After serving 19 months in prison, the African-American transgender activist CeCe McDonald is free. She was arrested after using deadly force to protect herself from a group of people who attacked her on the streets of Minneapolis. Her case helped turn a national spotlight on the violence and discrimination faced by transgender women of color. In 2011, McDonald and two friends were walking past a Minneapolis bar when they were reportedly accosted with homophobic, transphobic and racist slurs. McDonald was hit with a bar glass that cut open her face, requiring 11 stitches. A brawl ensued, and one of the people who had confronted McDonald and her friends, 47-year-old Dean Schmitz, was killed. Facing up to 80 years in prison for his death, McDonald took a plea deal that sentenced her to 41 months. In the eyes of her supporters, CeCe McDonald was jailed for defending herself against the bigotry and violence that transgender people so often face and that is so rarely punished. At the time of the attack, the murder rate for gay and transgender people in this country was at an all-time high. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs documented 30 hate-related murders of LGBT people in 2011; 40 percent of the victims were transgender women of color. Transgender teens have higher rates of homelessness, and nearly half of all African-American transgender people — 47 percent — have been incarcerated at some point.
McDonald joins us on her first trip to New York City. We are also joined by one of her supporters, Laverne Cox, a transgender actress, producer and activist who stars in the popular Netflix show, “Orange is the New Black.” She plays Sophia Burset, a transgender woman in prison for using credit card fraud to finance her transition. She is producing a documentary about McDonald called “Free CeCe.” We also speak to Alisha Williams, staff attorney with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.
“I very easily could have been CeCe,” Laverne Cox says. “Many times I’ve walked down the street of New York, and I’ve experienced harassment. I was kicked once on the street, and very easily that could have escalated into a situation that CeCe faced, and it’s a situation that too many transwomen of color face all over this country. The act of merely walking down the street is often a contested act, not only from the citizenry, but also from the police.”
Laverne Cox has been everywhere lately. She gave the keynote address to 2014 National Conference for LGBT Equality: Creating Change. Cox has also appeared on The Katie Couric Show. After the much criticized questions in the Katie Couric interview, Cox gave Salon this interview: The post-Katie Couric shift: Laverne Cox tells Salon why the media’s so clueless. (Related to bad interviews, this Democracy Now episode also talked about @JanetMock and her interview with Piers Morgan.)
Can a TV show change the world?
Laverne Cox has been an actress since 2000, but Orange is the New Black has given her an unexpected platform and visibility. OITNB has given transgender people in general an unexpected platform and visibility. Justice for transgender people, for trans women of color, is now a topic of conversation all across the country.
It isn’t so much about Laverne Cox, as that she’s suddenly been given this moment because of OITNB. She’s been given visibility, and she’s making good use of it.
Cox seized the opportunity to promote change, up the stakes in her activism, and be a voice to whom the media will listen. She’s wonderfully suited to be a leader and public voice for the trans community. She’s brainy, she’s articulate, and she’s charismatic.
You may say that change would come eventually, that demands for justice and equality from the transgender community would eventually be heard, but I think it would have been a longer time coming. It would have been a harder struggle.
A TV show about women in prison with a sympathetic and likeable transgender woman’s story as part of the ensemble has made change possible sooner. It has given activists like Laverne Cox an opportunity to be heard by a wide audience.
Giving representation to marginalized or minority parts of society on TV shows can change the world. What we see on TV matters. It matters to real people.