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.