Years ago there was a lesbian feminist bookstore run by a collective of white women. I had frequented the bookstore many times to support local bookstores. It was one of the oldest in the country. I was about 19 years old when that store began selling sage, a plant that native people burn and use for traditional ceremonies. It is also something that has been co-opted by various other folks as part of their own spiritual practices. I believe this is a form of cultural appropriation and that selling sage is an extension of that appropriation; capitalism will make anything a commodity. I approached the staff at the bookstore several times and asked them to stop. I was met with various responses, from denial of appropriation to questions of why was I insulted (this was a way of showing honor, they said) to professions of love for native people. None of these response was appropriate or accountable to what I was saying, and no interaction ended with the removal of the sage. I began asking other white folks to remove it; I thought maybe the bookstore's owners just wouldn't listen to me (a native woman) because I was young. They refused even after being approached by white allies.
Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues had just come out or had been out for a few years, and the bookstore had organized a reading by Leslie. When I read Stone Butch Blues, my heart broke time and time again, and to this day that book feels revelatory and transformative. It gave me insight into a journey I had no idea about. I learned the amazing privilege of passing and what it meant for those of us who never could or would. I began to understand gender as something so much more complex and profound than the parts I was born with or what I did with them or with whom.
I approached Leslie Feinberg at that reading. I asked for Leslie's help with the bookstore staff, because while Leslie spoke about Stone Butch Blues, Leslie also talked about native people and being on native land. I was so struck by the mention of native people and the acknowledgement of our existence; I would have been struck by it in most places, but particularly within a queer context. It just did not happen that often. I felt like maybe Leslie would be willing to be helpful to me, and Leslie was. I only spoke briefly to Leslie and explained what I had been trying to do. Leslie agreed to talk to the bookstore folks. I never spoke to Leslie again, but the next week, that sage was gone. It wouldn't stay gone, but I can't explain the sense of relief and respect that I felt at not seeing it being sold there. Leslie was an amazing ally to me in that moment, and clearly I have never forgotten that.
Leslie has been back to the Twin Cities recently, this time to highlight the case of CeCe McDonald. CeCe is a young African-American transgender woman on trial for second-degree murder. CeCe and her friends were walking by the Schooner Tavern and were harassed and attacked. At the end of the incident a man named Dean Schmitz was dead. He is someone who appeared to have a violent past and a swastika tattooed on his chest. Some of these things will not be heard in the trial, but I think people should know.
It's clear to me that this is another case of person of color being prosecuted because a white person has died. The value of his life is in direct contrast to the value of CeCe's life right now. The Hennepin County Attorney has made the decision to drop charges in other self-defense cases, so why won't he doe the same with CeCe? He has maintained that race and gender presentation have no bearing on this case -- except that it is probably the exact reason Cece was targeted by Dean Schmitz. For Mike Freeman to insist on ignoring these factors is to insist on ignoring the reality of the lives of trans folks or anyone living outside the gender binary. Challenging gender as a queer person of color in our society is deadly, whether it's CeCe or Fred Martinez. Fred Martinez was a young transgender Dine teen who was murdered in Cortez, Colo. in 2001. When people who are living at the intersections of multiple oppressions dare to live free lives or be who they are without fear or hiding, it will cost you. For CeCe that could mean 41 months in prison.*
There is a photo showing Leslie's hand on the glass partition at CeCe's jail, with CeCe on the other side. This picture brought tears to my eyes. It felt historic. It felt important to see the author of Stone Butch Blues, a book that was groundbreaking in helping people understand the trans experience, standing in solidarity with a young African-American trans woman fighting for her life. It demonstrated everything I believe to be true about who Leslie Feinberg is and has been to me; it was an amazing show of solidarity across generations; it is a beautiful lesson for all of us.
Leslie stood up for native people so many years ago and showed me solidarity. I am writing today to ask you to show solidarity with CeCe McDonald and to pay attention to her trial. Contact Hennepin County Prosecutor Mike Freeman and ask him to drop the charges! As people who care about justice and are dedicated to those among us who are the most vulnerable, we must speak up for CeCe and all trans folk who experience violence and intimidation. CeCe could be any one of us, because the truth is that at some point, we are all on the wrong side of the law, and this is about who ends up consistently paying the costs. This case highlights again that for people of color, queer folks, and trans folks, the punishment is often our lives. Remember that the Stonewall Riots involved a lot of folks who looked more like Leslie and CeCe, and as Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Barbara Deming knew, we cannot live without our lives.
*CeCe initially faced 40 years in prison, but she pled guilty to second-degree manslaughter and will most likely serve a 41-month sentence. Given the circumstances, county prosecutor, and a jury not of her peers, the fact that she pled guilty to a lesser charge should not be taken as an admission of guilt. I believe her actions constituted self-defense, and that within a justice system that is biased against her, CeCe chose the better legal option. That does not mean CeCe got justice. For more information or ways to provide support, please go to supportcece.wordpress.com.
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