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Why Everyone Should Be Talking About CeCe McDonald

In June of 2012, a 23-year-old trans woman was sentenced to 41 months in a men's prison after stabbing the man who attacked her during a hate crime. Here's a step-by-step look at the case that both outraged and galvanized the transgender community.

CeCe McDonald, a transgender woman, was born in 1989 in Chicago's South Side. At the age of 14, she started openly expressing her identity as a woman.

People close to CeCe described her as an outgoing and welcoming person with "a history of handling prejudice with amazing grace." She would often go by the nickname "Honee Bae."

Growing up, CeCe's family did not readily accept her gender identity. In a blog entry, she recalls a particularly violent incident with her uncle:

And as I got fed up with the argument we were having, I got up to walk away from the situation. But in my attempt, my very own uncle wrapped his hands around my neck, and threw me to the floor with force, and continued choking me. I was so shocked, I didn't even know how to process what actually was going on, because I expected behavior like this from strangers, but to have it happening in front of my family by my family was a totally different experience in which I didn't know how to handle. I never felt so betrayed in my whole life. Later that very evening, after all was done and said, he tried apologizing and goes on to say that he did it out of anger and he was looking out for me because he didn't want me to die from AIDS, because gay people get AIDS. And of course everything he said went through one ear and out the other.

Outside of her home, she endured harassment at school and around her neighborhood. Dealing with constant and relentless harassment, McDonald writes that she grew up "suicidal, hopeless, scarred and scared."

When I walked out the store I was followed and then jumped by 5 guys, all who were in high school while I was only in the 7th grade. And it seemed that when I tried defending myself, the retaliated more. I can remember hearing them yell, "kill that faggot" as they stomp and punch me. I begged them to stop, but they continued. After they took my money, they ran off leaving me there. No one was there to help me, and I was scared to even move, even though I was only a couple feet from my house.

At the age of 23, CeCe started studying fashion at Minneapolis Community & Technical College. She lived in an apartment with friends Larry Thomas, Latavia Taylor, Roneal Harris, and Zavawn Smith – all whom are African-American and identify as LGBT.

Around 12:30 a.m. on June 5th, 2011, the five friends decided to walk to a nearby grocery store. When they passed by Schooners Bar, a group of individuals that had stepped outside allegedly started shouting racist and transphobic comments at the group.

According to CeCe McDonald's testimony, 47-year-old Dean Schmitz yelled, “Look at that boy dressed like a girl." Molly Flaherty, Dean's ex-girlfriend, yelled out something to the effect of, "I can take all three of you bitches on." Without provocation, Flaherty smashed a glass bottle against CeCe's face.

Allegedly, a fight broke out which ended with CeCe pulling a pair of fabric scissors from her purse and stabbing Schmitz in the chest. Witnesses told police Schmitz was trying to pull people off McDonald when he held his hand to his shirt and said, “You stabbed me.” According to another witness, McDonald then said, “Yes, I did.”

Schmitz, a father of three with an extensive criminal history, died at the scene from a stab wound to his chest. CeCe McDonald, the only individual arrested that night, would be treated over at the Hennepin County Medical Center later that morning for a laceration to her face.

McDonald was charged with two counts of second-degree murder. Friends, supporters, and the trans community rallied around McDonald. They believed she acted in self-defense in the face of a hate crime.

CeCe wrote letters from inside Hennepin County jail, which would later be published to her blog.

On the blog, CeCe described the events of that night in her own words:

After being called everything from faggots to niggers, tempers escalated and I was caught in between the madness. A woman from the other group decided to throw her alcoholic cocktail in my face, and to add insult to injury, she smashed her glass cup in my face which lacerated my cheek and was deep enough to cut a saliva gland which caused painful complications later on after getting 12 stitches. When the police arrived it wasn't hard to for them to assume who the aggressors were–surely, for them, it had to have been the group of black kids who started all this drama.

Prosecuting attorney Mike Freeman insisted that "gender, race, sexual orientation and class [were] not part of the decision-making process."

The events surrounding CeCe's case ignited a national discussion concerning transphobic and racist hate crimes in the United States.

CeCe wrote a letter on April 12, 2012, just a few weeks before her trial was set to begin. She asked that it be shared with the public:

Now with everything in my life that has happened to me up until what I am facing now I know that God and love has brought me through it all and will continue to after it is done. I just want my love to spread throughout to inspire, to celebrate, to endure. To be patient, kind, understanding, loyal, and selfless, because that's what love is. I know all our love can change the ways of the ignorant and the hearts that have been hardened. Not just for us now, but also for all the generations who will come after us. So that they can live and thrive and show each other love, vividly and honestly.

I love you all, and I give much thanks and appreciation.

The local Minneapolis community held rallies and dance parties outside the Hennepin County jail, all with the same theme: "Free Cece."

On May 2, 2012 CeCe accepted a plea bargain, pleading guilty to a reduced charge of 2nd degree manslaugter. She was officially sentenced on June 4th, 2012 to 41 months in prison.

McDonald would later write in her personal blog:

I would have rather been punished for asserting myself than become another victim of hatred. No, I'm not saying violence is key or all people should react the way I did, but our communities, whether here or abroad, have become the victim of malicious and hateful crimes. We need to start now.

CeCe's supporters were not only outraged over her sentencing, but also over her placement in a men's facility.

Following her conviction, she spent time in both Stillwater Minnesota Correctional Facility and St. Cloud Minnesota Correctional Facility.

A support committee helped ensure there was a constant flow visitors to the prison. They worked to keep the public updated on CeCe's situation, as well as the status of other trans prisoners, through various social media outlets.

McDonald had been taking hormone treatments prior to her arrest and requested to continue receiving her treatments in the men's prison.

The story of her incarceration quickly spread. Displays of support came not only from the U.S., but as far away as France and Brazil.

Transgender actress and activist Laverne Cox is now creating a documentary, titled Free CeCe, which will consist of an interview with McDonald in prison exploring the events that occurred that evening in 2011 – as well as her experience being incarcerated in a men's facility.

CeCe McDonald is set be to released early next week, over a year before her scheduled release date.

She is planning to write a public statement concerning her release, but has urged the public to let her spend her first days "in privacy with people she feels close to."