We speak of fear as though we know it–and perhaps we do. Is there anywhere truly safe for the black woman, anywhere we can wander and feel completely at peace,anywhere at all where the hounds of judgment, obligation and, in more tragic cases, abuse don’t closely follow? How seldom are we able to reside in a space where we don’t have to resist the urge to worry about what was, what is, or what is to come?
Regardless of the fear we know, regardless of the avalanche of circumstance as yet unknown, we can at least find solace in two fixed and permanent parts of our identity: our blackness and, in most cases, our womanhood. While both can be challenged and both can result in obstacles, neither can be altered against our will. We can rest assured that in the morning when we rise, we will be black. We will be women. And in the dark of night, these genetic markers will not change.
But what if we could be stripped of our womanhood? What if the decision to be recognized and respected as women was not ours to make?
Such is the case for Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald, a black transgendered woman who was sentenced to second-degree manslaughter in Minnesota on June 4. McDonald, now 24, found herself on the wrong side of the law exactly one year ago, when she and her friends were verbally and physically assaulted outside a local bar. Two women and one man leveled racial and anti-gay slurs at them. According to firsthand accounts, the altercation escalated when McDonald stood her ground, calling them out for their hate speech, and one of the women struck McDonald with a cocktail glass, lacerating her cheek. In the course of the fight, the male assailant, Dean Schmitz, was fatally stabbed.
Now, the judge in CeCe McDonald’s case has determined that she will serve what’s left of her sentence in a men’s correctional facility. Though McDonald has already served 366 days (of which 275 will be credited toward her overall 41-month sentence) in a male facility, she has been kept in solitary confinement. Authorities say this has been done “for her own protection.”
When McDonald is moved, however, there may not be any such separation from the rest of the prison populace. And what could happen to her there is all but unimaginable.
In a 2005 letter to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, the San Francisco-based Transgender Law Center cited several discriminatory practices against transgender prisoners. These included intentional use of the wrong gender-specific pronoun (by inmates as well as authorities); lack of opportunity to dress or groom oneself comfortably; lack of adequate, appropriate medical treatment; isolation for “protective purposes”; unnecessary strip searches and forced nudity; and withholding of drug treatment, job training, and recreational opportunities.
Just last year, a group of Wisconsin transgender inmates had to bring a case to the U.S. Court of Appeals to be granted the right to continue their hormone treatment in prison. The state banned the treatment, primarily because it required taxpayer funding, the inmates asserted that sudden discontinuation of treatment could result in severe health problems.
37 percent of transgender inmates surveyed reported harassment by correctional officers, while only 35% reported harassment by fellow inmates. Sixteen percent reported physical assaults, and 15 percent reported sexual assaults while in a prison or a jail. Furthermore, black transgender inmates reported harassment rates 20–25 percent higher than their white peers.
In a piece written last year for the Baltimore Sun, Reginald Dwayne Betts discussed the pervasiveness of prison rape, regardless of sexual orientation:
For as long as the history of prisons in America, there has been rape in prisons in America…. We turn away from it in part because our penitentiaries are the last remnants of Darwinian survival of the fittest, played out on a day-to-day basis. And it is difficult to feel compassion for criminals. This is why prison movies like “Blood in Blood Out,” “American Me” and “Shawshank Redemption” feature graphic rapes and yet did not lead to any public outcries about prison conditions.
Suffice it to say, the fear CeCe McDonald faces, as she’s transferred into an environment where her womanhood will be stripped, ignored, or assaulted, is not one that heterosexual black women will ever have to know.
Following the state’s decision to house McDonald in a men’s facility, the Minnesota Star Tribute quote corrections spokeswoman Sarah Russell as claiming that, eventually, the state determine McDonald’s gender, an assessment that will involve reviewing “any and all collateral documentation and a physical and psychological evaluation.”
Here’s hoping that whatever this investigation unearths, it serves to protect McDonald from prison abuse–whether that means moving her to a safer facility or ensuring her safety in the men’s one. One thing is certain: regardless of how the state decides to gender-identify her, McDonald herself will still live as a woman. And as a woman, it’s hard not to imagine her fate relative to my own; just I’d never want to see the inside of a men’s prison as an inmate, I shudder at the idea of a transgender woman being sent to one.
If any good can come of McDonald’s high-profile case, it’s that it makes visible the challenges that black transgender women experience–and they are myriad. What we do with this knowledge remains to be seen, but if you’d like to start by supporting one woman’s cause, you can write a letter to Cece McDonald or raise awareness about her case and others like it by visiting http://supportcece.wordpress.com/.