Persephone Pioneers

Laverne Cox and Jac Gares on Their New Documentary, FREE CeCe!

Laverne Cox and Jacqueline Gares talk CeCe, transmisogyny, and the justice system.

Laverne headshot in red cropped
Laverne Cox, photographed by Hap Zeng

On June 5th, 2011, CeCe McDonald and some of her friends were heading to a grocery when a group of people came out of a bar and started hurling racist and transphobic remarks, and eventually drinks and broken glass. By the end of the night one attacker, Dean Schmitz, was dead and a bleeding CeCe was under arrest. CeCe, being a trans woman of color, was assumed by the police to be the aggressor despite the testimony of her friends.

With local and international support, CeCe pleaded guilty to an accidental stabbing death charge. Schmitz, according to CeCe, rushed her to continue escalating the violence while she held her fabric scissors in a defensive position. County prosecutors, however, refused to accept it as self defense. CeCe is now serving a 41-month sentence in a men’s prison in St. Cloud, MN.

CeCe herself continues to speak out against racism, sexism, and transmisogyny via her blog as a survivor of racial and gendered violence. Now Laverne Cox, known for her role as Sophia in Orange is the New Black, and her co-producer Jacqueline “Jac” Gares want to bring CeCe’s story to a larger audience. Their documentary project, FREE CeCe!, is currently in production.

Can you tell us a bit about the FREE CeCe documentary and what it is about?

Jac Gares: FREE CeCe is currently in production. I was fortunate enough to get access to CeCe McDonald for an in-prison interview at the St. Cloud Correctional Facility with Laverne Cox. Laverne and I wanted to hear directly from CeCe about the events of June 5th, 2011 when CeCe and her friends were violently attacked and fought back, resulting in the stabbing death of Dean Schmitz.

CeCe’s story is a survivor story, but also it is a story about justice. We hope to engage CeCe’s story of survival with other stories of trans women who did not survive transphobic attacks, and confront the history and culture of violence surrounding trans women of color.

Laverne Cox interviews CeCe McDonald in prison
Laverne Cox interviews CeCe McDonald in prison. Photo by Joe Pollock.

What made each of you decide that CeCe’s story was the one that you wanted to share with a larger audience?

Gares: In 2011, I had been developing a pitch for a segment that was to be featured on IN THE LIFE, a show that aired monthly on public television stations, as an independent LGBT public affairs show. IN THE LIFE was a gay Frontline, at least that was how I saw it as the show’s supervising producer. I had contracted Laverne Cox to be a lead producer on this story and we met often as CeCe McDonald’s case was developing through the justice system in Minneapolis. When IN THE LIFE shut down production in December 2012, I had to tell Laverne the project was not going to happen and it really was difficult. Laverne was positive and said that she thought we would be able to find a way to still tell this story. I can remember being surprised that she said this at the time. As someone who had made one independent documentary, I knew how much work goes into great storytelling, and facing the shutdown of the show at that time, I could not see past my situation. The project did stay with me for months. Seeing Laverne Cox speak about CeCe McDonald’s case at the GLAAD Media Awards earlier this year prompted me to just call her and ask her if she would be ready to do this project with me as an independent producer. We met and I picked up where Laverne had left off, getting the approval for the prison interview, hiring a crew, but also fundraising to try to make a trailer to show people and foundations the story we wanted to tell.

Laverne Cox: CeCe’s story is one that should have been covered more in the press. Trans women, particularly trans women of color, experience disproportionate amounts of violence and not enough is being done to eradicate that violence. CeCe’s story in so many ways encapsulates the intersectional issues that lead to far too many of us experiencing violence. I wanted to do a piece that explores the nature of how race, class and gender affect violence towards trans women and also give CeCe a space to tell her story in her words in the context of a piece that truly values the lives of trans women of color.

empty corridor with cells
Empty prison corridor with cells. Photo by Joe Pollock.

What are you hoping to help people see and understand with FREE CeCe?

Gares: It is my hope as a producer that people see the humanity in CeCe’s story. I want the audience to weigh the complexities of her case and develop a greater understanding of how society marginalizes and dehumanizes trans women of color. My experience producing IN THE LIFE taught me that when you have someone with celebrity status engaging statistics such as those from The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs ( NCAVP ). Of the 25 anti-LGBTQ murders in 2012, 53.8% of homicide victims in 2012 were transgender women and 73.1% were people of color. Laverne Cox is amazing not only because she is a great actress on a hit show that forces audiences to engage with trans issues and incarceration, but also because she is such a strong advocate and can intellectually grapple with these statistics.

Could you explain a little bit about the ways that being a WoC impacts experiences of transmisogyny?

Cox: I feel that at the heart of the intersections of transphobia and misogyny, transmisogny, is the policing of womanhood. That policing is about the idea that there are just one or two ways to be a woman. Various forms of violence are a key component in that policing. All too often, historically women of color particularly black women have been subject to being told we aren’t really women, this is both for trans and nontrans black women. So our womanhood as well as our humanity are often not valued, our voices silenced. Violence is a part of that silencing, not hiring trans women for jobs is part of that violence, forcing far too many of us into street economies which make us more likely to be victims of violence. Because our lives are not valued, all too often our perpetrators get away with crimes against us. Black bodies are often assumed to be criminal. These systems are in place to see to it that trans folks of color don’t exist by de-legitimizing our existences, economic injustice and through violence. The prison system is part of that violence.

Was there anything that stood out in particular about CeCe’s experiences in prison that you want to share?

Gares: CeCe spoke of the lack of privacy she experiences everyday, the DL culture on the inside, but I can share my own experience of interviewing CeCe in prison. Despite our initial nervousness, we were actually able to create a safe environment in the prison visitation room within the St. Cloud Correctional Facility. The interview was incredible to witness between Laverne and CeCe. When it was over, I was jolted into the reality of prison that CeCe deals with everyday. When we had completed the interview, the guard told me, speaking of CeCe, “He would need to be strip searched” upon exiting the room. CeCe just smiled and laughed it off, “They can’t get enough of me here.” I was humbled by the positive attitude of CeCe, and her ability to cope inside the prison walls.

Laverne, how has your experience interviewing CeCe impacted your thoughts about your character Sophia on Orange is the New Black? Will it be informing the way you approach the role in the future?

Cox: I was struck by CeCe’s sense of hope and faith, her amazing resilience in the face of an injustice that [took] her freedom, because she survived the violence far too many women like her don’t survive, her humanity is deeply intact in the face of a system which wants to deny that humanity. I think that is at the heart of Orange is the New Black, a group of women who maintain their humanity within a context which would constantly like to strip them of that humanity.

How can people help support the FREE CeCe documentary project?

Gares: Make a donation to the documentary project FREE CeCe! Also, please consider supporting CeCe McDonald herself.

Thank you to both Laverne Cox and Jac Gares for taking the time to answer our questions. We are honored to share both your project and, through it, CeCe’s story with our readers.

Jac and Laverne
Jac and Laverne, photographed by Laverne Cox

By Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone

Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone.

Advocate, Writer, Geek.
Multiply Disabled, Queer, and proudly Autistic.
Primary Obsession: Institutions, History of Care of people with MH/DDs
Also obsessed with: Social Justice, Cats, Victorian Romanticism, and Doctor Who.

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