“Invisible Oppression:” Cece McDonald and Violence Against Transgender People

Have you heard about Cece Mcdonald?

If you haven’t, you definitely need to read up on her and her case.  In short, “In June of 2011, CeCe, [a Black, Transgender Woman] was attacked while walking to the grocery store with her friends. After a group of White bar patrons shouted slurs at CeCe and her friends—calling them “faggots,” “chicks with dicks,” and “niggers”–a woman in the group smashed a glass into CeCe’s face, cutting through her cheek. A fight broke out and one of CeCe’s attackers [was killed]. The police arrived and singled out CeCe, who was seriously injured, for arrest. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office charged her with second-degree murder.”  Since her arrest, she has been denied proper medical care and has been housed with male inmates despite the fact that she does not identify as a man and that prisons and jails are notoriously abusive spaces for Trans people (source for account of Cece’s attack and subsequent treatment).

Eventually, Cece accepted a plea bargain for second degree manslaughter (which could carry a sentence of up to 3 1/2 years in pris0n), but she has been clear from the beginning: she acted in self defense.  The man who died that night would be alive if he and his friend had never attacked Cece and her friends, and it was clear that Cece was attacked because of her race and her gender identity.

It is hard to get a clear picture of the levels of violence that Transgender people face in the United States.  After all, the Federal government doesn’t collect hate crime data on Transgender hate crimes, and few states collect any data.  Studies have shown, though, that the rates of violence against Transgender people in the U.S. are SIGNIFICANTLY higher than other forms of violence.  Plus, there is evidence to indicate that the the murder rate of Transgender people is more than 10 times the murder rate in the general population in the U.S..

This problem is nothing new!  Almost 10 years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center highlighted a wave of violence against Transgender people in Washington D.C..  The problem, though, is that violence against Transgender people is all but invisible in our mainstream media and conversations.  To prove that point, Daily Kos recently published a story titled, “Transgender Woman Murdered in Oakland. Nobody Cares.

The problem of invisibility is one that Transgender communities must wrestle with daily.  What positive images of Trans folks exist in mainstream media?  What images exist at all?  There are rarely any conversations about supporting Transgender youth who are struggling to understand their gender identity.  As an activist and advocate for social justice, I even struggle to make sure I am including and raising awareness about Trans issues.  After a presentation I recently gave on social justice, a Transgender young Man came up to me and said, “I really appreciated your presentation in a lot of ways, but in one way I was really disappointed.  I’m Transgender, and my identity is never talked about.  Considering how you framed your talk, I thought you would address this issue, but you didn’t.  I just wanted you to know that so that you could do a better job in the future.”

In what ways are we educating our young people about the realities of gender identity and expression, biological sex, and sexual orientation?

His honesty and his criticism hit me hard, but I have struggled to figure out the best ways for me to include Transgender rights and issues in my work.

So this blog is one of my first attempts to do so.  We must work together to include and make visible our Transgender community members, and in doing so, we must make people aware of the incredible rates of violence that Transgender people face simply for being true to themselves and their identity.

In thinking about this work, I can’t help but reflect upon a lecture I recently attended by Dr. John A. Powell on the subconscious nature of prejudice.  One point he made that really affected me is that studies of brain activity have shown that when people are shown images of those who are typically portrayed in positive, affirming lights in our society (i.e. Cis-Men, White people, Straight people, etc.), a certain area of the brain that recognizes a human being lights up.  However, when those who are typically dehumanized by our society (including, but not limited to, Transgender people, undocumented immigrants, and African Americans) are seen, that area of the brain that recognizes humanity does not light up.

Did you catch that?  At a subconscious level, we are not even recognizing the humanity of our Transgender community members!

To change this grim reality, Dr. Powell teaches that we must begin to do the difficult work of changing the way we socialize those around us to view certain groups of people.  We must begin to humanize those people in our portrayals of them and in our conversations about them.

So I’ll leave you with this.  Lex, my partner’s good friend and a Transgender activist who I greatly admire, questions why the foremost issue for LGBTQ people in mainstream culture is marriage equality.  It’s not that marriage rights are not important, but why should we focus on marriage when Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and especially Transgender people are not even safe from physical violence when walking down the street?


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