Transgender in a binary system

The story of transgender woman CeCe McDonald must help our community move forward.

After 19 months in a St. Cloud, Minn., men’s prison, transgender woman CeCe McDonald was released last week. McDonald’s story, one that is all too common for transgender Americans, made national headlines.

In 2011, a bar patron yelled racial, homophobic and transphobic slurs at McDonald and hit her in the face with a beer glass. When Dean Schmitz pulled McDonald away from the ensuing brawl, McDonald stabbed him. Schmitz later died in an ambulance. McDonald pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges.

McDonald was not unlike many University of Minnesota students: She was a 23-year-old with no history of violent crime who studied fashion at Minnesota Community and Technical College.

Despite her transgender identity, the state’s gender assessment determined that McDonald would be housed in a men’s prison facility. This is a common experience for imprisoned transgender women. The Minnesota Department of Corrections currently houses 10 transgender inmates, all transgender women, in men’s facilities.

Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning, brought the issue of imprisoned transgender people into the national spotlight after she was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking classified military documents.

Housing transgender women is a complicated issue for both the prison system and inmates themselves. Prison staff allowed McDonald to shower alone and stay in a single cell, which is not the case for many transgender women. Many transgender inmates have trouble securing appropriate health care and clothing. Our prison system must work to find a safe place for its transgender inmates and understand their needs.

It’s comforting to see the attention McDonald’s story is receiving. Transgender actress Laverne Cox is working on a documentary, “Free CeCe,” in order to raise awareness of transgender issues and McDonald’s experience in a men’s prison. We hope more awareness and education will help keep our community from repeating its mistakes.