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

Web ExclusiveFebruary 19, 2014
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Part two of our special looking at violence and discrimination faced by transgender women of color. We speak to African-American transgender activist CeCe McDonald, who was released last month after 19 months in prison. 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. We’re also joined by Laverne Cox, an actress, producer, activist and transgender woman, who was there with McDonald the day she left prison. She stars in the Netflix show, Orange is the New Black. We also speak with Alisha Williams, staff attorney for the Silvia Rivera Law Project and director of the group’s Prisoner Justice Project.

Click here to watch part one of the interview.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with part two of our conversation with the African-American transgender activist CeCe McDonald, released last month after 19 months in prison. 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, actress, 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. It’s just been announced that the second season will begin on June—


AMY GOODMAN: June 6, folks, and that’s brought to you by Netflix.

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

We want to turn right now to the whole issue of Facebook. The social media giant recently expanded the gender options available to identify its hundreds of millions of users. Instead of just male or female, users can now choose from dozens of options, including transgender, intersex, fluid. Well, this is Fox News’s Tucker Carlson reacting to the change.

TUCKER CARLSON: Facebook, the social networking site, is adding options that include transgender, intersex—whatever that is—and neither.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. Meanwhile, his colleague Todd Starnes of Fox News & Commentary expressed his opinions in a Facebook post that read, quote, “In the beginning God made man and woman, but Facebook decided to improve on the original models.” He added, “What if you identify as a pine cone or a chicken or a weed whacker? Facebook doesn’t offer those options. But they do allow users to be gender fluid. I’m not sure what that is—but you might want to have a roll of paper towels handy—just in case.” There you have the corporate media responding to Facebook. Laverne Cox, what’s your response? Let me go through some of the categories. I’m not sure whether you should respond to Fox or whether to—

LAVERNE COX: I’d rather not.

CECE McDONALD: That would be bad.

LAVERNE COX: I’d rather not.

AMY GOODMAN: CeCe, would you—

CECE McDONALD: No, you clearly said that no foul language is allowed, so…

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about some of these categories. For example, cis, cisgender and cissexual. Explain, first of all, what those terms are. That might be new to someone who is hearing this for the first time.

LAVERNE COX: Someone who’s cis, who’s cisgender, who’s cis, basically it means that their gender identity matches the gender that they were assigned at birth. It’s simple.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you can identify as cis female, cis—in Facebook, cis female, cis male, cis man, cis woman.

LAVERNE COX: Correctly. So a cis female would be someone who was assigned female at birth, who also identifies as female. So I think it’s important to understand gender identity in relationship to gender that was assigned at birth. So, folks are assigned a gender at birth based on something very arbitrary, but then they might identify in very different ways. And so, what Facebook is doing, which I think is quite fantastic, because we—most folks actually don’t fall neatly, as I said earlier, into a gender binary model. There are as many genders, really, as there are people. And so, this gives folks an opportunity to self-identify, and that’s quite wonderful. I was in a conversation with some girlfriends of mine, and I was like, “Do you think a lot of trans women would actually like choose this option, though?” And they were thinking, well, a lot of girls I know wouldn’t, but it’s great to have that option. And I think it’s wonderful to acknowledge that there are more than two genders.

AMY GOODMAN: And this term “fluid,” what does that mean to you, Alisha?

ALISHA WILLIAMS: I mean, gender exists on a spectrum. So, I mean, there might be someone who—like myself, I identify as female, but I know I have a very masculine presentation. I don’t fit stereotypical gender norms for what is female, and again, we exist on a spectrum. And that’s what fluidity means, like people can identify as gender queer one day and as male the next day. It’s up to that person to determine their gender.

AMY GOODMAN: And gender questioning and gender variant? These are another two of the categories.

ALISHA WILLIAMS: I mean, I think it’s all very similar, in the sense that, again, we’re allowing people to self-determine how they identify and want to express their gender on any given day.

AMY GOODMAN: And then there’s agender, describing people who lack a gender. Androgyne—is it pronounced androgyne?

CECE McDONALD: Androgyne.

AMY GOODMAN: Androgynous, as well, in addition, and bigender, a person who feels their gender is fully male and fully female or any pair of genders, generally, by switching between the two.

LAVERNE COX: I think it’s just important that we understand what gender is. Gender is—really, it’s a social construct. And there’s a lot of folks who argue that even biological sex is a social construct, so that like whatever you are assigned at birth really is not necessarily an indication of how you might identify. And gender is cultural, so some folks might identify with something feminine and masculine at the same time, or—and all of that is OK. And I think what’s wonderful about what Facebook is doing is acknowledging that this is all OK. And folks who are critical of this don’t really understand what gender means. I think that folks really need—that Gender 101 should be a part of more college curriculums, so that people can really understand that, as Simone de Beauvoir said, that one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one.

AMY GOODMAN: CeCe McDonald, do you think this means progress?

CECE McDONALD: Absolutely. To give people that freedom to define who they are, because I always had that issue growing up where there were only two options for me, whether I was filling out an application or, again, social media websites where there were only two options. And I’m like, “Well, what if I want to identify as trans?” Or, you know—over the time, I eventually, you know, realized who I was as a person. And it’s really crazy because when I explain to people that I’m trans, but trans doesn’t make me, and then I go into deeper identification of who I am, and I explain to someone like, “I’m trans, but I identify as a heterosexual woman,” and people don’t get that, but that’s who I am. That’s how I identify. And for a large social media website like Facebook to give people that option, to not feel excluded from—whatever, because it’s not really anything special. But anyways, that’s still a part of someone, and for someone to have that to say, “Well, this is who I am, and I’m glad that I can express that to the world,” is definitely an advancement in, you know, accepting and knowing about different gender identities and kind of breaking up that gender binary and kind of, you know, letting people—you know, because this will also give cis heterosexual people the opportunity to learn about different gender identities and, you know, kind of open that door and kind of let people in and see that there is no black and white, there’s this really big grey area, and you can join if you want to.

AMY GOODMAN: The question of whether things are changing on the ground and things are changing in the media are two different things. I wanted to turn to another clip. We played Piers Morgan before. But this is to your interview, Laverne Cox, last month with ABC host Katie Couric, which got a lot of attention. Laverne Cox appeared on the show with transgender model Carmen Carrera. This is what Katie Couric asked Carmen Carrera.

KATIE COURIC: Your—your—your private parts are different now, aren’t they?

CARMEN CARRERA: Shhh, I don’t want to talk about it, because it’s really personal. And I don’t know, I just—I’d rather talk about my modeling stuff. I’d rather talk about being in W and being in, you know, maybe in Italian Vogue and doing fun stuff and showing people that after their transition, there’s still life to live. There’s still—you know, I still have my career goals. I still have my family goals. I want to have kids. I want to have more kids. You know, like, I want to focus on that rather than what’s down here, because that’s been spoken about so many times. You know, like in other interviews with other trans people, they always focus on either the transition or the genitalia. And I feel like trans people—there are more to trans people than just that.

AMY GOODMAN: Later in the same program, Katie Couric revisited this issue with Laverne Cox.

KATIE COURIC: Now, I’m curious, because, you know, I think all of us want to be educated, and Carmen was sort of—recoiled a little bit when I asked her about her transition, and she said that people who are not educated about this or familiar with sort of transgenders, they’re preoccupied with the genitalia question. And I’m wondering if you think that’s true, and how—if you have the same feelings about that that Carmen does.

LAVERNE COX: I do. I was very proud of you for saying that. And I do feel like there’s a preoccupation with that. And I think that the preoccupation with transition and with surgery objectifies trans people, and then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we’re targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average. If you’re a trans person of color, it’s four times the national average. The homicide rate in the LGBT community is highest amongst trans women. And if we—when we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Laverne Cox educating Katie Couric. That clip went viral, Laverne.

LAVERNE COX: Yes. I was so—watching it again—I haven’t watched it in a while—I’m still—I’m so proud of Carmen, because Carmen—because the piece in the media is, how do we begin to tell our stories in a more rich way? I’ve done this presentation where I look at video clips over the past 60 years of trans folks in mainstream media, particularly on like TV talk shows, and so much of the conversation has been about transition. So much of the conversation has been about surgery. And even when there are attempts to humanize the trans subjects, the big takeaway becomes transition and becomes surgery. And so, we—over 60 years of mainstream representation of trans people, we don’t have a fuller, richer idea of who these trans people are, so much because of how we frame the stories. So it’s so important to reframe trans stories. So I was very excited to be able to have that conversation on mainstream television.

AMY GOODMAN: It certainly rung a bell, because it did go viral. And the whole issue of trans, you don’t have to have an operation to consider yourself trans, is that right?

LAVERNE COX: Bodies matter for trans people, and healthcare matters. But I think it’s important to contextualize transition and surgery within healthcare. But there are so many other issues that trans people face. Obviously, we need access to healthcare that is life-saving. But all trans people certainly don’t—surgery isn’t an option for every trans person. Some trans people choose not to have surgery. And that’s their business. And it really—I think it should be personal. But then there’s issues of employment. There’s issues of criminalization and the prison-industrial complex. There’s issues of violence, just walking down the street as yourself, bullying and harassment in schools. So, all of these things never really get talked about, except here.

AMY GOODMAN: Alisha Williams, let’s talk about healthcare and trans women. What are the issues that people face?

ALISHA WILLIAMS: I mean, there are several issues, like Laverne just mentioned. I think we have—because of the way that mainstream media portrays trans stories, people focus on transition and say, “Oh, all you’re looking for is a surgery.” And they have a lot of complications in just getting access to real healthcare, getting a trans-affirming or trans-competent healthcare provider. Again, talking about low-income communities, you have low-income communities who have to rely on things like Medicaid to gain access to healthcare. And right now in New York state, there is a regulation that prevents trans people from accessing trans-affirming healthcare, which SRLP is working with the Audre Lorde Project, other—

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, SLRP.

ALISHA WILLIAMS: Yes, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and the Audre Lorde Project are working on a campaign to repeal that regulation, to make sure that our trans community members, especially low-income community members, have access to safe and affordable healthcare. And it’s really about educating the public on what healthcare looks like and what discrimination in our healthcare system looks like. We have people in prison who are trying to access migraine medication, trying to access medicine for diabetes, and they’re being discriminated against based on their gender identity and expression in the prison system. So, I think we need to look at healthcare more broadly, like what does healthcare discrimination look like and how does that prevent people from surviving.

AMY GOODMAN: CeCe, in prison, do you feel you were able to get the healthcare that you needed?

CECE McDONALD: After a couple of conversations, I should say, with some of the staff and a lot of work from outside groups, because a lot of times I feel like people pretend to want to help trans people, but deep down is something about our transitioning that bothers people, to the point where the help in the resources that we need are put on a halt, because, you know—it’s a different type of discrimination, I feel, sometimes. But eventually, I did get my medicine, later on down the line. And that’s pretty much thanks to the people who advocated for me outside of the prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, in a ruling by a panel of three judges, said it agreed with a lower court ruling from 2012 that the Massachusetts Department of Corrections was obligated to provide the surgery as treatment for a transgender prisoner who was serving a life sentence for murder. Alisha, do you know about that case?

ALISHA WILLIAMS: Yes, that’s the Kosilek case, and that’s actually going to be going up on appeal, so she’s still battling to get the healthcare that her doctors have stated is necessary for her survival in prison and just generally. And again, it’s difficult to just talk about that story, because, again, that’s what people focus on when you’re talking about people in prison. I saw a lot of reactions to that story that just made me sick, because people are just like, “Oh, so now it’s taxpayer-funded surgery for this person.” And again, we’re talking about life-saving care, and it’s actually not going to increase the cost of incarcerating someone. Right now in New York state, I believe it costs $160,000 per year to have somebody incarcerated. And when you’re not providing them healthcare, all you’re doing is exacerbating their health condition, so you’re paying for more mental healthcare. You’re paying for a possibly prolonged confinement. So it would really be a better use of our resources to give people the healthcare that they need. Let them as an individual and their doctors determine what healthcare is necessary and what they should have access to.

LAVERNE COX: I think the Kosilek case, too, points out—in the reaction to, I should say—

AMY GOODMAN: This is Michelle Kosilek.

LAVERNE COX: Yes. The reaction to her case really demonstrates how we—the framing of life-affirming surgery for trans people has been framed so badly and has been sensationalized to such an extent that we don’t—that it’s not put into its proper context, so that when we begin, we need to begin to reframe how we tell stories about trans folks and how we contextualize life-saving healthcare, so that this is not something that we—I think the problem is that for 60 years in mainstream media we’ve been sensationalizing trans folks and sensationalizing transition, instead of humanizing, really fully humanizing. And if—I think the—I believe the only way to do that is to take the focus away from bodies, to have that be something that’s private and personal, at least for now, because these things are incremental for trans folks. Some trans folks want to talk about their transition, and I don’t. That’s fine. But I think—so, but that—

AMY GOODMAN: Some people will put their stages of surgery online to show.

LAVERNE COX: Absolutely. And honestly, what I say to that, though, is that that is useful information for other trans people. And I think it’s really—for me, sharing information with my sisters about my healthcare as a trans woman is essential. So there’s that context. But then there’s—the sharing information to help your sisters—and brothers, for trans men out there and trans masculine-identified folks—there’s that. And then there’s the folks, who are not trans, gawking and having the sort of spectacle around that, which is very different.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for the larger trans and cis community who is watching and listening right now, from March 2013, one other case, in an unexpected reversal, an insurance company decided to cover sex-change surgery for the transgender Emerson College student whose fraternity raised over $20,000 for his operation. Donnie Collins, who is 20, announced on YouTube on Wednesday that Boston-based Emerson student insurance carrier Aetna has accepted his claim for the female-to-male breast reconstruction surgery.

LAVERNE COX: Oh, that’s wonderful. I actually got to speak at Emerson last year. And Emerson, they’re doing great work around covering healthcare for their students, and that’s a great win. I think that’s really remarkable, and we need to see more of that. And we are seeing more health insurance companies cover trans-related care. We’re seeing more of that, but we need to continue to—that needs to be expanded.

AMY GOODMAN: So, before we wrap up, two things: What advice do you give—I mean, these figures you give around suicide are just horrifying—for young people? What advice do you give to them?

LAVERNE COX: I mean, well, the statistic, 41 percent of trans folks have attempted suicide. I’m one of those trans people. I think we need to begin to create loving spaces where we affirm people’s gender identity and expression, so that people can be—live in a space of gender self-determination without stigma and without shame, and know that people—for people to know that they’re loved no matter who they are and how they identify. I mean, my big thing when I met you, CeCe, is—and the thing I said to Jac Gares, our director of Free CeCe, is that CeCe knows that she’s loved. And I believe that the love that you have for all of your supporters and that they showed you saved your life, on the inside. And trans people need to know that they’re loved as who they are, as their authentic selves, not some thing that someone wants to impose on them, that we need to know that we’re loved.


CECE McDONALD: Yeah, and to add to that, I, too, was one of those people who tried to commit suicide numerous times. And I know what it’s like to feel empty and alone and like you’re not understood. And even during the time I was going through my trial and I was out on bail, it was something about the research I was doing about different self-defense cases and seeing how all the—all these cissexual, white, privileged people were getting free for literally killing people in the claim of self-defense, and here I was facing—

AMY GOODMAN: Look at Stand Your Ground.

CECE McDONALD: Yeah—two murder charges for one person and knowing that this could be the end of my life—I mean, mentally and spiritually and, you know, on the outside. And during that time, I broke down. I literally broke down. I was crying. And I called my sister, Rai’vyn, and she was like, “What’s wrong?” And I was like—I’m just going to come out and say—I was like, during all of that, it was a—I felt like, again, there was an attack on the African-American and/or trans community, and I felt like I was being targeted, and it really hurt me. But there were a lot of people that picked me up during that time. And again, like Laverne said, like, knowing that these people were there for me and knowing that I was loved kind of saved my life, because I’m here. And, you know, like, I’m as happy as I’m going to be, you know what I’m saying? And I’m working hard, but I know that there are people who came into my life, including Laverne and Jac, who are really supportive and just want to make sure that others are happy and know that there is this love out in the world for you. And I want to give that out to people, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask about the—this is a more technical point about the criteria and name changes in the DSM-IV to DSM-V, gender identity disorder in DSM-IV to gender dysphoria in DSM-V. And explain what that is, why this matters.

LAVERNE COX: A lot of activists felt calling of GID, gender identity disorder—calling trans people, saying—suggesting that we have a disorder is stigmatizing, and it is language that stigmatizes us. So the change was really about—

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the old way of dealing with gays in psychiatry.

LAVERNE COX: So, changing it to gender dysphoria really is about destigmatizing what it means to be trans, but also—but still acknowledging that some—that a diagnosis of gender dysphoria is that there is sort of a conflict between the gender you were assigned at birth and how you really identify. And so, that’s what that change is about.

AMY GOODMAN: CeCe, what you were just saying about what it means to be affirmed, and I asked what you’d say to young trans people. Now, what about to the cis community, to people—to allies on what to say and do that is helpful, and what to say and do that is—and what not to say and do?

CECE McDONALD: Well, firstly, I think the biggest thing is to leave body politics out of it. I hate when people feel like it’s OK to just ask me about my body and what parts are bought or natural, and it’s really irritating. It’s like this is me, and this is my personal, and I really would appreciate it if you kind of backed out of that. But you can get to know me as a person. I’m a college student. I love fashion. I love makeup. I like—I mean, stop looking at my physical, and know me intellectually, know me spiritually, know me mentally, and get to know me for who I am, instead of what you see and what you assume and what you inquire, because I’m going to shut you down really quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: Laverne Cox.

LAVERNE COX: I think—I think that the piece is about taking the lead from the community and taking a lead from the trans person that you’re speaking to and being able to have difficult conversations across difference with love and with empathy, around really having an understanding, and not—and Cornel West has been talking about this lately. Cornel West, in his lectures, he talks about—he tells all his students when they come to his class, they should be ready to die. And what he means by that is that they should be ready to come in and leave what they thought they knew about the world and to move into this new space of critical consciousness. So you don’t come to a person who is trans with all of your set of assumptions about who they are. We leave that behind. We let that die, so we can be reborn into a new space of critical consciousness and awareness. And that’s a really—that requires vulnerability, which our culture, Brené Brown suggests, has a lot of difficulty being vulnerable. But it’s a wonderful thing to allow ourselves, but it could also be painful and challenging to let go of what we think we know, to step into a new consciousness.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Laverne Cox, where is Orange is the New Black headed in the new season, if you can give us any—I know you’re not allowed, but, you know, whatever.

LAVERNE COX: It’s wonderful. It’s really wonderful, because Lorraine Toussaint, who plays Vee, she—I can say that she shakes things up majorly, and it’s quite wonderful. Sophia gets—as an actor, I got to do some things as Sophia that I had never gotten to do as an actor before that were quite fun and quite rewarding, and I can’t wait for folks to see that.

AMY GOODMAN: And where are you going in your acting career and your activism career?

LAVERNE COX: Well, we’re working on Free CeCe. We’re trying to raise money for it. We have an Indiegogo—

AMY GOODMAN: For the film.

LAVERNE COX:campaign for the film. And I’m auditioning. I have some—I have some projects that I can’t talk about yet that are coming up, that I’m really excited about, I’m really grateful for. I want to—my goal as an actor is always to hopefully work with amazing directors, with wonderful material, and to get better at what I do and show different aspects of who I am as an actor.

AMY GOODMAN: And CeCe, where you’re headed now? I mean, you’ve just come to New York. You got an OK from your probation officer, parole officer, to leave the state?

CECE McDONALD: Well, I’m in the works of finishing school and—well, getting back in school to finish school, and working on some personal projects and trying to figure out where I’m going to go from here.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you stay in Minneapolis?

CECE McDONALD: For now, yes, but who knows? I might relocate.

AMY GOODMAN: It must be amazing for a person who was formerly in prison to be able to say the sky is the limit.

CECE McDONALD: Yes, because a lot of people don’t get that opportunity, so I’m going to take this and use it to my advantage, and I’m going to use this platform that I have to bring awareness to violence against trans women and discrimination against trans women in the prison-industrial complex, and kind of build from there.

AMY GOODMAN: And Alisha Williams, what is the Sylvia Rivera Law Project most focusing on right now? And how can people get in touch with you?

ALISHA WILLIAMS: Oh, we’re working on repealing that Medicaid regulation here in New York state. You can go to to learn more about that campaign, sign the petition and get involved. Also, just riding off of things that CeCe and Laverne said earlier, it’s really important to allow trans people to tell their stories themselves. I am here as an attorney, but, like, I only come to these things so that I can share stories of our Prisoner Advisory Committee, which is a group of about 70 people here in New York state who are incarcerated, who identify as transgender or gender-nonconforming or allies. And they help inform all of our policy decisions, and they also share their stories via our Prisoner Advisory Committee blog on our website. And I really encourage people in the trans and queer communities, cisgender people, to go to our website and hear directly from the people who are incarcerated who do not have the same platform that CeCe has. Like, we try to give them resources and avenues to share their stories, because it’s only that way that we’ll actually be able to envision safer, more just communities that we want, from incorporating our voices.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. CeCe McDonald, welcome back to the free world, for some. Alisha Williams, thanks so much for being with us, for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. And thanks so much, Laverne Cox, and for being here on our 18th birthday.

We’d like to know what you think of Democracy Now! You can go to democracynow/because. Let us know what Democracy Now! means to you. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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StoryFeb 19, 2014“Black Trans Bodies Are Under Attack”: Freed Activist CeCe McDonald, Actress Laverne Cox Speak Out
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