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Transgender activists visit Mills

gender justice - priscilla son
Transgender activists Miss Major and CeCe McDonald recently sat on a panel with Mills students Sonj Basha and Joyelle Baker (Priscilla Son).

Mills College held a panel in Lisser Hall featuring community activists Cece McDonald and Miss Major, to discuss their experiences as Black, transgender women on Sept. 22.

Also on stage were Sonj Basha, a junior at Mills and co-founder of BRAVESPACE, an organization for marginalized identities such as queer, trans or gender-neutral, and Joyelle Baker, a Mills junior and president of the Black Women’s Collective. Julia Oparah, Chair of the ethnic studies department, mediated the conversation.  Students and visitors filled the venue, ready to hear the panel talk about their thoughts on injustice and violence.

McDonald said she has been victim to racist and transphobic attacks, one of which resulted in her stabbing and killing the apparent aggressor. She claims an older white couple approached her outside of a bar where she was verbally harassed, dragged on the ground and slashed in the face before ultimately stabbing the man with scissors. Her case was taken to court, and the judge ruled a 41-month sentence for second-degree murder. McDonald, with the help of a large support group, fought in the name of self-defense, and her sentence was reduced to 19-months for “good behavior.”

McDonald’s case attracted nationwide coverage in mainstream media. A “hashtag” movement spread during her incarceration dubbed “FreeCece,” which is also the title of an upcoming documentary starring McDonald and openly transgender actress Laverne Cox, of Orange is the New Black.

“We’re educating and standing up for ourselves,” McDonald said.

The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) reported that transgender people of color experience more severe and deadly forms of violence along with gender non-conforming LGBTQ and HIV-affected people. In 2012, 73 percent of all homicides against LGBTQ members were people of color and 53 percent were against transgender women.

The speakers discussed how they think different gender identities can be normalized in society, reducing violence and recognizing all marginalized identities.

“My incident was bigger than myself,” McDonald said. ” I’m working for freedom for everyone.”

Miss Major suggested that the violence is caused by the way some inherently think about transgender people or anyone who identifies with a gender different from the sex that they were assigned at birth.

“Everybody goes through a form of transition; everybody has to figure out who they are,” Miss Major said. “They cannot make me think of me the way they think of me.”

This sentiment was shared by McDonald, who said that the support given to her while in prison helped her stay strong with her dedication to her identity.

“My idea of a woman is who I am,” McDonald said. “[Not a] patriarchal idea of what a woman should be like.”

The panel also discussed the definition and role of allies. Basha, who identifies as gender-neutral, believes that an ally is someone who actively helps rather than simply labels themselves as one.

“You can’t be an ally and be silent,” Basha said. “Don’t be a ‘Facebook activist’ or a ‘hashtag activist’. Be about it, don’t speak about it. Show up, don’t post up.”

McDonald defined allies as those who align with each other to work toward a similar cause.

“We are so caught up thinking about the things that separate us that we can’t focus on the real issues,” McDonald said. ” We are humans before we are anything.”

Baker believes that alliance is part of the solution to creating any change in the future. Although the panelists expressed some skepticism in the authenticity of “allies,” they agreed that an impact is only possible with support and strength in numbers.

“We need to really examine what it means to be in solidarity,” Baker said. ” If we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with on this campus we need to meet the needs of all Black women, transwomen, too, and be able to bring our true selves to that space…Often, we forget each other’s humanity, and in a sense, lose our own.”

The event was hosted by the Mills College ethnic studies department, women’s, gender & sexuality studies department, Black Women’s Collective, In Living Queer, Mouthing Off and LGBTQ Alumnae.