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CeCe McDonald: A Force to Reckon With

CeCe Small

Photo by Jason Bennett

AHP hosted a talk with activist and speaker CeCe McDonald who was joined by Ina Fried, Senior Editor of Re/Code. The atmosphere was festive and vibrant, as guests poured into Twitter’s Aviary and enjoyed the mid-Market view and a bountiful spread of food and drinks provided by Twitter catering.

The conversation on race and gender began long before we heard from CeCe or Ina as Twitter Open President, Jim Halloran, began the evening by acknowledging his white cis-gender, male privilege and his responsibility to understand his own privilege. Halloran, who is also an AHP Community Advisory Board Member, said he strives to utilize his role with Twitter Open to be an ally to communities of color, women and trans folks, and make events like this happen. Adejire Bademosi of Twitter’s African American employee group, Twitter Blackbirds, spoke about the tech company’s commitment to social justice. Bademosi also introduced a clip highlighting events on Twitter in 2015 with heavy emphasis on Caitlin Jenner, who for all she has done to bring the conversation about transgender issues to the mainstream, is no friend of the trans community based on the quiet disapproval of the group.

We also heard from DK Haas, AHP’s LGBTQ Community Liaison, who talked about the work AHP is doing and has always done to help people with mental health, HIV, and substance use concerns, to help clients become their true, fully-realized selves. Haas discussed how the AHP Gender Team coalesced around the loosening of restrictions for trans-related surgeries covered by Medi-Cal and Healthy San Francisco and how, with restrictions like “must have gender dysphoria, and mental health or substance use preexisting conditions must be well managed,” the team continues to help clients navigate the gender surgery barriers.

Finally CeCe and Ina were introduced by trans advocate Danielle Castro, a Project Director at UCSF’s Center of Excellence for Transgender Health, who began her remarks by pointing out Twitter’s role in the massive displacement of trans people and communities of color from San Francisco and then introduced the main speakers.

CeCe McDonald became known to the community when she was jailed for defending herself against a racist and trans-phobic attack. Her attacker died in the confrontation, and McDonald took a plea bargain for 41 months in prison. When activist Laverne Cox learned that 24-year-old McDonald was in prison for defending herself, she drew national attention to CeCe’s case, and eventually McDonald was released after spending 19 months in prison.

When not on stage talking about race, gender, trans issues, and the prison industrial complex, McDonald is a typical woman leading her life, like so many others­—doing the best she can with what she has. When asked how trans visibility has changed her life, McDonald said she starts her day by thanking the Goddess she is awake, and then wonders what she has on her list of things to do, in an effort to deemphasize her identity for a moment. Then she added, that, “I deal with trans phobia every day, I deal with racism and poverty every day. When we talk about trans visibility we need to talk about ‘visibility without appropriating.’”

McDonald fervently reminded the audience that not all trans people are glamorous and not every trans person transitions the same and that there are a lot of different ways to be trans. While the trans community is lucky to have Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, “and unfortunately Caitlin Jenner,” McDonald is concerned that celebrities don’t paint realistic pictures of what it means to be trans or gender non conforming.

McDonald advocates for more nuanced discussions on what trans visibility actually is; after all she lamented, “I am visible, but still there is a lot of inappropriate questions that aren’t important to me as a woman. I want people to ask me things like whether I live in a safe place, have money for rent, and enough to eat.”

The day the incident that changed her life forever happened, McDonald recounted, she was minding her own business, walking to the grocery store, and was not expecting to get attacked by “Neo-Nazis.” Adding that she believes her attack was more about racism but “it’s complicated,” she pondered, “I am often separated from my blackness.” Growing up in the South Side of Chicago, McDonald didn’t see race and didn’t see her self as different because all the people around her were black.

Like trans phobia, McDonald said she occasionally falls into a state of hopefulness or denial and thinks racism no longer exists, but finds herself painfully yanked back to reality when something is said or done that affirms racism is alive and well.

McDonald, with questions from Fried, crammed a lot of concepts into her 60 minutes on stage. One that stood out for this mental health clinic staffer, was her outrage directed at the “medical-industrial complex” and mental health inequities. In her uniquely lyrical style McDonald describes how people who need mental health care are heavily demonized and criminalized and once they do something a little “cray-cray” they are incarcerated and then offered mental health treatment. “Why wait until people are in prison to care for them? Think of all the money we could save by treating folks before they have a breakdown.”

Ina Fried asked CeCe what it would take to get trans people jobs—specifically in tech–acknowledging that the barriers for so many people in the trans community to get a job in tech are insurmountable. “Chances are they don’t have an education, may have lost their housing, may have a criminal record, getting a job may be number six on their list.” CeCe didn’t directly answer the question but talked about knowing she had been discriminated against for being trans.

Despite the number of challenges raised by CeCe and Ina, many people left the event feeling provoked and hopeful. Hopeful that people are having these difficult conversations with audiences to hear and learn how to become better allies, and hopeful that trans visibility will improve acceptance and treatment of trans people. And provoked to do more, especially those working in tech . . . but everyone; for everyone to turn up for the hard conversations, to defeat trans phobia, and to rally with trans allies, as they have rallied for LGBTQ rights.

At AHP we welcome trans and gender non-conforming clients for individual counseling and support groups to explore gender identity concerns and/or evaluation for gender surgery, HIV testing, psychiatry and crisis counseling. Call our client services center at 415 476-3902