With increasing political and social justice movements emerging and the trans community receiving more and more pop culture exposure, you might begin to think that going against the grain of society’s gender compliances is not only accepted nowadays, but also praised and somewhat glamorized. Unfortunately, for many LGBTQ members this is merely another glorified media representation that has little to do with the reality of what trans people encounter and deal with on a daily basis. Jacqueline Gares’ Free CeCe is an important reminder that, while public exposure is necessary, our main focus should always be on resolving the most urgent and life-threatening acts of violence committed against LGBTQ individuals.
Crishaun “CeCe” McDonald, a trans woman of color, was out shopping with her four African-American friends on a Saturday night in June 2011. Passing by a dive bar, the group was followed by what seemed to be a biker gang throwing homophobic and anti-trans slurs – this was nothing new for CeCe and her friends, as they were used to being insulted and badgered for simply walking down the street. Despite ignoring their demeaning remarks, the gang relentlessly followed and harassed them. What ensued was a street fight which resulted in the death of one of the gang’s members, Dean Schmitz, a 47-year old bigoted neo-Nazi with a Swastika tattoo on his chest.
Although CeCe’s response was clearly in self-defense of a hate crime, the media and law enforcement portrayed and treated her as a bloodthirsty monster who went on a killing craze. Charged with second-degree murder and facing up to 40 years in prison, CeCe decided to take a stand against the corrupt justice system for herself and her gender-nonconforming friends. With the help of other trans women of color, as well as hundreds of passionate LGBTQ individuals and allies, CeCe orchestrated an entire campaign while she was incarcerated and was finally released from prison in January 2014 after serving 19 months in an adult male facility from Minnesota. Free CeCe is a must-see from this year’s BFI Flare Festival and for anyone interested in halting systemic injustice and becoming educated on the real struggles trans people distressingly still face in today’s society.
This documentary deserves our full attention – whether we are uninformed about the statistics of LGBTQ hate crimes and violence or we are already aware but in need of a reminder for the urgency and paramount importance of creating palpable change within our communities. The film’s earnest interviews, particularly those with CeCe herself, are all difficult, but eye-opening conversations that need to be had. Orange Is The New Black star, Laverne Cox, brings a stunning and heartening presence to the film and her dedication and empathy carries over into all of her interviews.
CeCe’s story had to be told and talked about. And the raw account of her struggles manages to drives home a powerful message, the same message she tried to express to her attacker – we are all people, and we deserve respect. The film gracefully conveys this idea that beyond being gay, lesbian, black, trans, woman or anything else – we are first of all human and should be treated as such.
The most touching part of Free CeCe is when we are invited briefly into Crishaun’s personal life and we see the interactions with her family. As Cox states in the documentary – “often, when trans women are attacked in these situations they don’t survive; but CeCe did survive and her gift for survival is a prison sentence, when she was just defending herself”. After listening to her confessions and fervent speeches, it becomes apparent that CeCe’s experience was not merely a transitioning of her body, but also a transitioning of her life and the people in it. Ultimately, what we take from this film is that the process of moving towards a better, more humane and safe world has just begun and, while it may still be far from being complete, it is well within our grasp and possibilities.