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The Case of CeCe McDonald, and a Powerful Image

In a 2014 Rolling Stone article titled “The Transgender Crucible”, the publication, best known for pushing the envelope in the music world, shone a surprising spotlight on the oft disregarded experiences of the transgender community.

A refreshingly holistic profile on bisexual trans woman and LGBTQ activist CeCe Mcdonald was presented to the magazine’s demographic of white, left-leaning men, ultimately denouncing the criminal justice system’s unjust treatment toward her case. Despite the advent of recent Hollywood productions starring trans actors and the internet providing the LGBTQ community a space for sharing their experiences and fostering important dialogue with the public, CeCe McDonald’s story only underlines the violence that trans women, specifically women of color, still endure today.

Then a twenty-three-year-old black trans woman from the Southside of Chicago, CeCe was involved in a gruesome altercation on June 2011 with Dean Schmid, a white man with a criminal record of assault who sported a tattoo of a swastika on his chest. CeCe and four friends were walking to a convenience store when Schmid and his girlfriend, Molly Flaherty, began shouting slurs about CeCe’s body and race. Peacefully responding to jeers like “bitch with a dick” and “go back to Africa!”, CeCe demanded for her and her friends to be treated with respect. Flaherty’s response was to smash CeCe over the head with a glass bottle, gashing her face and ripping open her salivary gland. She fought back her assailant, grabbing her by the hair until Schmid, his body pumped with meth, began charging toward CeCe. Having frantically searched her bag for any object that could ward him off, she closed in on the fabric scissors she used for school and waved them in the air as a warning — to no avail. Having thrown himself on top of her, Schmid died minutes later, the scissors having pierced his heart.

Ms. McDonald was arrested and charged with second degree murder with the possibility of a sentence for up to forty years. She pleaded guilty and was put in a men's prison for forty-one months, seven of which were in solitary confinement. What was truly on trial in the case of Cece McDonald was her humanity, womanhood, and the self-determining of her narrative and act of physical defense. After she served nineteen months and was released early on parole, Rolling Stone sought to help her protect at the latter, particularly with its circulation of the above image. Thanks to materials used to create the photo’s ambiguous setting, it denotes the privacy and safety of a typical middle-class home and bedroom, especially with McDonald’s unassuming clothing and her placement on a mattress. There is a piece of artwork hanging on her right, symbolizing her capacity for emotional depth and skill, and her body is centrally positioned with to symbolize the focus on her own voice and story. The lighting of the picture is soft and warm, communicating to readers McDonald’s tenderness and sincerity. Her bare feet and position of relaxed deliberation only further delineate her character as authentic and deserving of respect. As for the caption, always an important influence on a photo’s impact, it reads “CeCe McDonald became a transgender folk hero after she was charged with murder for defending herself”, so acknowledged by its subject’s superhero patterned leggings and thereby hinting at CeCe’s acceptance of such a role.

This image clearly relates the emotional vulnerability behind Cece’s account of the altercation as well as the crucial argument for self-defense and the justifiable use of force when facing a potentially fatal hate crime. However, she is still very much alone in the photo. Seeing as how she is making direct eye contact with the camera, challenging viewers to join the dialogue, perhaps the safe space that was deliberately created for her to be seen will offset her solitude as well as the solitude of transgender people, whose right to self-defense when facing the disproportionately high rates of physical violence has and continues to be questioned time and time again.


Emily is a recent graduate of Boston University and is currently working for the AIDS Action Committee. Email her here.

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