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Activist at heart of ‘Free CeCe’ documentary challenges Dartmouth audience to interrogate privilege 

  • CeCe McDonald (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/12/2019 4:15:42 PM
Modified: 4/12/2019 10:15:32 PM

HANOVER — There’s a difference between being released and being free from prison, according to CeCe McDonald, a transgender-rights activist and prison abolitionist.

The prison-industrial complex, she said, is more than just the physical building, and just because she is no longer in prison, it doesn’t mean incarceration isn’t constantly on her mind.

Prison was the medical-industrial complex when McDonald, a transgender woman, was denied her hormones at a men’s prison. Prison was pop culture when others asked if her experience was just like the Netflix show Orange Is the New Black.

McDonald spoke to more than 50 people in Filene Auditorium in Moore Hall at Dartmouth College on Thursday evening in an event sponsored by the Dartmouth Society of Fellows, Leslie Center for the Humanities, Office of the Dean of the College and the Dartmouth Sociology Department.

McDonald first gained attention from the LGBTQ community in 2011 when she was charged with second-degree murder in the stabbing death of a man outside a Minneapolis bar. The man was part of a group who used slurs and attacked her with a glass bottle while she was walking by; McDonald said she was trying to escape and acted in self-defense. Under a plea deal, McDonald was sentenced in 2012 to 41 months in prison for second-degree manslaughter.

Many in the LGBTQ community saw McDonald’s experiences in the criminal justice system as unjust — the executive director of the Minnesota-based Trans Youth Support Network said at the time that McDonald was “on trial for surviving a hate crime” — and something that could happen to any transgender person. The “Free CeCe!” campaign was born, culminating in a 2016 documentary of the same name created by transgender actor Laverne Cox, who plays a trans inmate on Orange Is the New Black, and director Jac Gares.

“There are people in prison for terrible things, but we fail to acknowledge how society has produced those people,” McDonald, who was released from prison in 2014, told the crowd at Dartmouth. She cited instances of greater media exposure for missing white people compared to missing black people, and poor treatment of mentally ill people.

Nathalie Batraville, a postdoctoral fellow at Dartmouth, introduced McDonald by “mic check,” which involved a call and response with the audience. After each title for McDonald that Batraville read out loud — black woman, survivor, luminary, transgender icon and others — the audience repeated the title back.

McDonald opened the conversation with Batraville by admitting that aside from an episode of another Netflix show, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, she had never heard of Dartmouth.

During the talk, McDonald also encouraged individuals to “interrogate” their own privileges. After McDonald was released, she found that as a felon it was difficult to find employment and housing. However, even though McDonald is still on food stamps, she considers herself lucky.

“I hate the term ‘ally,’ I like the term ‘operating in solidarity,’ ” she said.

McDonald announced some future projects that include a curriculum called More Than Cisters: Building a Trans Queer Feminist Perspective. (“Cisters” is a play on the word “cisgender,” which describes someone who identifies with the gender assigned to them at birth.) The course is intended for educators and activists and seeks to explore intersectional transgender perspectives from Asian and Hispanic experiences to drag to HIV-positive individuals.

Citing the difficulties of finding clothing and large-size shoes that fit her body and feet, McDonald also announced a coming affordable clothing line for transgender women.

Shela Linton, a program coordinator for the Root Social Justice Center in Brattleboro, Vt., who attended the talk, said McDonald “brought it home from both her analogies and as well as her lens of systems.”

At the end of the talk, McDonald thanked those who were able to stay to the end but also asked them to acknowledge the privilege of being able to spend their time there. She also thanked those who might have felt uncomfortable during the talk.

“I realized when I am making people uncomfortable, I’m doing my damn job,” McDonald said.

Amanda Zhou can be reached at

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