The Exceptionalization Of CeCe McDonald

Until recently, my feelings about CeCe McDonald, the young trans woman of colour who was violently attacked in Minnesota by a group of men (at least one of whom was a neo-nazi) shouting racist and transphobic slurs, charged with murder for defending herself, and ultimately convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 4 years in a men’s prison, had been primarily governed merely by sympathy and empathy (albeit very strong). I absolutely respected her reaction to the attack, the refusal to submit to being a victim. But truthfully, those kinds of situations occur very quickly, are not really governed by coordinated thought, and none of us really know how we’ll react until we’re actually living it. Also, I would understand, and refuse to judge, any trans woman who had the opposite response, such as surrendering to the attack. We are presented very frequently with representations of ourselves as victims, to such an extent that we often end up thinking of it as basically an inevitability… to such an extent that should we be attacked, our response could very easily and understandably be simply resignation and the desire to get it over with. Trans women of colour in particular live under the burden of the victim-narrative, being hardly represented or reflected in our culture at all outside of that status.

I sympathize and empathize with CeCe. I feel very genuine sadness and anger in regards to what happened to her. But recent statements from her to her supporters have allowed my feelings to grow from simply understanding the tragedy of her circumstances, and feeling an emotional connection to them, to deep admiration. CeCe isn’t simply a victim of shitty circumstances and a broken, racist, cissexist culture and legal system. She’s more than that. CeCe is a badass, and far more intelligent, selfless and politically savvy than the blogosphere really gave her credit for.

Personally, I feel the need to accept accountability for how my own fucked-up racial biases played into the distorted narrative we built around her. In retrospect, I can’t help but feel saddened and a bit disgusted by how few of CeCe’s own words and perspectives were included in the discourse surrounding her. The same old awful stories play out over and over again, even where we most ought to know better.

Earlier this month, CeCe communicated statements to her supporters in regards to various long-term, large-scale campaigns being proposed or initiated on her behalf. While grateful for the phone-in campaign that helped CeCe begin receiving her correct hormone dosages, she requested that her supporters not launch or participate in campaigns seeking a pardon or transfer to a women’s facility.

The reasons for this were numerous. Amongst them, for instance, was her statement that she would not feel any safer in a women’s facility than a men’s. Prison is a dangerous and horrible place for a trans woman regardless. But what I saw as demonstrating a staggering degree of integrity, compassion and insight was CeCe’s point about how such campaigns would unfairly exceptionalize her. She is NOT the only victim of the transphobia, cissexism and racism inherent in the legal and penal systems, she is simply one of many trans women and/or women of colour suffering on account of those systems’ failure. Exceptionalizing her as somehow unique amongst a system that harms so many ultimately only serves to divert attention from fixing the larger problem, and ends up prioritizing the symbolic over the actual issues.

What CeCe offered the trans community, what incensed and motivated us, what it was we were really writing and organizing around, was pretty much a symbol, and perhaps, all too quickly, a commodity. Her story wasn’t unique, it was simply especially clear-cut, especially repeatable, especially easy to grasp, especially marketable. In her, we had a synecdoche for larger, systemic issues, such as the ongoing epidemic of violence against trans people women women of colour, the biases against trans and black people inherent in the legal system, the issue of trans people being placed in prisons in accordance with assigned sex rather than gender identity, safety, or self-selection, the difficulty of accessing transition-specific medical treatment in prison, etc.  CeCe’s story and image were something that could relatively easily be constructed into a brand, something through which we could sell trans issues to an often hostile or indifferent public.

I don’t think we were doing this deliberately. I don’t imagine Leslie Feinberg wringing hir hands together and laughing maniacally while saying “this will be perfect for boosting my publicity and book sales!” or anything like that. I just think that we have a very strong (and indeed legitimate) motivation to want to get people to pay attention to our issues, to give a damn about trans people and what happens to us. In CeCe’s circumstances we saw an opportunity, and in varying degrees of conscious intentionality, took it. Most of us, I’m sure, felt quite genuine in our desire to help her, and to ensure that the gross miscarriage of justice represented by her prosecution wouldn’t come to pass, and our anger when it did was equally genuine. I don’t doubt that compassion was a significant component of our motives. But how we did this, why we did this, why this was strong and compelling an issue for us… why this issue… why the emotional resonance was so strong… all of these are considerations that, while very, very uncomfortable, need to be looked at.

This is a pattern that has occurred very frequently in the history of transgender activism. We take the victims of cissexism and transphobia, usually those who are pinned by multiple, intersecting axes of oppression, and we use them to promote our cause. Usually we do this through the deceased, sometimes the incarcerated, often the impoverished… everyone who has the least capacity to speak for themselves, to voice their own needs and concerns. And as we hold up the victims of the worst that a transphobic culture can do, we erase the intersections, and spin the narrative into the plight of trans people as a generalized (and often white-washed) collective.

This is not, of course, to say that trans women in a general sense, trans men, trans people as a whole, do not face genuine oppression and risk. But who faces the most risk, who suffers the most losses, who mourns the most dead… these things don’t occur equally across the entirety of the trans population. And it would be an appalling lie to say that there isn’t an element of spin, of manipulation, in how we present the narrative and what we hope to gain from it.

Our intentions have always been genuine and good. What we want is a better future for trans people, for less of us to get killed, for us to have basic human rights and equal protection under the law, for us to have access to basic medical care and a minimum standard of quality of life… we want things that are entirely, completely reasonable to want. But over and over again, how we do this is by exploiting those who suffer the most, in such a way that it’s those who suffer the least who are helped first. We do this because those who suffer the most offer the most powerful, compelling example of suffering.

And the thing about intentions, historically? They have always been good intentions.

This is what we did, again, with CeCe. We exceptionalized her. We used her to help present our plight. But we ignored her wishes, and we glossed over the much darker fact that her circumstances could not have occurred in isolation. They occurred as the consequence of an ongoing system, that has been operating in that manner all along. That is the fact that needs to be addressed. “Free CeCe” is considerably catchier than “Help abolish the systemic transphobia, racism, misogyny and other forms of discrimination inherent in cultural representation, cultural attitudes, distribution of violence, and both the legal and penal systems, while creating meaningful, lasting structures to remedy the unequal distribution of social privilege and advantage along lines of gender, sex, race, class, ability and sexuality, and compensate for their legacies” …but it fails to address what the real problem is.

The real problem is not that CeCe is presently in jail. The real problem is that the sequence of events that allowed CeCe to end up in jail should never have been possible… or at least not permissible.

Right now, though, this is not a TDoR. CeCe is not the name of a dead woman. She refused to allow that to happen to her, and more so, she is refusing to allow herself to be treated and spoken for in the same manner that those deceased we name each November have been (before the horrible dance parties and movie marathons begin. BRING YR POPCORN LOL.). CeCe has had the opportunity to speak openly and directly about her wishes and concerns, and she has specifically asked that we not exceptionalize her. That we not treat her as a unique case. That we not go campaigning on her behalf, or using her as a symbol on our own behalf, without acknowledging campaigning for everyone else alongside her and yet to come after her. That we instead invest our energies in trying to fix the system as a whole.

That presents us with a fairly rare circumstance. Rather than being permitted the possibility to just assume that our ideas and voices, what we’re saying on behalf of the victims of our broken system, is what they would have wanted, we instead are confronted with the clear reality of one such victim’s wishes. That presents us a choice to either listen, or make it explicit that we think we know what’s best for them better than they do. A mode of thought that has been used by cis people to feel justified in their desire to speak on our behalf, and exploit our existence and experiences, for a very, very long time. Or make it explicit that we don’t give a damn what they want, or what’s best for them, and that’s really all about us and our political agenda.

Personally, I’m making the choice to listen.


  1. says

    Ever since I read her friends’ description of how Cece would always brush off transphobia with grace, I’ve been wondering what she would do once she got out of prison, if she survived. I figure she could be a truly awesome leader if she wants, and at the least is a heroine. Amazing that she started speaking up from inside jail.

  2. KayDee says

    My feeling about her are that, regardless of being trans… She did kill a man. As such, she deserves what she got (though she should serve her sentence in a woman’s prison).

    Anyone who’s been around bars know that getting into an argument or fight with a drunken person inside or outside NEVER ENDS WELL. Someone gets beaten up or killed. It could be you, or the other person. That happens to a LOT of guys too. So, yes, the guy was a total asshole. But, getting into it was a pretty dumb decision; I’ve been involved in similar situations a few times and walking away is always without a word is always the best remedy. Giving the person insulting you a reaction is exactly what they want.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents.

    • says

      Oh my lord. I’m really sorry to be so direct, but you’re an IDIOT if you think CeCe “killed a man” or had ANY choice or control whatsoever in whether or not she “got into it”. She was walking down the street, and was approached, and harassed, and VIOLENTLY ATTACKED by a group of men who were shouting transphobic and racist slurs at her!!! She got a BOTTLE SMASHED IN HER FACE, attempted to RUN AWAY, and then one of those guys FELL ON THE SCISSORS she pulled out of her bag in a defensive panic after he CHASED HER!!!!! You’re scum to think she somehow had any control over the situation at all.

      Like, good for you that you “walked away” from “similar situations”. CeCe tried to RUN AWAY but he wouldn’t let her.

      Idiot. Wow.

    • authorizedpants says

      Let’s put this in perspective, shall we?

      If a middle classed, white, cis woman killed a black male attacker in self defense, she would be applauded as being “strong” and “brave” and there is no way she’d be charged with any crime unless the family of the dead man filed a civil suit.

      Self defense is allowed as a valid excuse for a reason. Sometimes your life is on the line and you react to save yourself. That isn’t a crime; that is human nature. It is survival.

      CeCe pled to manslaughter. She was not tried for anything. I like to think the evidence would have shown she killed an ATTACKER in SELF DEFENSE, but this is America and she is a minority and a trans woman so it probably would have gone poorly. Especially considering that the judge lectured CeCe on escalating the situation by pulling out a random defensive weapon from her purse.

      • says

        And because the judge withheld all the evidence that it was self-defense, such as the injury from the broken bottle. I didn’t even know they could do that, it is terrifying.

        • natashayar-routh says

          The judge also refused to allow the defense to bring in the dead man’s record for assault or the fact he had a swastika tattoo. The judge further ruled the defense could not have expert testimony to the fact of pervasive violence against trans women go color.

          It was a political prosecution before a biased judge.

        • says

          Judges filter the available evidence pretty much all the time. The purpose behind this is to allow the rejection of irrelevant facts, and in most cases there are at least some irrelevant facts that the public and the jury doesn’t need to know about.

          However, as with any power, this ability is often abused — in this case to reject highly relevant information. There’s relatively little review and sanction against judges for bad decisions, even in jurisdictions where the judge in question is elected.

          • says

            There’s relatively little review and sanction against judges for bad decisions, even in jurisdictions where the judge in question is elected.

            Especially in jurisdictions where the judge in question is elected. The American practice of directly electing judges (which is, thankfully, not used elsewhere in the world) is a recipe for corruption and bias.

    • says

      If the people who attacked CeCe didn’t want their buddy to get killed, they should have considered that the black trans woman they singled out for attack might defend herself and that the situation might escape their control.

      It was their decision to attack her. That man’s death is on their heads.

    • says

      My feeling about her are that, regardless of being trans… She did kill a man. As such, she deserves what she got (though she should serve her sentence in a woman’s prison).

      Judgmental bullshit. Can you say that you would have reacted differently in that situation? I can’t. I’ve never been attacked by an angry racist mob that was trying to kill me. Until you’ve experienced what she experienced (and few of us have), don’t judge her.

      And imprisonment is hellish (especially so for a trans person). I won’t willingly wish it on anyone.

      (And what does it even mean to say she “deserved what she got”? Given that free will is a myth, I don’t think anyone “deserves” anything, really. And I think we’d benefit, as a society, from showing a bit more compassion and understanding towards the people whom we treat as “criminals”.)

  3. Navin says

    Is there some reason readers should accept you as the fact-finder on the events? McDonald had no control because you say she didn’t?

    At the risk of being called an idiot I will point out the she plead guilty whereas your article says she “was convicted”, making it seem like a trial was conducted. In her plea she stated that she was approached and violently attacked by a woman, the woman who was the bottle smasher. The guy that was killed jumped into the melee. CeCe also stated that the guy pulled her and her scissors into himself. Not that he “fell on the scissors”. It was in her hand as it entered him.

    This article was otherwise pretty interesting and posed a nice argument. But the fact-finding about the actual attack is pretty flawed.

    • says

      a) Convictions follow guilty pleas just as they follow trials. Conviction is the act of a judge declaring the individual guilty of the crime. This may come about as a result of a plea or a verdict. I didn’t say she was “found guilty”.

      b) None of what you said seems to strongly contradict what I said, and certainly not in a way that’s valid to the interpretation. Not even the “falling on the scissors” part.

      c) Her plea was part of a bargain. It can’t be reliably used as the sole, and absolutely not the solely accurate, description of events.

      • Navin says

        Fair points.
        a) I agree and am aware a guilty plea produces a conviction, but other readers might find the omission to mention her act of pleading guilty to be slanting things.
        b) I think that “violently attacked by a group of men” is a slanted wording you should recognize considering the facts weren’t that.
        c) Well it’s her description of the events recorded by her supporters. A point of *this* article is to listen to her words. You imply she fudged in order to obtain the bargain. You have no evidence of that.

        I agree with KayDee that CeCe killed a man. So I will join the IDIOTS and scum in the corner now. I am also very glad she received the minimum time and hope that this is the worst hardship of her life by a long, long shot.

        • natashayar-routh says

          Yes CeCe killed a man. Ever here of justified homicide? She killed him defending herself after being violently attacked. Where she white there would have been no question about this being justifiable homicide. So yes you are an idiot.

          • says

            Sounds like you’re a bit of a self-righteous, arrogant bully who enjoys pedantically quibbling over details as an opportunity to talk down to people regardless of how irrelevant or inappropriate it is to the context and basic decency.

        • says

          …attacks are by nature violent, and the fact that you harp on the “killed a man” point ignores that sometimes violence is the only means one has of self-defense.

          the police are not known for their sensitivity in dealing with trans people. even in a major US city the cops here bitch about once a year that allowing people to have ID that doesn’t reflect their “genital status” is somehow dangerous to women. well, uh, for those of us who get carded for everything under the sun, it’s dangerous to us…some of us are women, some of us aren’t, but we’re all people.

          I live in a rather, ahem, “economically depressed” area. like most of the people where i live, i’m a person of color. when you call the police, they might or might not come, and when they do, it can take hours. quite literally, hours. one of my neighbors was assaulted by a white supremacist douchebag and it took the cops the better part of a day to show up. fortunately, she was able to run away. CeCe and her friends were cornered, words being attacked by white supremacists for being Black and trans, and this often ends poorly for us. she had no other option than self-defense, and the judicial system failed to recognize that trans people and Black folk have the same need to defend ourselves that people living out in suburbia do when an attacker is intent on doing them grievous bodily harm.

          there’s privilege dripping out of your words here, Navin. it, politely, sounds like your belief is that CeCe protecting herself was somehow more of an evil than what would have happened if she hadn’t…and, well, we all know damn well what happens when we don’t protect ourselves from violence as both trans women and people of color….we end up getting our name butchered by someone who thinks Remembering Our Dead is an excuse for a “women and trans” dance party. our deaths don’t mean less, and our rights shouldn’t be abridged for who we are, and i think Natalie did an excellent job explaining that, whilst you focus endlessly on the fact that someone died., which could easily have been prevented had Dean Schmitz and his little chickenshit crew of white supremacist queer phones chosen not to attack CeCe and her friends in the first place. let’s be abundantly clear: by attacking CeCe and her friends, Dean Schmitz chose the events that happened, as that is a risk when you attack people.

      • says

        I should add that defendants, especially poor minorities, have been forced into accepting plea deals when not exactly guilty for a long time now. Ed Brayton has been covering this shit pretty thoroughly. Quite a few people cleared by the Innocence Project plead out and even confessed.

        • says

          Indeed. We shouldn’t forget the larger context here; people of color do not receive fair treatment from the legal system.

          That’s without even factoring the slanted odds of being a trans woman. The intersection of the two is not a good place to be if you have to go before a judge (or jury) in this society.

          People ought to look at the analyzed data on this. It’s simply shockingly biased treatment.

    • Rasmus says

      What are your sources?

      The sentence and any other court documents tend to support the court’s view of what happened. That’s almost a tautology…

      If you want information that isn’t biased by the court’s decision you need to study the police documentation of the case. There should be something like a police investigation final report that summarizes the police’s findings. Have you read that?

      I’m biased to believe that the racist and his buddies are really the ones culpable for most of what happened, partly because I’m biased against racist assholes and partly because of the media reports that the court didn’t allow evidence that would support the racist and transphobic aspect of the events leading up to the death.

    • says

      The point about “no control” is that CeCe had no control over whether she got into the fight or not. I looked at the same plea details that you and Natalie did, and you know she tried to walk away before the woman hit her with a bottle, and to run away afterwards before being chased down.

      If you want anyone to hear your views in a productive fashion, don’t go in saying “your fact-finding sucks” and use passive-aggressive comments about how you expect to be called an idiot. I can’t stand people being passive-aggressive on the Internet; it never does anything useful for the speaker or anyone else. What point are you actually trying to make?

      • Navin says

        Point: The outcome for CeCe was just, give or take, all things being considered. (Or at minimum this is an arguable viewpoint on a freethought blog right?) Framing the facts of the attack the way the blog post did, and the way Natalie Reed’s blast at KayDee in comments additionally did, forces the conclusion that a severe misjustice occurred. Precisely the reason to use the framing. I pointed it out.

        I appreciate the debate. Didn’t mean to disgust the blog author. She doesn’t know me and vice versa. I concluded that this was a case in the margins.

  4. ik says

    Maybe just incomplete information. When I initially heard of the case I was like, ohhh, being tried for manslaughter, this is so not going to end well even though I thought she should be tried like a normal person would be.

    Who names who’s deaths every november?

    • says

      Despite the self-defense context, she was tried for MURDER. She pled down to manslaughter.

      This is a very important fact for understanding the blatantly discriminatory nature of her prosecution.

      • says

        I won’t fault the prosecutor for bringing charges, but the facts here supported voluntary manslaughter at worst. The big problem here is the justice system in general being set up to railroad people, but there was a lot of specific discrimination in this case where all the evidence that would support her self-defense claim got blocked. Of course, if public defenders were funded as well as prosecutors, she might have beaten this.

        • says

          That’s the thing. The initial charge should have been manslaughter, from which CeCe could then have plead down. The situation was rigged before there was even an opportunity for trial.

          She received a lot of donations to her legal fund, and a lot of pro bono assistance. This is what she and a lot lawyers working on her behalf realized was the best they could really do. She never had a chance of beating it entirely, not really, especially given the extreme bias of the judge, and dragging her through a trial would have been horrible for her. The plea was what gave her the best chance of getting it all over, and getting out of prison, as quickly and non-traumatically as possible.

  5. Denise says

    I commend you on admitting your racial bias. It has been pretty obvious in a number of your posts and I personally have found this overt racism to be extremely disturbing. At least if you can admit it and name the problem, you might be on your way hopefully to improving the situation.

    • says

      Please don’t make such accusations without being willing to substantiate and elucidate your concerns, and to do so in a friendly, or at least diplomatic, way. You haven’t been overtly hostile, and I appreciate that and it has me prepared to sincerely listen, but you also haven’t provided the reasons for your concerns.

      It’s not a topic I appreciate being taken lightly. I admit and name the problem that is present in all human beings, and particularly present in those of us who benefit from the most racial privilege (like white people in Canada and the USA). Acknowledging the presence of it in myself, and working to do all I can to minimize its influence, may be (unfortunately) exceptional, but the presence is not.

  6. embertine says

    I like this post because as a white woman (and cis, which makes it worse) I have also had these feelings about my reaction to CeCe’s case; in the sense of, isn’t it easy from my position of privilege to turn her into a poster girl, and how close that comes to fetishisation of who and what she is.

    And then I read the comments and I see that your admission of weakness in the sense of having, potentially, been blinded to the racial aspects of this, have brought those who scent that weakness like blood in the water and use it as an excuse to attack you.

    You know what kind of people can admit when they’re wrong, when they’re weak? STRONG PEOPLE.

  7. SayNoMore says

    “attacked in Minnesota by a group of men”

    You mean glassed by a woman and attacked by a mixed gender group, right?

  8. Fae says

    Sorry for the relatively short post, but my brain is for the most part fried given that I am in the midst of writing one of my final papers for a class. That being said, I thought everyone may find this useful. It is a compilation of facts regarding CeCe’s case.

    I’ll come back and be more useful hopefully once these papers are done with, but in the mean time enjoy!

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