The Transgender Crucible

Alec Soth/Magnum
CeCe McDonald became a transgender folk hero after she was charged with murder for defending herself.

As a homeless trans teen, CeCe McDonald suffered a lifetime of hardships. But when she was charged with murder for simply defending herself, she became a folk hero

A dozen eggs, bacon, maybe some biscuits: CeCe McDonald had a modest shopping list in mind, just a few things for breakfast the next day. It was midnight, the ideal time for a supermarket run. Wearing a lavender My Little Pony T-shirt and denim cutoffs, CeCe grabbed her purse for the short walk to the 24-hour Cub Foods. She preferred shopping at night, when the darkened streets provided some relief from the stares, whispers and insults she encountered daily as a transgender woman. CeCe, 23, had grown accustomed to snickers and double takes – and was practiced in talking back to strangers who'd announce, "That's a man!" But such encounters were tiring; some days a lady just wanted to buy her groceries in peace.

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And so it was that on a warm Saturday night in June 2011, CeCe and four friends, all African-Americans in their twenties, found themselves strolling the tree-lined streets of her quiet working-class Long­fellow neighborhood in Minneapolis, toward a commercial strip. Leading the way was CeCe's roommate Latavia Taylor and two purse-carrying gay men – CeCe's makeshift family, whom she called "cousin" and "brothers" – with CeCe, a fashion student at a local community college, and her lanky boyfriend trailing behind. They were passing the Schooner Tavern when they heard the jeering.

"Faggots."

Gathered outside the dive bar were a handful of cigarette-smoking white people, looking like an aging biker gang in their T-shirts, jeans and bandannas, motorcycles parked nearby. Hurling the insults were 47-year-old Dean Schmitz, in a white button-down and thick silver chain, and his 40-year-old ex-girlfriend Molly Flaherty, clad in black, drink in hand. "Look at that boy dressed as a girl, tucking his dick in!" hooted Schmitz, clutching two beer bottles freshly fetched from his Blazer, as CeCe and her friends slowed to a stop. "You niggers need to go back to Africa!"

Chrishaun "CeCe" McDonald stepped in front of her friends, a familiar auto­pilot kicking in, shunting fury and fear to a distant place while her mouth went into motion. "Excuse me. We are people, and you need to respect us," CeCe began in her lisping delivery, one acrylic-nailed finger in the air, her curtain of orange micro­braids swaying. With her caramel skin, angled jaw and square chin, friends called her "CeCe" for her resemblance to the singer Ciara; even her antagonist Flaherty would later describe CeCe as "really pretty." "We're just trying to walk to the store," CeCe continued, raising her voice over the blare of Schmitz and Flaherty's free-associating invective: "bitches with dicks," "faggot-lovers," "niggers," "rapists." The commotion was drawing more patrons out of the bar – including a six-foot-eight, 310-pound biker in leather chaps – and CeCe's boyfriend, Larry Thomas, nervously called to Schmitz, "Enjoy your night, man – just leave us alone." CeCe and her friends turned to go. Then Flaherty glanced at Schmitz and laughed.

"I'll take all of you bitches on!" Flaherty hollered, and smashed CeCe in the side of her face with a glass tumbler.

Just like that, a mundane walk to the store turned into a street brawl, in a near-farcical clash of stereotypes. Pandemonium erupted as CeCe and Flaherty seized each other by the hair; the bikers swung fists and hurled beer bottles, hollering "beat that faggot ass!"; and CeCe's friends flailed purses and cracked their studded belts as whips. When the two sides separated, panting and disoriented, Flaherty was curled up amid the broken glass screaming, mistakenly, that she'd been knifed, and CeCe stood over her, her T-shirt drenched with her own blood. Touching her cheek, CeCe felt a shock of pain as her finger entered the open wound where Flaherty's glass had punctured her salivary gland. Purse still over her shoulder, CeCe fast-walked from the scene. She'd made it more than a half-block away when she heard her friends calling, "Watch your back!"

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CeCe whirled around to see Schmitz heading toward her: walking, then running, his face a twist of wild, unrestrained hatred. CeCe felt terror burst out from that remote place where she normally locked it away. She didn't know that Schmitz's veins were pounding with cocaine and meth. She didn't know of his lengthy rap sheet, including convictions for assault. Nor did she know that under Schmitz's shirt, inked across his solar plexus, was a four-inch swastika tattoo. All CeCe needed to see was the look on his face to know her worst fears were coming true: Her young life was about to end as a grim statistic, the victim of a hate crime.

"Come here, bitch!" Schmitz roared as he closed in. CeCe pedaled backward, blood dripping from her slashed face.

"Didn't y'all get enough?" CeCe asked, defiant and afraid, while her hand fished into her large handbag for anything to protect herself. Her fingers closed on a pair of black-handled fabric scissors she used for school. She held them up high as a warning, their five-inch blades glinting in the parking-lot floodlights. Schmitz stopped an arm's length away, raising clenched fists and shuffling his feet in a boxing stance. His eyes were terrible with rage.

"Bitch, you gonna stab me?" he shouted. They squared off for a tense moment: the furious white guy, amped up on meth, Nazi tattoo across his belly; the terrified black trans woman with a cartoon pony on her T-shirt; the scissors between them. CeCe saw Schmitz lunge toward her and braced herself for impact. Their bodies collided, then separated. He was still looking at her.

"Bitch – you stabbed me!"

"Yes, I did," CeCe announced, even as she wondered if that could possibly be true; in the adrenaline of the moment, she'd felt nothing. Scanning Schmitz over, she saw no sign of injury – though in fact he'd sustained a wound so grisly that CeCe would later recall to police that the button-down shirt Schmitz wore that night was not white but "mainly red. Like one of them Hawaiian shirts." CeCe waited until he turned to rejoin his crowd. Then she and Thomas ran arm in arm down the block toward the nearly empty Cub Foods parking lot, where they waited for police to arrive.

They didn't see the scene unfolding behind them: how Schmitz took a few faltering steps, uttered, "I'm bleeding," then lifted his shirt to unleash a geyser of blood. CeCe had stabbed him in the chest, burying the blade almost three and a half inches deep, slicing his heart. Blood sprayed the road as Schmitz staggered, collapsed and, amid his friends' screams, died. When CeCe and Thomas waved down a police car minutes later, she was promptly handcuffed and arrested.

 

Given the swift political advances of the transgender movement, paired with its new pop-culture visibility, you'd be forgiven for believing that to be gender-nonconforming today is to be accepted, celebrated, even trendy – what with trans models in ads for American Apparel and Barneys; Facebook's more than 50 gender options for users to choose from; and Eurovision song-contest winner Conchita Wurst, who accepted the trophy in an evening gown and a full beard. When this spring Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recommended a review of the military's ban on allowing trans people to serve openly – by one estimate, trans people are as much as twice as likely as the general U.S. population to serve in the armed forces – his announcement seemed to herald a new era of recognition. But the appearance of tolerance belies the most basic day-to-day reality: No community living in America today is as openly terrorized as transgender women, especially trans women of color. "Every day a trans person says, 'I may die today,'" says trans woman Miasha Forbes. "You ready yourself for war each day." Leaving the house on a typical day, a trans woman prepares herself to endure indignities unimaginable to most of us: to be pelted by rocks, called slurs or referred to not as "she" or even "he," but rather as "it."

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"Just being trans out on the street is cause for our lives to be in danger," says trans actress Laverne Cox, who says she envisioned her Orange Is the New Black character, Sophia Burset, as a homage to CeCe McDonald. "So many times I've been walking on the street as a trans woman and been harassed, called a man – one time I was kicked," she adds. "Any of them could have escalated into someone doing me harm. I very easily could be CeCe."

Living with a gender identity different from one's birth anatomy (a phenomenon thought to affect as many as one in 10,000 people) means that trans women live with constant anxiety of being recognized as trans – "getting spooked" or "getting clocked" – because reactions can be harsh to the extreme. Though transgender people make up perhaps 10 percent of the LGBT community, they account for a shocking proportion of its hate-crime statistics, with trans people nearly twice as likely to be threatened as their LGB peers. And trans people all too often meet with violent deaths: Of the 25 reported anti-LGBT homicides in 2012, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, transgender people accounted for more than half of the victims. All of those trans homicide victims were trans women of color.

Highlighting the danger, transgender murders tend to be gruesome, often involving torture and mutilation, as in the 2012 California murder of 37-year-old Brandy Martell, who was shot in the genitals; or the brutal hatchet slaying last July in Philadelphia of 31-year-old Diamond Williams, whose body was hacked to pieces and strewn in an overgrown lot. After Williams' alleged killer reportedly confessed that he'd killed Williams, a prostitute he'd solicited, when he'd realized she was trans – commonly known as the "trans panic defense" – online commenters were quick to agree "the cross-dresser had it coming": that Williams' transgender status was an act of duplicity whose logical punishment was death. "It's socially sanctioned to say that," says Cox. "If a guy is even attracted to her, then she has to die. What is that?" And when these cases go unresolved, as they often do – like last summer's vicious Harlem beating death of 21-year-old Islan Nettles, reportedly after a catcalling admirer turned vengeful – the lack of resolution seems a further reminder to trans women of their own disposability. It's telling that the closest thing the trans community has to a long-running Pride event is Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day of mourning for victims of violence.

"It takes a toll. This life is not an easy life," says trans woman Anya Stacy Neal. "Trust me, if this was a choice, I would have packed it up a long time ago."

As the sisterhood is picked off one by one, each gets a chilling vision of her own fate. "You rarely hear of a trans woman just living a long life and then dying of old age," says CeCe today, seated at a friend's Minneapolis dining-room table with her legs crossed ladylike at the knee. Wearing a striped cardigan that she opens to reveal, laughing, a T-shirt reading it's all about me, CeCe's an animated run-on talker with a lip ring and a warm, open nature, whose cadences recall the church days of her youth, mouth opening wide to flash a tongue stud. "You never hear, 'She passed on her own, natural causes, old age,' no, no, no," she continues, ticking off on her fingers. "She's either raped and killed, she's jumped and killed, stalked and killed – or just killed." Which is why, amid all the death and sorrow, CeCe, whose jagged life experience embodies the archetypal trans woman's in so many ways, has become an LGBT folk hero for her story of survival – and for the price she paid for fighting back.

By age eight, CeCe McDonald was fascinated by the beauty rituals of the women in her family. Watching reverently from a doorway as her mother and aunts clucked over outfits, swiped on lipstick and examined themselves in the mirror – casually engaged in the intimate, luxuriant rites of femininity – she ached to join them someday. "Even seeing my grandma get ready for church, putting on her pearl earrings and her White Diamonds perfume, it was really powerful," remembers CeCe. "I felt like I was a guest in their presence, these superwomen who are fucking fabulous and have these great shoes and cute clothes. And I thought, 'Yeah! That's the person that I am.'"

From earliest childhood CeCe had felt at odds with her boy's body, boyish clothes and boy's name (a name that she still can't discuss without anguish). She'd always felt such an irrepressible girlishness. In grade school she walked with graceful wrists and swishing hips, to the consternation of her family. CeCe was the oldest of seven, raised on Chicago's gritty South Side by a single mother; a dozen family members crammed under one roof, where no one could fail to notice young CeCe sashaying in her mother's heels. "You need to pray that out of you," her religious family instructed, and at night, CeCe tearfully pleaded with God to take away her sinful attraction to boys. Better yet, she prayed to awaken a girl, in the body He had surely meant for her.

 

She redoubled her prayers as other kids began to mock her femininity, and their taunts turned violent. CeCe was chased through the neighborhood, beaten up and, around seventh grade, attacked by five high schoolers yelling "kill that faggot," who kicked her in the mouth so savagely that her incisor tore through the skin above her lip. Such bullying is the norm for transgender kids, nearly nine out of 10 of whom are harassed by peers, and 44 percent of whom are physically assaulted. But no number of beatings could change CeCe. In school she'd dash into the girls' bathroom when the coast was clear, frightened of being seen in the boys' room sitting down to pee. She joined the cheerleading squad – gleefully doing splits at basketball games – coming to class in her mom's blouse or platform shoes, though she'd change back into boy clothes before returning home, fearful of her family's wrath, and of losing the love of her mother, who was trying to persuade CeCe onto a more traditional path.

"It kind of scared me," says mom Christi McDonald of CeCe's femininity. "I know it's a cruel world, and if you're different it's hard for people to accept you." Christi bought CeCe baggy jeans and dropped hints about cute girls, just as when CeCe was smaller Christi had urged her to draw pictures of Superman instead of sketching dresses. "I kept questioning him, 'Why are you doing this?'" Christi says, adjusting her pronouns to add, "I just wanted a peaceful life for her."

CeCe had always tried staying in her mom's good graces by being a responsible, diligent child, constantly neatening the house, making the beds and whipping up recipes inspired by cooking shows, but nonetheless she felt her mother grow distant. CeCe was unable to find sanctuary with her family, and tensions grew in the crowded three-bedroom house. One day, an uncle found an undelivered love note she'd written to a boy and, CeCe says, knocked her to the kitchen floor and choked her. She ran away from home, never to return. She was 14.

She crashed with friends before taking up residence in a glorified drug den where other runaways congregated. CeCe tried to see the bright side of her family's rejection: She was finally free to be herself. The first time she tried on a bra and panties, she felt a shiver of recognition that she was headed in the right direction. Instead, she fell right through a trapdoor. She'd reached a crucial point in the too-typical trans woman's narrative, in which, cut loose at a young age from family, she falls directly into harm's way. Up to 40 percent of U.S. homeless youth are LGBT. Adrift without money, shelter, education or a support system, they're exposed to myriad dangers. According to one study, 58 percent of LGBT homeless youth are sexually assaulted (compared with 33 percent of their hetero peers). Drug and alcohol use is rampant. CeCe grew up fast. "Honey, I think there's not too much in this world that I haven't heard or seen or done," she tells me. "And a lot of that is sad."

She learned to sell crack and marijuana. Out in the streets, her appearance in girls' clothing was met with outbursts of violence, as when a man once threw an empty 40-ounce bottle at her head, knocking her unconscious; another time, a stranger pulled a knife. Even more traumatic, a handsome man lured CeCe into his home with an invitation to smoke weed – "I was like, 'Oh, my goodness, this is so cool.' Very naive, thinking everybody is good" – then pushed her face-forward onto his bed and anally raped her. The assault changed CeCe profoundly, crystallizing how expendable she was in the eyes of the world. Never had she felt so degraded, and so certain no one would care. Living in poverty and unpredictability so extreme that she sometimes found herself sleeping on park benches and eating grass to fill her belly, CeCe decided to offer herself in the one last arena where she felt she had worth.

At 15, CeCe was a child prostitute working the strip off Belmont Avenue in Boystown, climbing into men's cars to earn up to $1,000 on a Saturday night. In choosing the sex trade, CeCe was heading down a well-worn path. Studies of urban transgender women have found that upward of 50 percent had engaged in sex work. It's a risky job, in which the threat of violence is only one hazard. Transgender women are considered the fastest-growing HIV-positive population in the country, with a meta-analysis showing that nearly 28 percent of trans women in America have the virus. Bearing the highest risk are trans women in sex work, who are four times more likely to be living with HIV than other female sex workers.

CeCe got through each sex act by thinking about the cash, which not only kept her and her friends stocked with food and weed and liquor, but granted her the illusion of power. No longer merely a homeless trans teen, she recast herself as a fierce independent woman getting her coin, a sexy Donna Summer lyric sprung to life. "There is some type of pride in that," says CeCe. "I felt like, 'No bitch can touch me, I gets all the men, with all the money, and who gonna do something about it?' And that made me feel like I was on top." She also reveled in the ego boost of having her femininity affirmed for the very first time, her paying clientele proof of her irresistibility. But despite the pep talks she gave herself, CeCe was sickened by the way she'd turned her own body into a commodity available to anyone. "They saw me as an object; they saw me as their fantasy. And for a long time that's how I viewed myself, as a fantasy." She set a price on her own life, permitting sex without condoms for a premium.

"I became this soulless drone," says CeCe. She entertained a dim hope she'd get AIDS and die. She was tired of internalizing hostility and worthlessness, mentally exhausted from constantly scanning for danger. Such daily burdens take a heavy toll: Though the suicide-attempt rate in the general population is estimated to be 4.6 percent, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that an extraordinary 41 percent of trans respondents had attempted suicide, with the rate soaring to 64 percent for sexual-assault victims. The first time CeCe attempted suicide, it was with pills washed down with a bottle of NyQuil. The second time, she crushed up a pile of pills and drank it down with juice. Asked how many times she tried to kill herself, CeCe has to think for a long moment; it's hard to sort out, since her late teens were basically an extended death wish. So much so that when one night a man on a street corner pointed a gun at her, shouting, "Faggot, I'll kill you," CeCe just looked at him and said, "Shoot me."

Surely it would have been far easier for CeCe if she'd given up, renounced her womanhood and opted to live life as a gay man. And yet even in her darkest despair, CeCe never considered retreat an option. If she was going to continue living, it was going to be as a lady. For her there was no decision-making; she felt she couldn't "choose" to be a man, because she'd never been male to begin with.

"I wasn't born a boy," she says heatedly. "I was born a baby." Like many trans women, CeCe disputes her basic narrative as that of a boy who grew up to be a woman. Rather, hers is a story of mistaken identity, of a person assigned the wrong gender at birth. She doesn't know why she was created with a boy's anatomy but with the mind and soul of a girl; all she could do was work with the mixed-up results. "If the Creator, whoever He-She-They are, wanted me to be a certain way, that's how They would've made me," CeCe declares at the bohemian Minneapolis coffee shop Cafe SouthSide, which serves as a local LGBT hub. "But until then, until all this shit is figured out? I'm-a rock this. Till the wheels fall off," she says, one balletic hand in the air testifying, flashing electric-yellow fingernails. Across the table a friend, a lesbian poet in Buddy Holly glasses, laughs with appreciation, as does the proprietress behind the cash register. "Till the wheels . . . fall . . . off! Mmmph!" CeCe exclaims with a flourish. "Crop tops and all, trust and believe that!"

That unflagging enthusiasm for her feminine identity, fused with her magnetic talent for making friends, helped push CeCe forward through her teenage years, until in 2008 she found herself as a 20-year-old living in St. Paul. "Hiiii! Y'all taking job applications?" she'd sing as she strode into yet another retail store or restaurant. Reluctantly checking "male" on her application, CeCe would subtly scan people's faces for that telltale twinge of discomfort, a sure sign that no job would be forthcoming; trans people have reported twice the unemployment rate as the general population. She tried not to let her spirits sink when she didn't get a callback. CeCe was intent on finding a job, which was a cornerstone of her plan to turn her life around.

She'd taken a Greyhound bus to the Twin Cities two years earlier on a whim, hoping to escape her Chicago misery and start anew. Instead she'd been floundering, in and out of shelters, flirting with coke and meth addictions, jailed for shoplifting and other misdemeanors, and hospitalized for suicidal ideation. But she'd also started visiting a drop-in youth center, where she learned how to regain control of her life bit by bit. "CeCe caught my attention right away," says her case manager Abby Beasley. "Her energy, she's just so bubbly, laughing constantly, just a real loving person. I put more work into her than I did anybody else, trying to help her stabilize her life."

 

Education was a first step: CeCe earned her GED, then enrolled in Minneapolis Community and Technical College, focusing on fashion design. Estrogen came next. A doctor diagnosed CeCe with gender dysphoria – determining that there was an incongruity between her biological sex and her gender identity – after which she started wearing a hormone patch on her hip, the cost covered by state medical assistance. CeCe watched with amazement as over the following months she developed smooth skin, fuller hips and, most fulfilling of all, breasts. Finally seeing her outer self match her inner self "was definitely something like a relief," she remembers. In an important move for CeCe, she called her mother to re-establish ties after years of separation. "Are those real?" Christi exclaimed when she finally got her first glimpse of CeCe post-hormones, and CeCe laughed in reply.

A legal name change tied a ribbon on CeCe's transition, a bureaucratic process that yielded a government ID identifying her by her carefully chosen new name: Chrishaun Reed Mai'luv McDonald. It was a name she liked for its mystique and personality; Chrishaun was also her aunt's name, keeping her tethered just a little bit to her past.

Secure in her identity at last, CeCe felt something free up within herself. And with confidence also came a new ability to stand up to street harassment; for perhaps the first time, she felt herself truly worth defending. "It's not OK that you called me a tranny," she'd lecture a surprised heckler. "You're gonna apologize, and then you're gonna go home and think about why you turned my pretty smile into an ugly mug." Satisfied, she'd coolly walk on, her self­respect growing with each small triumph.

"She looked like someone who knew where she was heading in life," says Larry Thomas, who caught sight of CeCe at a corner store and, knowing full well she was trans, gave her his phone number – thus beginning, in fits and starts, that thing that eludes so many trans women: an actual in-the-daylight relationship. Thomas was a straight man who usually kept his "flings" with trans women on the down-low. But CeCe began occupying much of his time, and she started to wonder if she wasn't doomed to live a lonely life after all.

Then came more good fortune, when in May 2011, after a decade of couch-surfing homelessness, CeCe moved into the very first apartment of her own. It was a two-bedroom oasis she shared with a roommate. Though still unemployed – CeCe paid her rent with general assistance and SSI – she was certain now that she was a college student with a permanent address, that remaining piece of the puzzle would be forthcoming.

"I was feeling really accomplished," remembers CeCe wistfully as she stands on the sidewalk looking up at the weather-beaten three-story brick apartment building on an early spring day. She tries flashing her patented wide smile, but it evaporates. We're taking a tour through her old neighborhood, and in skinny jeans, cropped jacket and a colorful head scarf, CeCe points at the second-floor window where she once lived, so full of potential and promise – a period that lasted for a single, shining month.

"I was just so happy with myself," she says, taking a fretful pull off her Newport. "I was unstoppable." She stubs out her cigarette and heads resolutely toward the passenger seat of my car for the next, most difficult stop on this sightseeing trip.

We drive slowly down East 29th Street, tracing the path CeCe walked just after midnight on June 5th, 2011. CeCe hasn't been back here since that fateful night, and as a maroon brick building with neon Bud Light signs comes into view, she clamps a hand to her belly. "Oooh, Jesus. I just get that little feeling inside," she says. We pull up alongside Schooner Tavern. "So. This is the bar," CeCe says, then in a sudden panic buries her face in her hands and hyperventilates, whispering, "Oh, my God. Oh, Lord, Lord, Lord. Oh, my goodness, Jesus Christ." A half-block past the bar CeCe speaks again, her voice trembling. "And somewhere at this point," she says, "is where I stabbed him."

In a police interrogation room hours after the stabbing, CeCe had given a full confession. "I was only trying to defend myself," CeCe sobbed. Police interviews with nearly a dozen witnesses would paint a consistent picture of the events of that night: Dean Schmitz and Molly Flaherty started the confrontation, Flaherty had triggered the fight by breaking a glass on CeCe's face, and Schmitz had pursued CeCe when she'd tried to escape – all precisely the way CeCe recounted in her confession. But no witness had seen exactly how the stabbing had transpired. "I didn't jab him; I didn't force the scissors into him; he was coming after me," CeCe insisted to detectives. "He ran into the scissors." And yet in Hennepin County Jail, CeCe was shocked to learn she was charged with second-degree murder. She faced up to 40 years in prison.

Dressed in orange scrubs, CeCe would cry and stare at the white brick walls of her cell for hours on end, her thoughts a tangle. There was the horrific knowledge that someone had died by her hand. And there was the agony that the life she'd been trying so hard to build had been decimated in an instant. "There wasn't a moment when I wasn't in pain mentally and spiritually, and even beating myself up for defending myself," CeCe says. She had nothing but time to obsess because she was locked alone in her cell for 23 hours a day. The jail had determined that for her own safety, she be held in solitary confinement.

Trans women have a difficult time behind bars, where they show up in disproportionate numbers; one survey found 16 percent of trans women had been to jail, compared to 2.7 percent of the general population. Once in prison they pose a dilemma, because, as a study of seven California prisons revealed, 59 percent of transgender inmates reported being sexually abused, compared to 4.4 percent of the general inmate population. A common solution, then, is to put them in solitary. For CeCe, who'd previously spent short stints in men's jails, the brain-racking isolation was a form of confinement she'd never known before. "There's no room for sanity," she says of her subsequent mental collapse. When her former caseworker Abby Beasley visited, Beasley was shocked at the sight of CeCe on the other side of the glass, scared and shaken, her left cheek swollen to the size of a golf ball.

"Whatever you can do to help me, please," CeCe begged.

Beasley notified the Trans Youth Support Network, a Minneapolis organization, which secured CeCe a pro bono lawyer. The case immediately galvanized the local trans and queer community, who saw CeCe's attack as something that could easily have happened to any of them, and hailed her as a hero. "CeCe was attacked in a racist, transphobic incident that could have killed her," says Billy Navarro Jr. of the Minnesota Transgender Health Coalition, who helped found the Free CeCe campaign. "And then how is she treated? She is prosecuted for having the audacity to survive."

Her support base grew after the Florida shooting death of Trayvon Martin, which stoked a national debate over race, self-defense and justice. CeCe's supporters argued that unlike George Zimmerman, who would be acquitted of all charges, CeCe had been faced with an actual threat, against which she had stood her ground. But they feared the justice system would view CeCe, as a black trans woman, unkindly. A petition advocating for CeCe's release gathered more than 18,000 signatures from across the country. As supporters in FREE CECE T-shirts held rallies outside the jail and packed the courthouse for each hearing, defense lawyer Hersch Izek set about building a case.

"CeCe was defending herself against a racist, a bigot, someone who had all sorts of issues against the LGBT community," says Izek, an aging hippie with long, sparse gray hair, a tie-dyed tie and a Bob Marley poster on his office wall. "And you couldn't understand what she did, and what this so-called victim did, without that context." The Hennepin County Attorney's Office, however, presented the scenario as simply the slaying of an unarmed man by a person with a weapon – who had a legal obligation to flee the scene. Minnesota forbids the use of deadly force in self-defense if you can avoid being harmed, for example, by running away. Prosecutors speculated that what had in fact occurred between CeCe and Schmitz was the very definition of intentional, unprovoked murder. "CeCe took shears and thrust them into his heart and killed him," says Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman. "We try to treat every case being blind to sex, sexual orientation, economic status. And it's not being insensitive to CeCe to say this was a bar fight. The bottom line is, did her actions result in the death of another? The answer is yes."

 

The months leading to trial saw the judge's rulings laying waste to CeCe's defense case. Evidence of Schmitz's swastika tattoo was deemed inadmissible, since CeCe never saw the tattoo – it had no bearing on her mindset at the time of the killing – and because, Judge Daniel Moreno wrote, "the tattoo does not establish that [Schmitz] intended to threaten, fight or kill anyone." Schmitz's prior assault convictions were deemed irrelevant, and the judge would allow only limited testimony about the toxicology report showing Schmitz was high on meth, feeding his aggression. The defense's bid to include expert testimony about the lives of transgender women also failed. "The idea was to show the violence transgender individuals face, to bolster the self-defense claim," says Izek. "We'd have to be educating the jury about what it meant to be transgender. That would be difficult. Most wouldn't even know what that meant."

Seated at the defense table with a headache on the morning of the trial, May 2nd, 2012, CeCe looked at the mostly white jury staring back at her. She knew those expressions all too well. She'd been intent on seeing her case through, but glancing at those tasked with deciding her fate, she gave up. "These people weren't going to let me win," she says. She accepted a deal and pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter. Her supporters in the courtroom cried as the judge led her through her admission of guilt. CeCe tried her best to choke back tears as she was led from the courtroom, overwhelmed by what was next for her: A 41-month sentence in a state men's prison.

In a tiny office that serves as the de facto Free CeCe headquarters, Navarro, a burly, bearded trans man in overalls, checks his computer for CeCe's fan mail. "Somebody wants to know if you got a tank top?" he asks.

"Oh, T-GIRLS rock?" CeCe asks, distracted by her phone.

"Yeah. Can you tweet a picture of you wearing it?" Navarro shoots her an adoring grin. This crammed room tucked next door to Cafe SouthSide is known as the "Shot Clinic" for its main attraction: a brightly lit closet, inside of which a volunteer is currently administering a hormone injection to a trans man. This building serves as headquarters for three Minnesota transgender organizations. Together, the groups have knitted a vibrant infrastructure for the local trans community: improving health care access, arranging support groups, promoting trans artists and hosting parties and concerts. Their grassroots efforts have created a trans refuge, and have earned the Twin Cities a reputation as two of the nation's most trans-friendly, alongside San Francisco, New York and Seattle, each of which boasts similar community-driven hubs tailored around its members' unique needs. The idea for this Shot Clinic, for example, was born of a rather specific need. "Billy's scared of needles," Navarro says of himself faux-bashfully. So he implemented a program that trains volunteers to administer hormones to the squeamish. Fifteen to 20 patients now come in each week; bags of oranges lay around the office for those wanting to perfect their needle-stick technique.

A patient emerges from the closet, face slack with relief, and reports of today's injection volunteer: "He seems to know what he's doing!" Everyone laughs, with CeCe's guffaw, as always, loudest of all. Here, CeCe has found sanctuary. Everyone who bustles through the tiny office pauses to beam at her or give her a squeeze, and she opens her arms to each. She's at home in this space, cherished and protected, but also a star; no matter where she's standing, everyone aligns in her direction.

"She's legendary," one friend says later, and CeCe lets out an open-mouthed cackle. "I like that! Legendary," she repeats.

CeCe was released from the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud in January after 19 months, her sentence reduced for good behavior and for the 275 days she'd served prior to trial. While in prison she'd been intent on staying positive and grateful for having continued access to her hormones, and having her own cell with a TV, where she'd escape the hypermasculinity of her fellow inmates for Sex and the City marathons on E!. She says she never encountered violence, kept mostly to herself and even made a couple of friends. Mostly, she tried to work on recovering, and on remaining sane. When she was notified that Molly Flaherty was being prosecuted for attacking her, CeCe declined to testify, viewing it as a pointless act of vengeance potentially bad for her own mental health. (Flaherty pleaded guilty to third-degree assault and was sentenced to six months in jail.) "It's easy, especially for a person who's been through so much, to be a cruel and coldhearted person. But I chose not to be," CeCe says.

Outside encouragement helped. During her incarceration, the Free CeCe campaign continued spreading via social media, with chapters as far-off as Paris and Glasgow sending her mail. Upon CeCe's release, prominent trans activist Janet Mock asked her Twitter followers to tweet about what CeCe meant to them, and the outpouring of responses sent the hashtag #BecauseOfCeCe trending. CeCe is a little awestruck by her celebrity status. She's been stunned to come across a photo online of her own face tattooed upon a stranger's arm. She's been asked to help lead Seattle's Pride parade. Her parole officer has let her travel to New York and San Francisco to parlay her fame into activism and to film a documentary, Free CeCe, co-produced by Laverne Cox.

And yet to see CeCe trudging down the street from the Shot Clinic to the place she's calling home, you'd never know she's having her moment. Despite a strong network of friends, and the continued affections of her boyfriend – both lifelines to her – she's struggling. She has residual PTSD and trust issues. She's unemployed, and with a felony on her record, she's less hopeful about the job applications she's been filling out. For now, CeCe is living on food stamps and the remaining funds raised by the Free CeCe campaign; for her housing, she's crashing with a kind supporter in a small spare bedroom.

"My story wouldn't have been important had I been killed. Because it's like nobody cares," CeCe says forcefully at her dining-room table, as day turns to evening. A shiny, sickle-shaped scar cuts across the jawbone of her left cheek, a permanent reminder of her tragic walk to the supermarket. "But fortunately for me, I'm a survivor. I'm not gonna beat myself up for being a woman, I'm not gonna beat myself up for being trans, I'm not gonna beat myself up for defending myself." She smacks her lips for punctuation. "'Cause I am a survivor," she repeats in a voice sharp with conviction, while watching carefully for my assent. CeCe's still trying to come to terms with the way that evening disrupted her life, and the ground she must regain. Underneath her aura of loving positivity, she's angry as she grapples to understand her significance to a community that needs her inspiration so badly, and what it means to be heralded as a survivor, when her day-to-day survival feels so frustratingly precarious. She still has to get to the grocery store, after all, and despite all CeCe has been through, she still waits until nightfall.

This story is from the August 14th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1215: August 14, 2014
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