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The Case of CeCe McDonald: Murder—or Self-Defense Against a Hate Crime?

She pled guilty to manslaughter, but activists believe this trans woman was "on trial for surviving a hate crime."

| Tue May 22, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Which raises the question: As a trans woman, where will McDonald serve the rest of her sentence? Prison is a particularly dangerous place for transgender women. If not in protective custody or solitary confinement, they often serve time in the general male population, leaving them vulnerable to sexual assault and abuse. While awaiting trial, McDonald was held in segregated custody in jail and spent some time under house arrest wearing a monitoring bracelet. McDonald identifies and lives as a woman; however, Friedman says, "there's no way she's going to be sent to a women's prison." Solitary confinement, usually used as a form of punishment within prison, is far from ideal for trans prisoners, but Friedman says, "We haven't figured out what we're going to ask for yet. It's all brand new."

Though very little about the context of McDonald's life as a transgender woman would have been admissible during the jury trial, this case has become a rallying point for local leaders and national activists. On the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC in April, during a segment on social and economic challenges facing transgender people, author and performer Kate Bornstein talked about the case. Comparing McDonald's actions to those of George Zimmerman, who wasn't arrested for shooting Trayvon Martin until nearly six weeks after the incident, Harris-Perry said, "In a certain way it feels like she stood her ground."

Over 18,000 people signed a petition, asking that Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman "honor his committment [sic], in his words 'to serve all of our citizens with understanding, dignity, and respect' by dropping the charges against CeCe McDonald."

Several local elected officials also commented on the case. Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon wrote on his blog: "Here is another example [of a] transgender women of color being targeted for hate- and bias-related violence. It is unfortunate that in this case, as in so many, the hate crime itself appears to have been ignored." According to Minneapolis Public Radio, Democratic Minnesota state Rep. Susan Allen wrote to Freeman, "urging him to remember the 'extenuating circumstances' of McDonald's race and transgender, which she said 'have cast unique question marks' over the case."

Lex Horan, a member of the "CeCe Support Committee," says that approximately 30 supporters had been present in the court room each day. The judge prohibited supporters from wearing T-shirts and buttons that say "Free CeCe" and "Free Honee Bea," McDonald's nickname, so instead they wore purple. According to Katie Burgess, on the night after McDonald took the plea, there was a noise demonstration in which "hundreds of people marched around the jail and made a ridiculous amount of noise. CeCe said she heard us singing." Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, who attended the first day of the trial, told press that, "People are being killed out there, and CeCe is being punished for not being killed."

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