Written by Claude Thomas
CW: violence, SA, hate crime
Laverne Cox, the actress and transgender activist who plays the Black, trans character Sophia Burset on the show Orange Is the New Black, drew inspiration for her role from the experiences of another real-life trans woman named Cece McDonald. Cece is most notably known for being charged with second-degree murder after defending herself from a racist and transphobic violent assault in 2011, but her hardships began long before then.
Cece’s story of growing up transgender is harrowing and all too like the stories of many other trans children and teens who are rejected and neglected by society. Cece was assigned male at birth, but she was drawn to and expressed femininity from a young age. This led to disapproval from Cece’s family and violent bullying from her peers, thereby resulting in multiple physical injuries. After her uncle assaulted her, Cece left home when she was only 14 years old.
While unhoused, Cece had more freedom to explore her gender identity, but she had no resources to meet her basic needs or a support system to provide any safety. Cece learned to sell drugs to try and earn some money, but she often slept outdoors and sometimes ate grass just to survive. Cece was also repeatedly met with violence, including numerous instances of sexual assault. At age 15, Cece began working as a child prostitute, which finally allowed her to support herself financially, albeit while placing her health at high risk. For the rest of her teen years, Cece faced periods of addiction, imprisonment, and hospitalization, but things began to turn around for her in her early twenties. Through the support of a drop-in youth center, Cece was able to earn her GED, enroll in community college to learn fashion design, start hormone therapy, and legally change her name to Chrishaun Reed Mai’luv McDonald.
In 2011, Cece got her very own apartment with a roommate and was finally no longer unhoused. It was merely a month later that Cece would be violently assaulted by Dean Schmidtz and Molly Flaherty on the way to the supermarket with her friends. After a few rounds of racist and transphobic remarks, Flaherty smashed a glass tumbler into Cece’s face and punctured her salivary gland, which started a street brawl. When Cece tried to walk away from the scene, Schmidtz chased her down, so she pulled out a pair of fabric scissors from her purse. Schmidtz ran directly into the scissors that Cece was holding up, which caused a fatal injury to his heart. When Cece alerted nearby police shortly after, she was arrested and eventually charged with second-degree murder.
In jail, Cece was placed in solitary confinement for 23 days, reportedly for her own safety as a transwoman. After a friend saw how detrimental this experience was for Cece, the Trans Youth Support Network was able to secure Cece a pro bono lawyer. However, the months leading up to the trial were increasingly disheartening. The judge assigned to the case decided that evidence of Schmidtz’s swastika tattoo and his prior assault convictions were irrelevant and therefore inadmissible. The toxicology reports that showed Scmidtz was high on cocaine and meth at the time he aggressively pursued Cece were also suppressed. Furthermore, the defense was not allowed to bring in expert testimony to educate the jury on the lives of transgender women, which would have provided valuable context as to what happened to Cece that night. While Cece had been trying her best to survive a frightening attack from a transphobic, white supremacist high on drugs, the events of that night were instead painted by the prosecution as a simple bar fight that ended in cold-blooded murder.
When Cece saw a mostly white jury on the morning of her trial, she decided to take a plea deal and she plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter. Her resulting sentence was 41 months in a state men’s prison. There, Cece was at least able to have her own cell and continue hormone therapy while she focused on her recovery as much as possible. When Flaherty was prosecuted for attacking Cece, the latter declined to testify both for her own mental health and because she didn’t want to seek revenge. While Cece was incarcerated, she had worldwide supporters advocating for her release on social media through the #FreeCece campaign. After 19 months, Cece was released early from prison on account of good behavior.
Since her release, Cece has been trying to get back on her own feet again despite all the additional challenges placed upon her as a formerly convicted felon. Today, Cece McDonald remains a trans rights advocate, prison abolitionist, and LGBTQIA2S+ icon.
To read about Cece McDonald in more depth, please check out the following link: