It was just before midnight on June 5, 2011, when CeCe McDonald, a transgender woman of color in Minneapolis went out to grab a bite with friends. Just minutes from her door, McDonald and crew began to get catcalls from a group of white patrons gathered outside a local bar.
The taunting soon grew ugly, rife with racist and homophobic slurs, McDonald’s friend Ty Thomas later told police.
McDonald and friends moved to confront their tormenters when suddenly a woman named Molly Shannon Flaherty smashed a glass across McDonald’s face, slicing her severely. What happened next remains a source of contention, but in the midst of the fight that broke out, Flaherty’s ex-boyfriend Dean Schmitz wound up dead—a pair of scissors jammed deep in his chest.
McDonald was accused of killing him. She insisted she was acting in self-defense, that Schmitz had assumed a fighting stance against her and ignored her threats to back away. She was nonetheless convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 41 months in prison—which she served at a men's facility, in violation of the 2003 federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, activists say.
McDonald's case drew outrage from activists, especially after it was revealed that Schmitz had a lengthy criminal background and ties to white power organizations. Advocates repeatedly called for charges against her to be dropped, but the prosecutor proceeded with the case.
McDonald was granted early release from prison this week, after serving two-thirds of her sentence. Advocates are overjoyed while continuing to call for better legal protections so members of the LGBT community can defend themselves against hate crimes.
The case “reinforced the belief there is a double standard applied to us. CeCe was trying to defend herself from hate violence. The charges against her did not fit the crime,” Transgender Law Center senior strategist Cecilia Chung told TakePart.
But law enforcement insisted self-defense did not apply.
"She took a person's life," Hennepin County District Attorney Michael Freedman told the Minneapolis City Pages. "Any civilization puts a penalty on taking the life of other individuals. The exceptions would be war time or self-defense. This was not self-defense. She deserves to do some time in prison."
When contacted by TakePart, the prosecutor's office didn’t have additional comment, other than to insist that justice was applied evenly in McDonald’s case. Flaherty, the woman who by all accounts started the violence by smashing a glass in McDonald’s face, also served time for her attack.
That explanation doesn’t sit well with advocates such as Chai Jindasurat, New York City Anti-Violence Project codirector of community organizing and public advocacy. He told TakePart that transgender women have a right and a desperate need to defend themselves, physically if need be, against attackers like Flaherty and her friends.
“This is a world where transgender women are beaten or killed for who they are on a regular basis,” Jindasurat said. “We see a murder at least once a month. In that context, self-defense is critical, and people like McDonald need to defend themselves in order to survive. For the state to deny them that right will only result in more deaths.”
There were 14 known murders of transgender women in the U.S. in 2013, out of 25 total hate-motivated LGBTQ homicides. Seventy-two percent of victims were people of color, and 53 percent of those were transgender women.
"CeCe McDonald is a living example of injustice in our culture. When a woman is attacked for merely being herself and sent to prison for daring to survive, we send a message that some lives matter more than others,” said Janet Mock, a transgender writer and advocate, on McDonald’s release.
McDonald’s is one of many cases in which members of the LGBT community have faced criminal charges for defending themselves against bullying or violence.
In 2006, four New Jersey African-American lesbian and gender-non-conforming women were sent to prison for between three-and-a-half and 11 years, for defending themselves against a man who sexually propositioned them and subsequently choked, spat on, pulled out the hair of, and threatened to sexually assault members of their group. The women are known among LGBT advocates as the “New Jersey Four.”
This week, a 16-year-old high school transgender student in Hercules, Calif., Jewelyes Gutierrez, was brought up on battery charges by local authorities for defending herself against bullies at her school. None of her assailants has been charged.
Local law enforcement isn’t commenting on Gutierrez’s case—but in Minneapolis, officials have been consistent in their contention that McDonald is a criminal. Now she has paid a debt to society some say she didn't owe.
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