Activist CeCe McDonald takes allies to task in public talk

CeCe McDonald, pictured in San Francisco in 2015, visited Durham last Sunday for "Evening Tea with CeCe McDonald," which was sponsored by the LGBTQ Center of Durham and the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity at Duke.
CeCe McDonald, pictured in San Francisco in 2015, visited Durham last Sunday for "Evening Tea with CeCe McDonald," which was sponsored by the LGBTQ Center of Durham and the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity at Duke.

“Yes, I’m going to be saying some stuff. So some of you might be getting your feelings hurt. I’m sorry, that’s just reality.”

So began Evening Tea with CeCe McDonald at The Vault the evening of Nov. 19, to scattered laughter and strong snaps of appreciation. McDonald, a black transgender woman and activist, was brash and unapologetic, confident in her identity, holding her head up high as she shared her views on LGBTQ issues, racial stereotyping and liberation.

McDonald started to advocate after her experiences with incarceration and the justice system. While she was the way to the store with her friends, a man called out various slurs relating to her identity and hit her in the head with a glass, triggering a brawl. McDonald found a pair of scissors in her purse and stabbed the man.

The man died, and McDonald was charged with second-degree murder.

While she felt she was innocent, McDonald did not want to risk the potential decades in prison that could follow a guilty verdict, so she took a plea bargain, pleading guilty to second-degree manslaughter with a sentence of 41 months. She spent those months in a men’s detention facility, and after just 19 months, she was released in January 2014 for good behavior as well as her time spent in jail prior to the resolution of the trial.

In that time, though, the news media and the people picked up her story, splashing the Internet with “Free CeCe” and garnering over 18,000 signatures on a petition for her release. After her release, #BecauseOfCeCe trended on Twitter, and a documentary titled “Free Cece!” came out in 2016.

Though McDonald made references during her talk to her incarceration and the injustice she experienced in the prison system, she had a different focus that night. She spoke about the importance of taking real action to remedy both the little issues and the systematic problems she sees in her life as a black transgender woman. McDonald asked the audience pointed questions about their choices and their actions, or lack thereof, saying that if people are not “actively talking” to the prejudiced people around them, then they are as much a part of the problem as the people who instigate violent action against transgender people.

“It stings a little, I know it does,” McDonald said. “Hold it, let it marinate, put it in your back pocket. Because guess what, I don’t give a f---. So, with that being said, how are you actively interrogating your privileges?”

The idea of actively making a difference rather than offering passive support underlaid all of McDonald’s calls to action. She encouraged attendees to look at their lives and ask themselves everyday how their actions affect others and how their actions may marginalize certain groups — and this marginalization is not limited to majority groups. As McDonald put it, “if you don’t think that a white trans man can be racist, then you’re crazy.”

“You want to live this false idea that you’re an activist or that you’re an ally, but you’re just as much a part of the problem as everybody else,” McDonald said. “The blood is just as much on your hands as the people that are actually out there killing. ... We live in a society where allies want a pat on the back while taking and consuming so much space, while taking from the people that they’re advocating for.”

The blood she referred to is the lives of hundreds of transgender people every year who are violently killed. According to Transgender Europe’s Trans Murder Monitoring Project, 325 transgender and gender-diverse people were reported murdered between Oct. 1, 2016 and Sept. 30, 2017. This information, along with placards of names and faces of some of the victims filled a table at the event. One sign, though, was a placeholder, reading “Unnamed & Unreported,” representing those victims whose names and faces remain unknown.

McDonald referenced the Transgender Day of Remembrance, commemorated each year on Nov. 20 to hold a vigil for the deaths, but she said it is not enough just to put names on a list every year.

“We see the cases of trans murders, and how people do not take that serious is because we [transgender people] are seen as ultimately disposable,” McDonald said.

While the violence towards trans people has become more prominent in the media in recent years, McDonald said the stories are “very much so old news in a new year” because people do know and have known about the violence that has occurred. She said she feels frustrated and irritated with the state of people’s sentiment towards and the lack of resources for the trans community.

McDonald, along with her friend Joshua Allen, founded the #BlackExcellenceTour and #BlackExcellenceCollective in 2016 to combat the issues of violence faced by gender-nonconforming people of color. She felt a need to take action because if she does not, nobody else will, and she hoped her talks would lead to action from the attendees.

“Please don’t leave this place and disappoint me. I’m tired of being disappointed. As a black trans woman, I have been disappointed a lot in my life. And I’m tired of people disappointing me,” McDonald said. “I’m tired of going to places and talking, and saying s---, and people don’t take this knowledge. You have been taught something. This isn’t just me up here talking for fun.”

But the room that night was loud, vocal in its support of McDonald, and it was all too easy to be swept up by the enthusiasm. Grace Nichols, cultural organizing fellow of Southerners on New Ground, said — or rather sang — it best, having kicked off the evening with a song chant:

“CeCe is a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight,”

“Say what?”

“And we gonna fight all day and night until we get it right,”


“Which side are you on, my people, which side are you on?”

“We on the freedom side!”

“Which side are you on, my people, which side are you on?”

“We on the freedom side!”


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