CeCe McDonald speaks on self-defense and being a Black trans woman

By Jackson Cote

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(Collegian file photo)

CeCe McDonald—a LGBTQIA+ activist, prison abolitionist and survivor of both a transphobic, racist attack and a 41-month prison sentence—spoke at the University of Massachusetts on the oppression and violence she and other Black trans woman experience.

With more than 100 people in attendance in the Student Union Ballroom, the Tuesday night discussion was formatted as a question-and-answer session, which accompanied the screening of the documentary “Free CeCe!” directed by Jacqueline Gares and produced by the Emmy-nominated, Black, transgender star of “Orange is the New Black” Laverne Cox.

“Free CeCe!” follows McDonald and her experiences serving in a men’s prison; Cox serves as the interviewer, leading the film’s narrative. McDonald’s sentence of second degree manslaughter came after an incident in which she was attacked in a bar. She consequently killed her attacker in what many consider self-defense.

The hour and a half documentary also records the international movement that sparked from McDonald’s sentence, aimed at attaining for her a fair trial and necessary medications in prison. Additionally, the film goes into McDonald’s life post-prison, advocating against the prison industrial complex and violence of trans women of color.

“I just want people to see me as a human, right,” McDonald asked prior to the screening. “We’re all humans first, and that’s how it should be.”

Through watching the film, McDonald said that she hoped those viewing it would think about their privilege and understand the violence and struggles trans women of color face, while also not generalizing the experiences of all Black trans women.

“I just want people to understand this project,” she said. “This documentary is just a fraction of the narrative of myself and so many others. So please don’t just take this as just all of our narratives.”

Nathalie Amazan, a UMass sophomore political science major and an education training coordinator at the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy, introduced McDonald to the stage and moderated the Q&A.

During the Q&A, McDonald fielded questions regarding a wide-array of subjects, from being unapologetic for acts of self-dense, to the healthcare trans people receive in prison, to the “hypervisibility” that trans people receive in the media. McDonald also related her personal thoughts and experiences on subjects such as the self-care trans women do on a day-to-day basis, as well as the concept of love that she wrote about in prison.

Responding to a question on how she practices self-care, McDonald drew a few laughs when she said that she uses techniques such as writing, meditating, “smoking weed” and “eating really good pasta.” Speaking more seriously, McDonald said she also practices “making people feel uncomfortable” in order to get people to empathize with her cause.

“I love to tell it like it is,” she said.

McDonald also garnered some snaps from the audience in response to a question on her efforts at getting people to empathize with the violence Black trans women experience.

“I’m done f*****g trying to convince people,” McDonald said. “There’s no room in a revolution for people like that.”

Crystal Nieves, assistant director of the Stonewall Center, noted how, as “Free CeCe!” was recently released in 2016, it was a treat to present the film and bring CeCe to speak and share her perspective. On the topic of how trans people are represented in the media, Nieves further emphasized that this is an important discussion to be had and that she was glad it was brought up during the Q&A.

“I think that it is profound and necessary. I think that people forget very often…There’s this false assumption that everything’s okay now because you’re on TV, because you have spokespeople in the media. But really, we’re still doing transgender day of remembrances every year,” Nieves said, “and that list is predominantly trans women of color.”

She added that there is this false sense among the media and society at large that transgender folk are thriving: “So the fact that people are starting to pay attention or starting to learn that transgender is real and that experiences may be a little different in that, that doesn’t solve the problem.”

Mattie Davis, a junior international relations major at Mount Holyoke College, considers herself a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. She came to the event to become a better ally and because she is interested in societal issues such as the mass incarceration of Black people and LGBTQIA+ rights.

“I’m a Black woman, and so I’m really about anything that has to do with justice for Black people,” Davis said. “I want to become a better ally, and to do so, you have to listen to other people’s experiences to understand and to learn.”

As a trans person, UMass freshman social thought and political economy (STPEC) major Caleb Askew thought it was important to attend the event to hear about issues that are not usually talked about or thought about.

“I think people don’t think about the intersectionality of being queer or of color,” Askew said.

The event was sponsored by the UMass Stonewall Center, the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy (CEPA), Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success (CMASS), Racial Justice Coalition, Prison Abolition Collective (PAC), Student Government Association (SGA) and Residential Life.


Jackson Cote can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @jackson_k_cote.