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“Black Trans Bodies Are Under Attack”: Freed Activist CeCe McDonald, Actress Laverne Cox Speak Out

StoryFebruary 19, 2014
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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 trans women 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.”

Click here to watch part 2 of this interview.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn today to a case that’s turned a national spotlight on the violence and discrimination faced by transgender women of color in the United States. That’s the case of CeCe McDonald.

On June 5th, 2011, CeCe and two friends were walking past a Minneapolis bar when they were reportedly accosted with homophobic, transphobic and racist slurs. CeCe was hit with a bar glass that cut open her face, requiring 11 stitches. A brawl ensued. One of the people who had confronted CeCe and her friends, 47-year-old Dean Schmitz, was dead, from a stab wound that police say came from a pair of fabric scissors in CeCe’s purse.

At the time, the murder rate for gay and trangender 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.

Nearly a year after the attack in Minneapolis, CeCe McDonald stood trial on charges of second-degree manslaughter. The judge in her case rejected key evidence, including a swastika tattoo on Schmitz’s chest and his three prior convictions of assault. Facing up to 80 years in prison, CeCe McDonald took a plea deal that sentenced her to 41 months behind bars. McDonald was held in a men’s prison, even though she identifies as a woman.

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’s so rarely punished. This is part of a video that was crowdsourced with the voices of different supporters of CeCe McDonald appealing for her freedom while she was still behind bars. On the video, they come together to tell her story.

CECE McDONALD SUPPORTERS: Last June, a Minneapolis woman was attacked on her way to a grocery store with her friends. While passing a bar, a group of onlookers assaulted them, yelling obscenities and smashing a glass in her face. Fearful for her life, she defended it with the only thing that she could find in her bag—a pair of fabric scissors. Fortunately, these scissors saved her life, when a man lunged at her and was stabbed. Unfortunately, she was arrested for the man dying because of it. Even more unfortunate, she’s been accused of murder and faced with upwards of 80 years in prison.

Sound ridiculous? It gets better. The woman attacked is transgender and black. And the main attacker who was killed? A white male neo-Nazi. And the obscenities yelled weren’t just any obscenity—”[bleep], [bleep] lover, chicks with [bleep], you’re dressed like a woman to rape me, look at that boy dressed as a girl and tucking her [bleep] in.” A hate crime. This was a hate crime, a transphobic, racist hate crime.

Why, then, is CeCe McDonald behind bars? Because the Hennepin County District Attorney Michael O. Freeman and the court didn’t see it that way. They rejected the following as viable evidence: consideration of gender, sexual orientation, race and class; the climate of violence transgender people face; those little statistics that say trans people are more at risk for bullying violence, domestic abuse, assault by law enforcement, suicide attempts and hate violence; the swastika tattoo on the attacker’s chest; his three previous convictions for assault; and, best of all, the meth, cocaine and alcohol present in his system on the night of the attack. However, the following were all admissible for convicting CeCe: how she, quote-unquote, “handled her scissors in an unreasonable way” when being attacked; how she defended her life by killing her attacker; oh, and she wrote a bad check once.

Because the usable usable evidence was so void of actual substance, the odds were stacked against her, and she was forced to make a choice: fight the murder charges with little support in her favor, likely spending years in jail, only to get slapped with an 80-year prison sentence, or plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter and only spend three years in prison. She chose the latter.

But was it really a choice, when the options were so unfair from the outset, when it became not a matter of innocence or guilt but the degree of guilt, when the path to freedom boiled down to the lesser of two evils—really guilty or somewhat guilty? No, this was not a fair choice and not a fair trial. CeCe McDonald is being punished for daring to confront and survive a hate crime. And this is unacceptable, especially when people just like CeCe are being killed almost monthly.

Governor Mark Dayton, you are the only one with the power to stop this injustice. Please pardon CeCe McDonald and show her and the world that bravery like this should be heralded and not punishable.

AMY GOODMAN: A video that was crowdsourced with the voices of different supporters of CeCe McDonald.

Well, CeCe McDonald is now free. She walked out of prison earlier this month after serving 19 months. She was also given credit for nine months of time served before her trial. And she joins us here in our New York studio.

We’re also joined by one of CeCe McDonald’s most well-known supporters, Laverne Cox, actress, producer, activist, transgender woman, who was there with CeCe McDonald the day she left prison. Some fans might be used to seeing Laverne Cox in prison attire: She plays Sophia Burset on the popular Netflix show Orange is the New Black. Her character is a transgender woman imprisoned for credit card fraud which she used to finance her transition. Laverne Cox is producing a forthcoming documentary about CeCe McDonald called Free CeCe.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! CeCe, how does it feel to be free?

CECE McDONALD: It’s a blessing, foremost. It’s a feeling that I really can’t express, but I can tell you it’s a huge load off of my shoulders. It’s really good to be able to get back into, you know, doing everyday things, being a woman, living life. But the other day, I did a panel for the Anti-War Committee, and someone asked me, “How is it for you to come out of prison and regain your life?” And I told that person, “Every day is a journey, and each day I have to pick back up a piece of me from where I left off two years ago.” And it kind of touched everybody, because it’s a true statement, you know. You have to get back into everyday things and on top of things related to my transitioning and career-situated things.

And just, you know, having down time with my family and being able to hug them without someone watching over us or having a time limit to love someone, I really can’t put that into words. But I can just say it’s a really, really good feeling to be back with everyone and to actually use this platform that I have now to educate people and to inform people about the violence against trans women, about the prison-industrial complex, to let people know about hatred towards women and trans women, and just, you know, be more willing and open to help people understand what it’s like for me and for other trans women who are in prison, and people in general who have to deal with the policies and the martial law of prison, I should say.

AMY GOODMAN: Laverne Cox, why was CeCe’s case so important to you?

LAVERNE COX: Well, first of all, I want to say I’m just so happy to be here with CeCe in New York City. I’m so happy to see you. And it was very moving to see all those voices in support of a trans woman of color. So often our lives are treated as if they don’t matter. And I think that’s why CeCe’s case has meant so much to me. I very easily could have been CeCe. 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 trans women 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. I just had the wonderful pleasure visiting a young—a group of young people in New Orleans, Louisiana, called BreakOUT! And they were formed a few years ago to deal with the criminalization of LGBTQ youth of color in New Orleans by the police. Just a few weeks ago, Gabourey Sidibe, the wonderful actress, was on Arsenio Hall Show, and she talked about being in New Orleans and basically witnessing repeated acts of profiling of trans women of color in New Orleans by the police. And I think it’s really important to do—a lot of—she got a lot of controversy because she used some language that a lot of trans folks find offensive, but what the takeaway should be is that we have a witness to the police brutality that so many trans people face in New Orleans and all over this country.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Our guests are Laverne Cox, the actress on Orange is the New Black, which just announced its next season, and CeCe McDonald, who last month was released from prison after serving 19 months there. This is Democracy Now! Back in a moment.


AMY GOODMAN: “Tightrope” by Janelle Monáe, one of CeCe McDonald’s favorite artists. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We are joined by the African-American transgender activist CeCe McDonald, released from prison in January after 19 months. She was arrested in 2011 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.

Also with us, Laverne Cox, the actress, the producer, activist, transgender woman, who was there with CeCe McDonald the day she left prison. She stars in the TV show Orange is the New Black.

And we’re joined by Alisha Williams, staff attorney for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and director of the group’s Prisoner Justice Project.

In 2012, Democracy Now! spoke to Rai’vyn Cross, one of CeCe’s best friends. She described the harassment that she and CeCe had faced for years.

RAI’VYN CROSS: We have encountered this every day of our lives, as us being together. We have been—have a solid friendship of eight years. We experience this on a daily basis when we wake up, when we go to sleep, if it’s in a public place or if it’s just outside, period. Transphobic slurs, racial slurs, I mean, we best deal with it just by just—you know, just wiping it off, just keep going on, just staying strong.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Rai’vyn Cross. In fact, she’s in the New York studios today, but not on the set, being here with CeCe as CeCe comes for the first time since she was freed from prison to New York. Cece, what was your time like in prison? You’re also a prison activist and have been.

CECE McDONALD: Prison was a very dark and bad place, basically. I had to deal with a lot of discrimination, more so than any of the other male inmates.

AMY GOODMAN: You were put in a men’s prison.

CECE McDONALD: Yes, I was put in a men’s prison.

AMY GOODMAN: You chose not to fight that, to be put in a women’s prison?

CECE McDONALD: Yeah, and my reasoning behind that was because after I did some educating myself on the prison-industrial complex and the history behind African Americans in incarceration, I felt like sending me to any prison wouldn’t solve my issue. Men’s prisons, women’s prisons, they’re prisons, and they’re not good. And I felt like instead of focusing all of the energy of I and the Support CeCe Committee and the people involved, I told them that we can use that energy to make sure that I’m not being discriminated against and to make sure that I was safe wherever I went. And so, by me doing that, people thought I was kind of crazy, because it was like, “Well, you know, you deserve to be in a women’s prison.” But me, personally, I felt like it wouldn’t solve any problems. It wouldn’t change the fact that now I’m a felon. It wouldn’t change the fact that I have to be under these harsh and cruel policies by the DOC that everyone has to deal with who is in prison. And so, I just kind of stepped back from trying to figure out whether I wanted to be in a men’s or women’s prison, because it wouldn’t help. It wouldn’t make me happy. It wouldn’t take away that pain that I was dealing with. So I just kind of just let that go and focused my energy on other things.

AMY GOODMAN: Alisha, can you talk about the situation of transgender women in men’s prisons, and what are the issues nationwide that they face?

ALISHA WILLIAMS: I mean, oftentimes what we see is that when trans women are incarcerated, they are placed in a men’s facility because the facilities basically use their assigned sex at birth to determine where they should be placed. We have new laws that are being passed, like the Prison Rape Elimination Act. It’s a federal law. It’s not mandatory for states to comply with, but if they do not comply, they risk losing some federal funding, so you see states making some effort to change their policies and come into compliance with PREA. And PREA states that trans people should be—

AMY GOODMAN: Prison Rape Elimination Act, PREA.

ALISHA WILLIAMS: Yes, mm-hmm. So, PREA states that when trans people are incarcerated, their individual assessment of where they would be safest should be taken into consideration, along with a lot of other factors. And the courts show the prison system a lot of deference. So, I don’t see PREA as being a solution, necessarily, but it is something that advocates have now in their toolkit to use to advocate for safer placements for people. And as CeCe said, it’s totally—it should be totally up to the individual. We shouldn’t say all trans women should be in a women’s facility or vice versa; it should be up to the individual. And that’s what advocates have been pushing for.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Laverne Cox and your character, Laverne, from the Netflix show, Orange is the New Black. Laverne’s character is Sophia Burset. That’s who she plays. She’s been imprisoned for credit card fraud which she used to finance her transition. In this clip from the show, she’s speaking with a prison doctor.

SOPHIA BURSET: [played by Laverne Cox] Listen, Doc, I need my dosage. I’ve given five years, $80,000 and my freedom for this. I’m finally who I’m supposed to be. Do you understand? I can’t go back.

DR. BROOKS: [played by Arden Myrin] Look, I’d like to help you. Unfortunately, you have elevated levels of AST and ALT, which could mean liver damage.

SOPHIA BURSET: That’s [bleep]. That could mean anything.

DR. BROOKS: We’re going to take you off your hormones entirely—


DR. BROOKS: —until we can schedule an ultrasound, get a clean read.

SOPHIA BURSET: But that could take months.

DR. BROOKS: I can offer you an antidepressant.

AMY GOODMAN: Offer you an antidepressant. That is Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black. She plays the prisoner, Sophia. Talk about your role there and how common this experience is.

LAVERNE COX: Well, first of all, I wanted to stay around CeCe’s choice to stay where she was housed initially. It’s estimated that 49 percent of sexual assaults that happen in prison happen as a result of the prison staff, that the prison staff is committing these sexual assaults. So, we know that no matter where you’re placed, that is really a huge issue that needs to be addressed.

Sophia—I’ve often said that Sophia, in some ways, is very privileged, my character on Orange is the New Black, because she gets to serve her time in a women’s prison. The issue that we just saw in the clip is basically Sophia being taken off her hormones. That’s something that CeCe talks about having experienced in prison, and a large number of trans people.

AMY GOODMAN: Where is she in her transition in prison?

LAVERNE COX: Sophia has been placed in a women’s prison because of her surgical status. She has had gender reconstructive surgery. And so, because of that, she has been placed in a women’s prison. And so, depending on the state you’re in, you will be placed in a women’s prison based on your surgical status, but some states it’s based solely on the gender you were assigned at birth.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happens when the hormones are denied, like we see in Orange is the New Black?

LAVERNE COX: It is a major health concern for trans people. It’s devastating. I mean, honestly, for me as a trans woman, when I’ve had—there’s hot flashes, so it’s a weird sort of menopause that happens, but it’s really bad for your health, especially if you’re not producing any kind of hormones already, as my character wasn’t. Then you’re at risk for osteoporosis and any other conditions that women would face if they’re taken off hormones.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the research that goes into your character, Sophia. You’re a remarkable figure, because also you’re a remarkable actress, but talk about how this character—and now, we understand, when is the next season going to premiere?

LAVERNE COX: Season two premieres June 6th. We just announced that. Folks have been anxiously awaiting for that—awaiting that information, as have I. So, June 6th, the second season premieres.

The research that I did for Sophia, a lot of it had to do with me, you know, my own lived experience as a trans woman, but I’ve actually been researching on trans folks in prison because of CeCe’s story, before I even found out about Orange is the New Black. So, there was a lot of prison research I had been doing already, so it just sort of all aligned.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about your own life? Because it truly is fascinating. Even in the film, in the part where you’re—the flashbacks to you, Sophia is married—


AMY GOODMAN: —to a woman and has a child.


AMY GOODMAN: Those flashbacks are played by your actual identical twin brother?

LAVERNE COX: Well, the pretransition flashbacks, when we see Sophia—she was a firefighter before she transitioned—when we see her as the firefighter, that is—those moments were played by my identical twin brother. His name is M. Lamar. He’s a musician here in New York.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is in real life.

LAVERNE COX: Yes. I have a twin brother, identical twin brother, in real life. And he’s a brilliant musician and thinker, and he’s amazing. So, I’m a twin. And I’m very lucky that I have a loving family, and I feel very, very blessed. It’s very unusual to see a trans woman playing a trans character on TV. I’ve heard a lot of—people have tweeted to me, and I’ve heard folks at dinner parties say, “Is she really trans?” And I think folks just aren’t used to seeing trans people actually play trans roles. And there’s something very remarkable about that for a lot of folks. And I think it’s really important for people to see reflections of themselves in media, and I think that that can really begin to shift the conversation. I think so many of the issues that trans folks face have to do with policy, but also has to do with how our stories are told in the media, how do we begin to create more multidimensional, fully humanized stories of trans people in the media, because so many people don’t actually know someone trans, and the media can be a way to get to know someone.

AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us your story. And—

LAVERNE COX: What do you want to know?

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about growing up. Here you—there’s the two of you. There’s you and your identical twin brother. Just talk about how you decided to transition, how you felt when—I assume, when people would talk about “the boys” all the time, right, the two—you and your brother—that you felt, no, no.

LAVERNE COX: Well, I was very—I was always a creative person as a kid. I started dancing at a very young age. I was very feminine. I was majorly bullied as a kid, so I was chased home from school practically every day because I was very feminine. And that was my life growing up, so I never fit neatly into the sort of boy role. I don’t really think I ever really had male privilege even, because I was so feminine. I never sort of was in a “boy” situation in terms of my story; I was always very feminine.

And for me, it was about getting—moving past denial. And I’ve told this story a zillion times about when I was in third grade. My third-grade teacher, Ms. Ridgeway, called my mother and said, “Your son is going to end up in New Orleans wearing a dress if we don’t get him into therapy right away.” And the funny thing is, I was just in New Orleans a few days ago doing a talk at Tulane. So, it took over 20 years for Ms. Ridgeway’s prediction to come true. But I—so because of that and because of a lot of the shaming and policing of my gender that happened when I was a child, I had a lot of internalized transphobia. And it really wasn’t until I moved to New York City and met actual trans people that I was able to debunk a lot of the misconceptions that I had about trans people, have empathy for them and then have empathy and love for myself. And once I began to develop that, I was able to accept myself and then to transition.

AMY GOODMAN: CeCe McDonald, what about your story?

CECE McDONALD: Well, my story is similar to Laverne’s.

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you born?

CECE McDONALD: I was born in Chicago, Illinois. And I moved to Minnesota when I was 18. But prior to that, I was very feminine. And I grew up in a big family. My grandma and granddad had 18 kids—nine boys, nine girls. And like Laverne said, I grew up in a really heavily religious family, very—as people call them, Bible thumpers, so there was also a lot of policing about my femininity. And it kind of made me hate myself. It made me become, I guess, more rebellious than most teens would at that age, when I got to that age.

And I pretty much had a hard life. I was out on my own since I was 14. And, you know, from sleeping on park benches and couch hopping and trying to figure out what I was going to do in my life, I really wanted to get a leg up, but it seemed like there was no opportunities for trans women in Chicago. And it seemed like every place I went into turned their backs on me or slammed the door in my face, and it was really hard for me to like figure out what I was going to do in my life.

And then, after some major consideration, I decided to move to Minnesota, after a friend had invited me. And it didn’t take me very much time to take her up on her offer, because it seemed like I had nothing to go for in Chicago. And she was telling me that, you know, I can start over, and there’s more resources, and I can get this help and that help. And so, it sounded really tasteful. I wanted to, you know, expand my horizons and see what I can, you know—or how I can better myself. And so, I moved to Minnesota.

And that’s when I actually started my transition as far as, you know, hormone therapy and finding a therapist and stuff like that. And that kind of made me build this love for other trans women, like you were saying, because, you know, you have this part of you that’s unquestionable, and it’s a big mystery until you meet these people. And you’re like, yeah, I think I know who I am as a person. And so, you know, sometimes you get a little bad advice, sometimes you get the best advice, but it was all helpful for me in my transitioning. And now I am here today, so…

AMY GOODMAN: Alisha Williams, how common is that, trans teens homeless?

ALISHA WILLIAMS: At our website,, we have a number of charts that kind of explain the disproportionate representation of trans people in prison because of things that happen beforehand, being forced into poverty and experiencing houselessness. It could be from family rejection, or it could be the lack of support at school, when you’re being discriminated against and bullied by other students or by school administrators, or not having safe access to spaces because you’re policed when you’re just trying to go to the bathroom, someone trying to tell you that you’re going to the wrong bathroom. We have a lot of people who are arrested on the streets. Because we work with low-income people of color, they’re living in neighborhoods that are already heavily policed.

AMY GOODMAN: We have a chart right now, that was—

ALISHA WILLIAMS: Oh, yes, that’s the chart I was talking about.

AMY GOODMAN: —your chart.


AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to that chart and go through it, because it’s quite interesting. When you look at the number of people who are in prison who are trans, you have all trans persons, 16 percent have gone to prison or jail; black trans persons, 47 percent; American Indian trans people, 30 percent; trans women, 21 percent. So, of the trans women, 21 percent have served time in jail, and trans men, 10 percent. How do you change those numbers?

ALISHA WILLIAMS: Well, definitely, it’s—even though we have “Law” in our name at SLRP, we do not really believe that the law is the answer. We have a lot of legal remedies that reduce harm that people in prison are facing, but really the answer is to keep people out of prison and to provide safe spaces, safe access to healthcare, to employment, to education, so that we really need to push for those sort of policies in our neighborhoods to make sure that we’re keeping trans people and people of color, low-income people, out of jail and providing them safe access to the systems that other people have access to.

LAVERNE COX: And I think, too, the bigger—

AMY GOODMAN: Laverne Cox?

LAVERNE COX: May I? I think the bigger picture, too, is that—how do we begin to create spaces in our culture where we don’t stigmatize trans identity, where we really create spaces of gender self-determination? It is so often acceptable to make fun of trans people, to ridicule trans people. When we look at the epidemic of violence against trans folk, so many people sort of think that our identities are inherently deceptive, our identities are inherently sort of suspect, and then we should be criminalized because of that. I mean, in Arizona, they were trying to sort of criminalize going to the bathroom last year, like literally. That policy was overturned. But how do we begin to create spaces where we accept trans people on our own—on trans people’s own terms, and really listen and let trans people lead the discussions in terms of who we are and what the discussion about our lives should be?

AMY GOODMAN: Defining yourselves—I wanted to turn to that for a moment in the mainstream media, to turn to a clip from television. The author and transgender advocate Janet Mock, who has written a book about her own life, recently joined CNN’s Piers Morgan to talk about that book, Redefining Realness. After the interview, Mock said she felt the Piers had tried to sensationalize her story by saying, quote, “She used to be a man and was born a boy,” and by displaying an on-screen descriptor under her name that said she, quote, “was a boy until age 18.” Following her criticism, Piers Morgan invited Janet Mock back on the show. I want to go to a clip from that second interview.

PIERS MORGAN: With the greatest of respect—and I mean with the greatest of respect—you’ve written a book, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, right? I’ve got here, as I say, the Marie Claire article that started your whole media profile, “I Was Born a Boy,” repeatedly, in your words, saying—

JANET MOCK: I did not write that piece.

PIERS MORGAN: “I was born a boy.”

JANET MOCK: It’s not my words.

PIERS MORGAN: Right. So let me ask you a—

JANET MOCK: Words are precious to me. I’m a writer.

PIERS MORGAN: Let me ask you—let me ask you a simple question.

JANET MOCK: Words are precious. And I really believe that—

PIERS MORGAN: Let me ask you a simple question.

JANET MOCK: —we need to give people—I would like to ask you a question.

PIERS MORGAN: OK, can I ask mine first, then you can ask yours?


PIERS MORGAN: OK? My question is simply this: Do you—do you dispute that you were born a boy?

JANET MOCK: Do I dispute that I was born a boy? I was born a baby, who was assigned male at birth. I did not identify or live my life as a boy.


JANET MOCK: As soon as I had enough agency in my life to grow up, I became who I am.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Janet Mock speaking to CNN’s Piers Morgan. Janet Mock actually tweeted a photo of herself and Laverne Cox reacting to her initial interview with Piers Morgan. You both have your eyebrows raised. The tweet says, “Me + @Lavernecox’s reaction after @piersmorganlive tried it with the man and boy tag lines.” Talk about your reaction, Laverne.

LAVERNE COX: Well, my initial reaction to the interview—that was actually at Janet’s book party. The night that interview aired, she was having her book party for her brilliant book, Redefining Realness, which everyone should read. It’s incredible. My reaction was not to the interview. It was initially to the tweets that were sent out surrounding the interview. So they were—it seemed as if what was happening in the tweets is the suggestion that she used to be a man and all those sorts of things. Janet would never tell her story that way. She has never described her experience that way. And really, the important piece for media to remember when we’re telling transgender people’s stories is that we should let trans people take the lead in terms of how we describe ourselves. Janet has written extensively about critiquing. And if they had read the book, Redefining Realness, in the introduction to it, she actually critiques the Marie Claire article that Piers Morgan refers to in that clip.

AMY GOODMAN: He kept saying, “You wrote this article. Why are you denying it?”

LAVERNE COX: And she did not write—she actually didn’t write the article. It was an interview. And the editor of Marie Claire, a few days after the Piers Morgan sort of controversy, tweeted out that Janet and the writer of the article actually had issue with the title, “I Was Born a Boy,” and the editors of the magazine went with that anyway.

AMY GOODMAN: Go to that point, “I Was Born a Boy.”

LAVERNE COX: I think the piece—I think in mainstream media over the past 61 years, since Christine Jorgensen stepped off the plane from Europe and became the first, you know, sort of internationally known trans woman, we’ve had a certain narrative that we’ve told about who trans people are. And that narrative has been someone born a boy and having sex reassignment surgery and becoming a woman. That is not everyone’s story. And even the idea, “born a boy,” is a social construct. We assign gender at birth. We don’t really know how people identify. Gender is so deeply complicated. It’s about more than genitalia. We assign people genders at birth. No one is born anything. We actually name and impose that on someone. And it’s really important with trans folks to listen to how they describe their own experiences. And the amazing thing to me about Janet Mock is that she wrote this book, Redefining Realness, to redefine how our stories are told, and in this media moment, the interviewers and the producers of the Piers Morgan show relied on very traditional ways of telling trans stories, when Janet has this wonderful document of a new way to tell our stories.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very interesting, when you talk about a baby. A person is born a baby. Why is it so important? What is the first question most everyone asks when they meet a little baby? Is it a—

LAVERNE COX: “Is it a boy or a girl?” I actually say, “Is it a boy, a girl or trans?” is what I say. And I say it that way to disrupt that binary assumption and to also open the possibilities of—we don’t really know, we don’t really know how someone might identify. And we have these very rigid—the gender binary—the logic of the gender binary models puts people in very rigid categories that most of us don’t fit neatly into.

AMY GOODMAN: And isn’t it more about how should the person who’s asking react to the little baby? It’s because we ask, “Is it a girl or a boy?” I think the studies have been done. I remember years ago Baby X, when a parents decided not to reveal the sex of the child, because they decided they didn’t want people to respond to the infant in stereotypical ways, that that determines how we treat an infant.

LAVERNE COX: And make all kinds of assumptions. And what’s interesting to me, I think—I talk about this a lot in my lectures—that all the bullying that I experienced, the violence that so many trans folks experience, policies that constantly police our genders, are really about policing gender, to make sure people fit neatly into two categories that most of us don’t fit into, that we have to police gender constantly to maintain this binary model. If we just let people be who they are, how amazing would that be?

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break for a second, then we’re going to come back to this discussion. I also want to ask you about Facebook, that’s just expanded the gender identifications that people can use. We’re talking with Laverne Cox, the actress, the star of Orange is the New Black. We are also speaking with CeCe McDonald. It’s her first trip to New York since she was freed from prison after serving 19 months. And we’re joined by Alisha Williams, who’s staff attorney at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “You’ve Got Time” by Regina Spektor. “You’ve Got Time” is the theme song of Orange is the New Black, the Netflix hit show that one of our guests stars in today, Laverne Cox. I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. As we talk about the violence and discrimination faced by transgender women of color, I want to turn to a story here in New York. On January 30th, a group of transgender women and their allies gathered outside the New York City Police Department headquarters to demand justice for Islan Nettles. Nettles was a 21-year-old transgender woman of color who was taunted with slurs, then beaten to death in Harlem in August. A suspect was arrested on assault charges, but the case against him was later dismissed. So far, no one has been charged with her murder. Protesters have accused police of mishandling the investigation. These are some of the voices from the rally. One of the voices in the middle of this piece is Islan Nettles’ mother, Delores Nettles.

PROTESTER: No justice!


PROTESTER: No justice!


PROTESTER: If there ain’t gonna be no justice!

PROTESTERS: There ain’t gonna be no peace!

DANIELLA CARTER: That I’m here. I’m living in New York City. And I’m as educated, and I’m as political, I’m as human—you know, because we’re dehumanizing the trans community. And this is a prime example of dehumanizing someone and their rights.

LOURDES ASHLEY HUNTER: With Islan Nettles, she was beaten until she could move no more, outside of a police station. She was in a crux of three different police stations in a gentrified neighborhood of Harlem where 10 different cameras are not working. This goes beyond just brutality and discrimination and against trans folks. What about the safety of all New Yorkers? How could it be in the middle of Harlem and cameras don’t work? This could happen to anyone. If it happened to a white woman, would we be standing out here right here in the freezing cold fighting for justice six months later?

DELORES NETTLES: I spoke to a Sergeant Dorsey on the 17th.





UNIDENTIFIED: Sergeant Dorsey!

DELORES NETTLES: Sergeant Dorsey told me the only thing he could tell me was that the person was arrested. And I said, “Half of my child’s brain is out of her head, and that’s all you can tell me?” And no one came from that precinct. But I thank all of you for coming. I appreciate it, and that’s all I have to say. Thank you. I love you.

MADISON ST. SINCLAIR: He was arrested, but he wasn’t charged. And I sat with his mom, who is actually right there, Islan’s mom, in court to listen to them sort of just destroy her as a person. It was disgusting. And she was the victim.

LOURDES ASHLEY HUNTER: Unacceptable. We are tired. We are tired of waiting by lesbian and gay folk to champion their policies and what they’re interested in. Marriage doesn’t impact us. We’re tired of being pushed away and discriminated against in housing, access to jobs, education. And we’ve had enough. And even with this particular murder, you know what I’m saying? This is continual. This is not something new. This is indicative of NYPD. This is indicative of politics in New York City.

UNIDENTIFIED: … comes to transgender people, is violence chases us all everywhere, whether it’s CeCe McDonald in Minnesota or us here in Harlem, in New York City.

MADISON ST. SINCLAIR: Trans people are no longer a marginalized community. We’re no longer a disenfranchised community. We’re doctors. We’re lawyers. We’re taxpayers. And we demand and deserve the exact same rights as everyone else. We’re not asking for special rights; we’re asking for human rights. And so, it’s disgusting that this happens now. It’s constantly happening. People are being killed all the time, and no one is being charged for it.

PROTESTER: No justice!


PROTESTER: No justice!


PROTESTER: No justice!


PROTESTER: No justice!


AMY GOODMAN: Some of the voices at a rally calling for justice in the case of Islan Nettles. Special thanks to our Democracy Now! fellow Messiah Rhodes for that report. Laverne Cox, this is a case that you’ve been particularly interested in here in New York.

LAVERNE COX: Again, with Islan’s case, we see the safety of trans folks just walking down the street, having the audacity to walk down the street, being questioned. And so often—the director of the Ali Forney Center spoke at that rally and talked about how folks who have been served by the Ali Forney Center, who are trans women who have—we’ve lost to violence, their cases haven’t been solved. So often, these murders of trans women—and it’s the—we know it’s the highest homicide rate amongst the LGBTQ community, is trans women—it’s usually trans women of color. So often, these murders don’t go—they go unsolved. And I think it reflects how so often our lives are treated as if they don’t matter by the police, treated as if they don’t matter by society.

AMY GOODMAN: CeCe, what was your response as you watched? This has to hit very, very close to home.

CECE McDONALD: Yeah. Just watching that kind of just made me go back to that time where I know what it’s like to have to always have this guard up, because you don’t never know when somebody will literally try to kill you for just being who you want to be. And to know that Islan’s life was taken from her out of hatred and out of ignorance, it really upsets me, because I’m trans, and all the people that I know who are trans that are really close to me, I always have this fear for them, because I would never want someone to get a phone call saying that I was dead or me getting a phone call saying that one of my friends was dead because someone just wanted to hurt them. You know, like, it’s rare that you hear about a trans woman living happily and long and having this glorious life where she dies of old age, natural causes or whatever. Usually, from my own—you know, from me knowing about the history of violence against trans women, I’ve yet to hear of a trans woman who has just lived her life happily. And I’m trying to be one of those women who tells other trans women to educate themselves and to protect themselves and to be safe and to be cautious, because people do not care. We’re—trans people are like props to people sometimes, I feel like, like we’re just less than human. And it’s really ridiculous that we have to live a life like this every day. Like, I and so many other trans women who have dealt with violence, you know, over the course of growing up—you know what I’m saying—have to deal with this on a daily basis. And for me to have to watch that was really heartbreaking, because it’s another story. It’s another name that we have to add to this day of Trans Day of Remembrance. And I always encourage people to like—we have to change that. We have to make Trans Day of Remembrance Trans Day of Celebration. We need to celebrate our lives. We need to celebrate being human. But it’s just—it’s just so much. I can’t right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Laverne Cox, this hits close to home for you, too, as you cry.

LAVERNE COX: It does. I think—I think, for me, what comes up, listening to CeCe talk, is the collective trauma that so much of our community faces. And particularly, I think it’s important to look at the intersectional piece, that we’re usually talking about trans women of color, that there’s something about—that black bodies are under attack in this culture, and black trans bodies are under attack. So it’s important for us to remember that. And how do we create spaces of healing for ourselves as a community in the face of such oppression, in the face of such trauma? It’s devastating. It’s devastating to our community to continually hear about this kind of violence. And it’s pervasive. It’s intimate partner violence. In the documentary, Free CeCe, people can find out about it at In the documentary, we’re going to be looking at intimate partner violence. We’re going to be looking at all of the different elements of violence that surrounds these situations, to hopefully find some solutions and ways to combat it.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for joining us. We want to do a post-show and we’ll post it online. I also want to talk to you about the new definitions or identifiers in Facebook and more. Our guests are CeCe McDonald, who is just recently out of prison; Laverne Cox, the actress who stars in Orange is the New Black; and Alisha Williams, staff attorney with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. And a great honor to have them all on this day, our 18th birthday. Democracy Now! went on the air February 19, 1996.

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Laverne Cox, CeCe McDonald on Facebook’s New Gender Options & How to Be an Ally to Trans People

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