Karen Franklin, Ph.D.

Karen Franklin Ph.D.


Film to highlight violence against trans women of color

Laverne Cox co-producing film on CeCe McDonald case

Posted May 31, 2014

The pace of social change is sometimes mind-boggling. The cover of next week's issue of Time magazine features actress Laverne Cox on the "transgender tipping point," with transgender rights heralded as the new civil rights movement.

Much of the increasing public awareness can be credited to Laverne herself, a charismatic and inspirational spokeswoman best known for her role as a trans prisoner in the blockbuster Netflix series, Orange is the New Black.

Blogger with Laverne Cox and CeCe McDonald

I was honored to meet Laverne earlier this month, when she interviewed me for the film “Free CeCe,” a documentary on violence against trans women of color being co-produced by award-winning filmmaker Jacqueline Gares. (Her first documentary, Unraveled, about Alzheimer's and genetic testing, won a Freddie Award.) 

The levels of anti-trans violence are staggering. Trans women of color make up an estimated 8 percent of the gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) community, but nearly half of its murder victims. They are also disproportionately victimized by job discrimination, homelessness, extreme poverty, police harassment, and incarceration; in prison, their victimization is ubiquitous.

Just walking down the street

CeCe McDonald, the focus of the documentary, knows about all of this first-hand. A 23-year-old fashion student, she was walking to the grocery store with some friends when she was accosted by a group of rowdy drunks outside a Minneapolis tavern one night in 2011. The group hurled insults: “Faggots!” “Niggers!” “Chicks with dicks!” One of the drunks slashed CeCe in the face with a cocktail glass. With blood gushing down her cheek, she pulled a pair of scissors and stabbed a man who was advancing on her, killing him.

If she had been George Zimmerman, the legal outcome would most likely have been different. But she was charged with murder, and the judge excluded evidence relating to self defense. She was barred from raising Dean Schmitz’s propensity for violence or racism, as evidenced by his multiple assault convictions and the swastika tattoo on his chest, from his days as a white supremacist in prison. Nor could she mention the methamphetamine found in his system, which might have made him more aggressive that night.

Faced with a stacked deck, CeCe pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter (criminal negligence) in exchange for a 41-month sentence. She was released from men's prison this January.

Rather than going down quietly as just another everyday injustice, the case garnered national attention and CeCe drew widespread support -- culminating in the current film project. I got a chance to meet CeCe at this month's filming at my office. Despite enduring a lifetime of physical and verbal assaults from strangers as well as family members, she told me that she remains haunted by the tavern incident. Growing up in a segregated community in Chicago, she had never before encountered such raw racial hatred, and she never imagined that she would ever have to kill someone or go to prison.

Why such hatred?

My role in the film is to explain the basis for the widespread moral outrage and violence directed at transgender people. My dissertation research focused on the motivations of antigay hate crime perpetrators, and I later expanded this work into a broader theory of masculine violence as theater.

Trans women of color are a uniquely perfect storm, producing insecurity by transgressing against dominant notions of gender, race and identity. When dehumanized (as “its”) and hypersexualized, they become an abstract symbol of deviance, a dramatic prop through which young men in particular can prove their masculinity and reinforce their adherence to traditional gender norms.

Ramping up hostility toward transgender people is the notion that they are trying to trick or deceive others, lying to those around them about their "real sex." Indeed, this perception of deception underlies the trans "panic defense" that has been invoked in murder cases such as those of Gwen Araujo and Lawrence King.

Public antagonism toward transgender people emboldens violence-prone individuals such as those who attacked CeCe and her friends at the Schooner Tavern in Minneapolis, who believe that they are not only justified, but righteous in defending societal norms of gender and race. Such ideas run deep in our culture, reinforced through everyday microaggressions like snickering, jokes, hostile stares, and discriminatory treatment.

In a brilliant essay, Koritha Mitchell, an English professor at Ohio State University, draws a comparison between anti-transgender violence today and the early-20th century sexualized lynchings of African American men in the U.S. South. Both forms of brutality, she points out, are aimed at denying citizenship, marking “who belongs and who does not…. Because violence most often plagues those whom society encourages us to abandon, denouncing violence empowers us to embrace them.” 

The good news is, as we have seen with gay men and lesbians, public visibility can dramatically reduce hostility. Humanization as coworkers, neighbors, fellow parents, or family members short-circuits attempts to stereotype sexual minorities as abstract symbols of deviance. The rate of attitudinal change in the United States and around the world, especially among young people, is nothing short of amazing.

The Time magazine cover story illustrates the remarkable speed of change in regard to attitudes toward transgender people. It also illustrates the power of social media. Time's exclusion of Laverne from last year's list of 100 most influential people produced a Twitter backlash, #whereisLaverneCox. And the mood shifted further when Laverne famously stood up to Katie Couric in January; the video of her shifting the narrativefrom prurient talk of genitalia to the more pressing topics of violence and social justice became an international social media sensation. 

Donate to the film

Free CeCe is still in production. The producers have raised more than one-fifth of the $465,000 budget, and are soliciting grant funding and individual donations to complete the project.If you would like to contribute to this important project, the filmmakers will gratefully accept your tax-deductible donation (HERE).

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