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Gender Fri Apr 17 2015

Black Trans Lives Matter

By H. Melt

On March 30 at DePaul University — one day after the Trans 100 event and one day before the Transgender Day of Visibility — CeCe McDonald and Monica James, two black trans women from Chicago, gathered to share their thoughts about the current state of the trans movement, their experiences of violence and incarceration, and how the power of community saved their lives.

In front of a packed lecture hall, McDonald began by discussing her Chicago roots and how the city influenced her. Born and raised in Chicago, McDonald attended Clara Barton Elementary and Percy L. Julian High School on the city's South Side. At the age of 14, she was given the ultimatum by her religious family to either suppress her trans identity or leave home. McDonald left home and moved to Minneapolis, where she began to transition.

McDonald felt the move "was the opportunity for me to kind of figure out who I was... without feeling like I was being heavily policed both outside and inside of my home." However, the policing did not end after she left Chicago. While walking to the grocery store in 2011, a group of white people shouted racist and transphobic slurs at McDonald and her friends. She confronted them and was violently attacked. Dean Schmitz, who had a swastika tattoo on his chest, was fatally stabbed. McDonald was sentenced to 41 months in prison for defending herself. A movement with the slogan "Free CeCe" formed around her case and called for her release, with support coming from all over the world.

Monica James was also born and raised in Chicago. A recent Windy City Times article described her experiences growing up in several neighborhoods throughout the city including Garfield Park, Roseland and Rogers Park, before she was forced out of both her high school (Sullivan High School) and home in 1989 after coming out as trans. James turned to crimes of survival including sex work and retail theft to keep herself alive.

In 2007, James was caught shoplifting by an off-duty and undercover police officer. Even though the store didn't want to press charges, the policeman was determined to punish her. He threw her in front of a moving car and beat her with a gun in the middle of the street, which went off during their altercation. She believes the police officer was trying to kill her. James was facing 20-80 years for attempted murder. She described the following moment at her trial, which led the audience to collectively gasp out loud:

"The state's attorney told the jury, 'this person here wants you to believe that they are an innocent and honest citizen and guess what, this person is lying to you about their gender. How could you ever believe anything coming out of their mouth?'"

Both McDonald and James spoke passionately about the ways in which community helped them survive. McDonald said, "It was a blessing that I wasn't walking that street that night by myself 'cause who knows what could have happened to me. I probably wouldn't even be standing here telling you my story." While in prison, McDonald read books by Angela Davis, as well as Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. She received many letters of support that provided comfort, reminded her she was not alone, and asked her to be a leader, even though she wasn't sure she was ready to take on that role. McDonald described her leadership and speaking style that evening as unfiltered, unabashed, and strongly grounded in a sense of reality. She said, "I just want to be someone who's relatable."

James also had a community of people who supported her case, wrote her letters and sent her books. Like McDonald, she was encouraged to write about her story while incarcerated, which gave her a much-needed outlet. She said, "After each time I wrote, I felt a sense of liberation." During her talk, James discussed reading the work of Assata Shakur and recited her words from memory: "A wall is just a wall and nothing more at all, it too can be broken down." This quote helped James break down her own internal walls.

McDonald and James are living examples of the importance of intersectionality in multiple movements. McDonald reminded the crowd, "The Black Lives Matter campaign was started by queer women of color and has been co-opted," focusing too narrowly on cisgender men of color. McDonald and James articulated the overlapping struggles in movements for black, trans and women's liberation, noting where there is room for each to grow. They are also helping shift the focus in queer and trans communities to issues of policing, incarceration, prison abolition, and violence facing trans women of color.

Since being released from prison, McDonald and James have become outspoken activists, traveling around the country and the world to tell their stories. McDonald is currently on a national speaking tour and will be featured in the documentary FREE CeCe, expected to premiere in 2016. James went to Geneva, Switzerland in 2014 to testify before the United Nations about the policing she has experienced. She was also celebrated on this year's Trans 100 list, which McDonald was featured on last year. Neither McDonald nor James are defined by the violent attacks that led to their incarceration. Instead, they have used their experiences as a platform to fight against the criminalization of trans women of color.

Towards the end of the evening, McDonald mentioned the need to create a curriculum around the prison industrial complex, gender identity and sexual orientation, because "they aren't considered teachable subjects." Noting that she now sees trans and genderqueer kids coming out at an early age, she said, "If I had that chance, if I was able to have that freedom, if a lot of us were able to have the freedom growing up, where would the world be today?"


H. Melt is a poet and artist who was born in Chicago. Their work proudly documents Chicago's queer and trans communities. H. Melt has been published by 3rd Language, Original Plumbing, and THEM, the first trans literary journal in the United States. They are the author of SIRvival in the Second City: Transqueer Chicago Poems.

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