Minn. Trans Woman Faces Trial After Surviving Hate-Based Attack
The shooting of Trayvon Martin isn’t the only case raising serious questions about which Americans the justice system is designed to serve.
Later this month, a young African-American transgender woman named CeCe McDonald will face two counts of second-degree murder after a brutal transphobic assault left her bloody and an attacker dead.
McDonald was walking in Minneapolis with her friends—also black, also gender/sexual minorities—last June when a group of older white adults began harassing them, calling them racial and transphobic slurs. McDonald replied by politely asking them to stop. According to police reports, one of the white adults then smashed a beer glass into McDonald’s face.
When police arrived at the location, McDonald was lying in a pool of blood, and Dean Schmitz, one of the white adults, was dead.
McDonald initially confessed to stabbing Schmitz in the melee; although she later withdrew her confession, she filed a self-defense claim in December. Minnesota law provides for enhanced penalties for assaults committed based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender presentation, but McDonald was the only person arrested in conjunction with the attack.
To trans people and advocates, the ambiguities around the events of June 5, 2011 are interwoven with the reality that transgender women—and particularly transgender women of color—face high rates of discrimination, incredible poverty, and violent hate-based assault. The majority of murdered trans people commemorated on the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance are trans women of color.
In a journal entry McDonald wrote after her arrest, she describes growing up in a hostile world: An uncle choked her when he found a letter to a male friend in her backpack, and a group of high school boys beat her bloody when she was in seventh grade, yelling “kill that faggot” the whole time.
The same prejudice extends to organizations purported to protect citizens from this sort of violence. A Williams Institute report found that the vast majority of Latina trans women surveyed had faced harassment by police, and that even when they attempted to report crimes committed against them, 57 percent said they were treated “poorly” or “very poorly” by police officers.
Given the incredible danger trans women of color face from violent individuals, McDonald’s grassroots supporters—and some transgender celebrities like Laverne Cox—have been urging Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman to drop the charges based on self-defense. Freeman has done this before: In October, he dropped charges against a white man who shot and killed a black man who had just committed a robbery, saying that the evidence indicated the crime was committed in self-defense.
McDonald’s supporters have succeeded in reducing her bail from $150,000 to $75,000, and they’re using social media sites to coordinate support for McDonald and her family. An online petition has garnered nearly 14,000 signatures demanding that Freeman drop the charges against McDonald. If Freeman doesn’t, McDonald’s supporters intend to wear purple in the courtroom to show solidarity with their “Honee Bea.”
McDonald’s own words reflect this case’s haunting question: “Would they have taken the same lengths to prosecute [Schmitz] if he had killed me?
Shay O'Reilly is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.