created the petition without you, and I know I would never have heard about this and signed it.

    Why have we got 18 comments saying this is awful and only 8 signatures? Come on people, it takes 10 seconds. At the very least we can let CeCe know that somebody cares.

  14. resident_alien says

    Disgusting! Racial and /or sexual minorities,you don’t get to “stand your ground”,only whitestraightcismenwithmoney have that right.See,it’s their ground,you aren’t entitled to your health,your safety or your life like they are.
    Frakking hell,how far we still haven’t come…
    If that shitbag who attacked CeCe had tripped and fallen and broken his transphobic scumfuck neck,would they try to pin that on her as well?!?

  15. barbieannrounds says

    The only good thing is that it happened in Minnesota not Texas. In Texas she would have a 100% chance of being tried, convicted and executed.


  16. says

    I read about this last night.
    I cried myself to sleep.

    Reading about this again now, and I can’t hold back the tears.

    Why is the world so awful so frequently?
    Why does that question have to seem rhetorical?


  17. Crazyharp81602 says

    *huge hugs* I’m so sorry about what you all are going through. My heart goes out to all of you.

  18. Dana Hunter says

    Wrote a little letter:

    Dear Governor Dayton:

    I’ll keep this note brief. I know others have written to you about CeCe McDonald, a transsexual woman facing prison time for the crime of self-defense. You know her story by now. You know that she was attacked, fought to survive, and has accepted a plea-bargain rather than risk decades in prison.

    She’s been punished far more than she should. No one should have to defend their life and freedom against the state when all they were doing was trying to survive a murderous assault.

    You have the power to set this right. You have the power to free an innocent human being.

    I ask you, Governor Dayton, to use that power. Free CeCe McDonald. Show this country and the world that Minnesota still values justice.

    Thank you.
    Dana Hunter

    Signed the petition, blogged it, and now must simply hope.

    (Natalie, don’t you ever think you don’t make a difference. You do. You’ve opened this cis woman’s eyes to the problems and dangers trans people face. Because of you, I know, and I care, and I can add my voice to the demand for rights and equality. You’ve added so many voices. What you do makes a difference, and it matters.)

  19. TBS says

    I am shamed.

    This is an injustice, it is horrible. I should be shoutting it from rooftops. But I don’t want to.

    I am still worried somebody will see. We are getting married this year, R passes.

    Worried if I start talking about this, I may jepordize that. And it makes me feel like a horrible person.

    So I support CeCe in theory. And I feel horrible.


  20. Rasmus says

    I wonder if anyone except her lawyer is in contact with CeCe and/or her family and close friends.

    It’s always tough and incredibly demoralizing for a person to serve time for something that wasn’t their fault. People who are in that situation need every little bit of support they can possibly get. Their family and close friends are not always able to provide that help financially, or because they are exhausted or depressed after fighting the system for months on end.

  21. Madcity Renee says

    It makes me shiver with rage.
    Then it makes me weep.
    Like I did when my wife died.

    Like, CeCe I would have ran first before attacking.
    I am not a murderer. I don’t think CeCe is either.
    Violence to me, is a last option.
    I’m sure it was Cece’s last option.
    But I will use it if I had to.
    In a desperate fight nothing is off the table.
    I came from the street. I survived.
    I’ve spilled blood to make it to the next morning.
    I’ve been threatened with rape by human garbage.
    They never got away with it. I made sure of that.
    I wasn’t always safe and I certainly wasn’t free.
    But I am now. Or, at least, I have the illusion of safety.

    In her situation, the result would have been the same as I would have defended myself. I carry a knife in my purse. A big nasty knife. I hope I only need to use to cut open a package of computer parts. Or to cut some twine to hold down the roses to the trellis. I hope to never have to use in anger or self defense. But it still good to know it’s there. It can cut twine or spill blood. I’ll try not to let some random asshole decided which thing the knife will do, but sometimes the choice isn’t your to make. Sometimes you have no choice. But for now the knife is folded. Coiled like a spring, waiting for twine or the unspeakable. The unthinkable.

    I would have stood my ground if pursued. I might have spilled blood and more than likely spilled a little of my own.
    That’s what street life was like for me, 30 years ago.
    But I made it through and I am sitting here drinking coffee.
    Free. Unharmed. With two cats in the room and birds singing outside my window. I’m not in a Male prison. I never will be. The worst scenario of the worst possible nightmare. That scenario, in small way, got me to Thailand. To the bloodiest day of my life for the best of possible reasons.

    I remember the fear. The paralyzing fear.
    A bunch of drunk punks on dark street.
    I’m trying to mind my own business.
    A bad situation gone worse. The scenario played out in my mind.
    Like a bad dream. This could happen to you. Don’t think it couldn’t. It gives one pause. It makes you hesitate. Stay as you are. Don’t make any waves. Don’t end up in a ditch on a lonely country road. Be miserable. Be safe.

    Fear will do that. But, it’s no reason not to be you. Fight. Damn it. Fight. Live. Be yourself. Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. I did that. I was scared. But I did it anyway. You can too if need you to. You don’t need to be miserable. You’ll find out who your friends are. You’ll get to be you.
    Comfortable in your own skin. Genuine. Unique.

    Even so, I feel helpless to help her.
    I feel the fear again.
    I weep for CeCe.

    I survived. I feel guilty.
    I feel guilty I made it.
    I will think about this Woman every day.
    The fear still there, this could be you.
    Don’t think it couldn’t. Be. You.

  22. Erista (aka Eris) says

    So, I really don’t know what to say about this, and I haven’t for a while. But I feel like I need to say something, so I will.

    This injustice makes me feel so sad and broken. When a trans person gets killed, I can at least try to comfort myself with the fact that such horrific actions are against the law. Yes, this comfort can be shattered when the prosecutors/police/etc not do what they are supposed to and justice is not be served, but at least our laws, our system, technically condemns it! Weak comfort, I know, but I use it to try to build hope that we can make things better.

    But what happened with CeCe should have been a victory. Here was a young trans woman, who was assaulted verbally and attacked physically, but she survived! She lived! This was not another story of a trans woman of color lying dead on a slab! Joy, joy, joy!

    But no. She defended herself, saved her own life, and now she’s being sent to jail for it, and all I can wonder is if she’s going to survive after all. In the end, will our legal system make her victory of life into merely a delay of death? Will she still end up lying dead on a slab, murdered by trans phobic people in jail rather than trans phobic people on the street?

    My heart breaks, my eyes fill, my throat constricts, but I don’t seem to be able to cry. My tears are trapped. Ai, that I believed in a God who would save CeCe, that would punish the wrong doers, that would make this all right. But there is only pain in the knowledge that nothing that is done to CeCe can be undone. Ai, it hurts.

  23. Vicki says

    What we really need to be doing is trying to get this on other blogs and hopefully covered by the mainstream media. The Treyvon Martin story was completely ignored by the media until it exploded on social media and in blogs. Is there such a thing as media lobbying? If not, we need to invent it.


  1. […] CeCe McDonald didn’t ask to be attacked, but she was. Some vicious assholes decided a transsexual woman of color was fair game for abuse. They assaulted her, they harmed her, and chased her down when she tried to flee. She had a pair of scissors in her purse. She took them out to ward off her attackers. One of them impaled himself on them, and died, and apparently self-defense and stand your ground don’t apply to transsexual women, because she’s now facing prison time for daring to live. […]

  2. […] We live in a society where these beatings and brutalizations and murders go entirely unpunished because, as the Joker says, it’s all “according to the plan” though the plan is horrifying.  And we’ve seen what happens when someone dares to deviate from that plan: we prosecute them for the crime of survival. […]

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