The unsteady shelf life of a social justice symbol: Transgender rights trailblazer CeCe McDonald grapples about her legacy
October 27, 2014
When one looks back at historic social movements, there are certain names that stand out—Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Rosa Parks. But there are also those whose faces history has forgotten. Consider Ella Baker and Bob Moses, former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leaders who furthered civil rights for black Americans, or Mario Savio of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Their names might be footnoted in history books, but what happened to them after the sweep of their movements dispensed?
There are people so impassioned by a cause that they come to symbolize it, at least for a time. Yet their fame is brief, sometimes by design, sometimes by default of a rapid news cycle. Sometimes their radical conviction fades or stops all together. Sometimes their tragic circumstances morph from galvanizing to depressing, a reminder of a movement’s failure instead of its success. Other times they achieve their goals, and their work is finished.
Consider CeCe McDonald. The black trans woman and once-fashion student has come to represent the plight of transgender equality. In June 2011, while walking to the store in her Minneapolis neighborhood, McDonald defended herself outside a tavern from slur-shouting, drunk bikers who smashed a glass across her face and pursued her when she fled. Her final attacker—an enraged man high on meth and cocaine—died in the scuffle due to a stab wound inflicted by McDonald. Though McDonald and witnesses at the scene maintain she acted purely in self-defense, she was the only person arrested.
McDonald, in solitary confinement (for her own protection, the jail said), became the defendant in a trial that seemed stacked to transgender activists: mention of her attacker’s swastika tattoo was ruled inadmissible (McDonald never saw it); expert testimony about the lives and threats to transgender women was blocked; and her attacker’s prior assault convictions were deemed inadmissible. Looking at the mostly white jury, McDonald pled guilty to second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 41 months in a men’s prison.
The attack, arrest, and trial prompted the Free CeCe campaign. Laverne Cox, the Orange is the New Black actress and transgender activist, is currently working on a documentaryabout McDonald’s plight, which has come to embody the dark realities of life as a transgender person—frequent assaults, police harassment, and an attempted suicide rate topping 41 percent.
After serving 19 months (and 275 days awaiting trial), as Rolling Stone recently reported, McDonald was released in January 2014 with a sentence reduced for good behavior. However, she is now unemployed, with a felony on her record, living on food stamps, and crashing with a supporter. Though she is out of jail, her current circumstances still seem unfair for a figure who became a galvanizing force for trans justice. At the same time, McDonald’s difficulties only underscore the daily indignities suffered by transgender people.
But McDonald never asked to be the face of a movement. She was simply trying to buy a few groceries on the night she was attacked. When I asked McDonald what it feels like to be so closely identified with a movement, she said, “I kind of feel like it was something that was meant to happen.” She doesn’t mean this situation exactly, but rather working for this cause, albeit in a particularly intense way.
But 30 years from now, how many will remember McDonald? When I asked her if this is something she cared about, she laughed gently and offered a long list of people who should be included in the history books long before her: transgender rights activists Miss Major (Griffin-Gracy), Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rae Rivera; Black Panthers Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu-Jamal; and feminist and civil rights activist Angela Davis.
If McDonald’s accidental star fades, she’ll be in good company. At least half of the Chicago Eight never sought the spotlight, taking a backseat to Abbie Hoffman’s anticsand Jerry Rubin’s yuppie wealth. Many of us celebrate Earth Day annually now, but how many of us remember Denis Hayes, its founder? He’s still around, working to create the most sustainable office building in the world. Picture Berkeley in the 1960s and you may have a fuzzy mental image of student leaders rallying for free speech. A few might remember Mario Savio’s “Bodies upon the gears” call to arms, but how many know how he spent his later life, a professor quietly teaching mathematics and philosophy?
Why do we lose so many movement makers—powerful forces for change—who eventually drop away into obscurity?
I raised this question with American University history and communications professor Leonard Steinhorn, who promptly set me straight.
“Movements are made of countless people who get involved, and some emerge as visible leaders because of a moment in time, or a twist of historical fate, or because they themselves have been able to … move some mountains, or build some bridge, or organize people in ways they hadn’t been before,” said Steinhorn. He added that the leaders we do remember, of course, “stand on the shoulders of others.”
“People can aspire to different kinds of leadership,” said Patrick Coy, professor and director of applied conflict management at Kent State University. Coy pointed to the story of James Lawson, who moved from Ohio to Nashville in 1959 to work with nonviolent protests against racism in the upper South. Lawson was an able trainer and strong strategist who went on to perform an important leadership function within the Civil Rights movement. Lawson led, but isn’t among the most recognizable names of the movement because he “didn’t aspire to lead an organization,” said Coy. Instead, he aspired to improve the movement and popularize nonviolent action as a whole.