Guided by Love: Learning about Surviving the Impossible from CeCe McDonald

Lately, I’ve been interested in how transgender people survive impossible situations. How have transgender people lived within systems designed to be deadly? How have transgender people persisted despite indifference and abandonment? What strategies, practices, adaptations, relationships, and feelings have sustained transgender people when catastrophe is not a future possibility, but a present reality?

These questions are critical at this moment in our struggle. As Trump and the Republican regime have found ways to erode the limited civil rights and legal protections afforded to transgender people, many trans people have felt insulted, belittled, disheartened, and terrified. However, our situation is less drastically changed than we tend to believe. The most vulnerable members of the transgender community are still in much the same position they were before Trump’s attacks. The wisdom of transgender people who are already surviving what Black theorists call “the end of the world” can help to reorient our movements.

This month, I’m learning from CeCe McDonald, a survivor, prison abolitionist, and visionary guided by love.

CeCe McDonald was studying fashion design at Minneapolis Community and Technical College in 2011 when she and her friends were attacked by a group of people shouting racist, transphobic, and homophobic slurs. CeCe defended herself, fatally stabbing one of the attackers. She was arrested and imprisoned in a men’s prison. Prevented by a judge from claiming a self-defense in court, CeCe spent 19 months in prison. The Transgender Youth Support Network in Minnesota created the Free CeCe campaign, through which activists from around the world demanded CeCe’s freedom and supported her as she survived incarceration.

The first thing that CeCe McDonald taught me is, simply, the importance of survival itself. In a letter from prison, she wrote, “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. Make your voices heard.”


The second lesson I’m learning is to ask, “Who is allowed to survive?” Laverne Cox points out that for surviving, CeCe McDonald was rewarded with a prison sentence. It’s not a coincidence that she was not allowed to claim self-defense. Black women survivors are overwhelmingly criminalized. The anthology “No Selves to Defend” by Mariame Kaba places CeCe’s in a larger history of Black women survivors punished for their survival.

The third thing I’m learning from CeCe is the political importance of love.

CeCe said, “Prisons don’t keep us safe. We keep each other safe.” This statement is, of course, an important critique of racism, transmisogynoir, and the prison system. It’s also an invitation to a transformative politic.

CeCe said that to survive an impossible experience, “I used my love to guide me.” She expanded on that idea in her letters from prison to her loved ones and supporters, which were brilliantly edited by Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley.

CeCe describes a how radical vision of love can be the basis for a varied, surprising, powerful movement that finds new forms of solidarity and connection. She wrote, “Society says that love is one way and very black and white, but we all know that love is a bustling highway and bursting with all vivid colors.”

For CeCe, this kind of love is something that oppressors don’t understand and cannot stop: “Those who oppose us couldn’t stop the love which has, and was defined, to bring us all together. To give us the strength and the mental durability to go the distance and fight this evil who tells us we are wrong,”

CeCe describes how her vision is practiced: “At TYSN we believe that we can bring the (trans)community together, that we can foster the creation of POWERFUL art, that we can change the world, that we can create empowerment, that we can work with existing systems and outside systems to create resources for self and community and importantly, that we can overcome adversity and build a whole, balanced, and successful life. And I know we want that for all our (trans)women around the world. We need for our mission to promote racial, social, and economic justice for trans youth, with freedom to self-define gender identity and expression. I love my people and I want us all to succeed. It won’t be long before I’m out and I want to be involved with all those who are willing to step up and get ready for a revolution, and it will not be televised!”

For CeCe, this love is collective, but arises from self-love: “I’m pretty sure most people heard the saying ‘you can’t love anyone, if you don’t love yourself,’ and that is true. But it goes beyond that. You can’t LIVE if you don’t love yourself. The fears and hate of a patriarchal society have told us that we don’t fit the mold. . . . And in most cases these psychological manipulations work, and those who ‘don’t fit the mold’ try to fit it, or break themselves trying to.”

Thank you, CeCe for surviving and for everything that you are teaching us.

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