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State of the Transgender Union: Time for collective action toward racial justice

Monday, January 27, 2014
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In this year’s State of the Union Address to Congress, President Obama is expected to acknowledge and focus on the inequality that is seemingly growing once again in the United States.

As the President has been thinking about inequality among the 300 million people who live in the U.S., I wonder if he has thought about transgender people and the inequality we face — the disrespect, the discrimination, the violence, and other inequalities that affect us on an everyday basis.

CeCe McDonald

CeCe McDonald

I really wonder if President Obama knows about and has thought about CeCe McDonald. If he did, he would know that CeCe McDonald’s case is a strong symbol of inequality in our country.

I am hopeful he knows that CeCe, a transgender student in Minneapolis imprisoned for defending herself during a hate crime, is among the faces of those who are falling through the cracks that good people everywhere are now starting to see and are worried about.

In 2011, CeCe was studying fashion at a Minneapolis technical college, often lugging her school tools with her around town. When she wasn’t in school, she was a caretaker for family members. In her spare time, she was a community educator with the local Trans Youth Support Network.

CeCe’s life was on the path Americans idealize: working, learning, and supporting her family and neighborhood. In an instant, that was ripped away when she and her friends became targets of a racist and transphobic attack.

In a moment of fear, bleeding from the assault, CeCe reached for her cutting shears to defend herself. For her act of survival, CeCe served time because her assailant died. Now, CeCe has a criminal record that may slam many doors for her, as it does for too many transgender people and people of color.

CeCe and her friends were attacked because they were young, transgender and gender non-conforming people of color. And while CeCe is moving past this horrible moment with grace, her spirit and body bear the marks of how violence, transphobia, and racism still divide America.

CeCe’s story should prompt our policymakers to address how prosecutorial bias funnels people of color and transgender people into the criminal justice system. They should affirm our constitutional obligations to ensure all prisoners have access to healthcare and are free from abuse.

And they should dismantle the roadblocks that keep formerly incarcerated people from finding a warm place to sleep and opportunities to succeed.

Even for the majority without criminal records, transgender people face widespread discrimination in jobs, schools, and housing, as well as in insurance coverage and access to identification. They face harassment and violence in every sphere of daily life, and are four times more likely to live in extreme poverty.

Transgender people of color continue to face the worst disparities. While many states and local communities are taking action to address all of these barriers to opportunity, and progress is being made every day, nationwide action remains elusive—despite last year’s overwhelming Senate vote for equal job protections for transgender people.

All of these advancements are helping—helping people like CeCe and every other transgender person. Yet, there is so much more to do to eliminate the inequality that transgender people — of all ages, of all races, of all immigration statuses, and of all abilities — face in society. 

As our nation turns its attention to historic levels of inequality, our challenge is to show that we are part of the same society that makes America great.

As we do so, however, it is imperative that the transgender and LGBT movements prioritize economic and racial inequality in the health, safety, and well-being of our communities.

While the Center’s commitment to racial and economic justice is longstanding, we are going to be formalizing this commitment in 2014 by launching a racial and economic justice initiative that aims to supercharge the movement’s work on issues disproportionately facing poor transgender people and transgender people of color.

We will also be issuing a new publication to encourage and assist local activists in working against mistreatment of transgender and LGBT people in prison/jail as well as for solutions to America’s addiction to incarceration as a response to every social ill.

All in all, the state of transgender people in our national union is getting stronger.

While we are piling on the successes, there is much to do before reaching “liberty and justice for all.” We need to see that the transgender movement is part of the larger American society, one which today faces many inequalities.

So, while President Obama is contemplating the state of the union and the state of inequality, we hope that he is listening and hearing that transgender people are part of our American union.

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