"I never thought I would make it past my 16th birthday. To grow up and have that thought at a young age is unsettling — the thought or feeling of knowing or expecting that today could be my last day on Earth, only because someone hates me for being the person I felt would make my life happiest." —CeCe McDonald
In a matter of moments, on a warm summer night last June in St. Paul, Minn., what started out as an innocent trip to a grocery store for Chrishaun "CeCe" McDonald and her friends quickly turned into a street brawl that would result in someone being killed. McDonald, a 23-year-old black transgender woman and college student, and a few of her friends (black people who variously identify as LGBT and straight) passed a local bar, where they encountered two white women and one white man. The man, Dean Schmitz, hurled racist, homophobic and transphobic epithets at the young group of color as they walked by.
"Chicks with d—ks!"
And then it got violent.
One of the two white women with Schmitz smashed a beer glass on McDonald's face. People from the bar spilled out into the streets to help the white trio fight the black youths. Somewhere in between fists and insults being thrown, McDonald took out a pair of scissors from her purse and stabbed Schmitz, who died at the scene.
Despite claiming self-defense, that same night McDonald, after being treated for injuries, was interrogated and ultimately charged with second-degree murder. She was also kept in jail for two months.
It's incredibly hard to ignore the similarities and the hypocrisy between the killing of Trayvon Martin and McDonald's attack. Both were young and black and walking down the street minding their own business. Both were harassed and attacked for being different. But both had very different outcomes.
George Zimmerman, who stalked and killed 17-year-old Trayvon, cited self-defense, although he showed no real signs of having been in a life-threatening struggle. And even though the lead detective on the case believed that Trayvon's death was a homicide, Zimmerman was set free. Granted, he was arrested seven weeks later, but that would have never happened without a national outcry sparked by social media, determined journalists and Trayvon's heartbroken parents.
Meanwhile, McDonald survived her attack; her attacker didn't. And despite the fact that she had deep lacerations on her face and the police never found the murder weapon, she was still charged with second-degree murder and thrown in jail for months. Even worse, the judge wouldn't let her lawyer bring up in court that her attacker had swastikas tattooed on his body and had a history of assault.
Her trial, which began the first week of May, ended quickly when McDonald pleaded guilty to a lesser charge: second-degree manslaughter. I'm not sure why she agreed to a plea deal, but given that the judge referred to her account of what happened as "unreliable" and openly chastised her for having scissors in her purse, perhaps McDonald believed that the jury would react to her in the same biased and unsympathetic manner and hand down a conviction.
In a way, like her actions in front of the bar that night, this plea deal might have been another act of survival. Most likely, she will spend only 20 of the likely 40-month sentence in jail for time served, but she will be held in a men's prison and will possibly be subjected to severe harassment and sexual assault.
Her sentencing will take place on June 4.
Clearly, the ordeals of McDonald and Trayvon Martin (and Marissa Alexander, who received 20 years in prison for shooting a gun near an abusive husband) are clear examples of how flawed our justice system is and how difficult it is for black people (heterosexual and LGBT) to claim victimhood in this country. And while hate crimes and the threat of violence have always been black people's reality, it's important to understand that transgender women and gender-nonconforming individuals of color are especially vulnerable to these types of attacks.
Just in the past two months, it's been reported that Paige Clay of Chicago, Coko Williams of Detroit and Brandy Martell of Oakland — all of them black transgender women — were shot and found dead. All of these cases are being investigated as possible hate crimes.
According to a 2011 study (pdf) conducted by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, people who were both transgender and of color were almost 2.5 times more likely to experience discrimination and nearly two times as likely to experience intimidation as non-transgender white individuals. Also, half of those who experienced hate violence did not contact the police after their attack. A 2009 report conducted by the same group found that of the 22 people who were murdered in 2009 because of their sexual orientation, about 80 percent were people of color and half were transgender women; the other half were overwhelmingly men who defied gender stereotypes.
It's also important to note that the trans community's relationship with law enforcement is just as grim. In 2011 a National Center for Transgender Equality and National Lesbian and Gay Task Force survey of 381 black transgender men and women (pdf) found that 38 percent of those surveyed who had interacted with the police reported harassment by officials, 14 percent reported physical assault and 6 percent reported sexual assault. Another 35 percent of black transgender people said that they had been arrested or held in a cell because of bias at some point in their lives, and 51 percent reported discomfort seeking police assistance.
Given that systems continue to fail the ones who need it the most, what are transgender people of color supposed to do? The answer depends on whom you ask.
Some might offer: Do nothing, because the crime isn't the violence committed against you. The crime is your very existence, being out in the open and not being ashamed of who you are.
McDonald, the Newark 4 or Darnell "Dynasty" Young (the gay student who brought a stun gun to school to fight off his bullies) would most likely tell you: You fight back; you fight for your life, because no one else has your back.
As long as our society continues to co-sign on the former sentiment, black transgender people like CeCe McDonald will continue to look over their shoulders, scared as hell, knowing that when danger lurks, if they have the audacity to fight back and not allow themselves to be killed, there's a good chance that they are the ones who will be punished. The message is crystal clear: Transgender people have very little value in this world, dead or alive.
Kellee Terrell is an award-winning Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer who writes about race, gender, health and pop culture. Terrell is also the news editor for thebody.com, a website about HIV/AIDS. She blogs about health for BET.com. Follow her on Twitter.