By CeCe McDonald
Growing up in my family’s small Chicago church was complicated.
I have fond flashbacks of being surrounded by dozens of cousins during Saturday bible boot camp.
My grandma would take me to church while my mom was at work, and I can still vividly recall watching her get ready for service each Sunday. It was fascinating and powerful to see her transform and go out into the world so feminine and self-determined. I would watch her put on her earrings as her White Diamonds fragrance filled the house. These were sacred rituals. It made her happy, and that made me happy. She found the joy in her day on a Sunday morning, and I felt really good about her being my grandma.
Crucial in my journey was this learning: Our communities’ internalized teachings and fear mongering tactics are inflicted upon black bodies to keep us oppressed. We too often uphold traditionalism and bible binaries without interrogating our own internalized hatred (racism, homophobia, transphobia, patriarchy, sexism). If we are unwilling to fully see ourselves, the world, and the change that is necessary for all of us to live in one accord, we will not deconstruct and decolonize our minds around religion.
I watched other family members, dressed up in their suits and hats, exhibit a similar sense of pride. There was one aunt in particular that I loved so much. She was one of my “cool” aunts and I felt so comfortable around her. My aunt never made me feel like an outcast and was the only reason I didn’t throw a fit about going to service.
Laying on of hands to “save” me from my “ways”
You see, it was this same church where I received a laying on of hands. My family would anoint me with oils and pray for me to be “saved” from my “ways.” The memories of trauma I faced still linger with me today as a black trans woman.
I knew who I was at a young age. My uncles who were preachers would tell me that I was possessed by demons because of my femininity.
It was hard to not feel like something was wrong with me. I can remember being in the bathroom praying to God to “make me straight” or to “turn me into a real girl.” I would wake up crushed because I was the same me. Around the age of seven or eight, I was in so much spiritual calamity that I attempted suicide.
Losing my faith and belief in a higher power.
It was so traumatizing to have to deal with my own identity crisis and to deal with the scrutiny of being who I wanted to be in church. As I began to resent myself and the church, I lost my faith and belief in a higher power. I felt like there was no space for me anywhere. When I finally stepped away from the church, I realized that I needed to do a lot of soul searching.
I began to “act out” and turned into someone who always let people know that I could defend myself. I was angry a lot of the time and didn’t hesitate to assert myself to anyone that disrespected me.
When I moved from Chicago to Minnesota to study fashion at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, I thought I could get a fresh start and undergo my transition in peace. I looked forward to not having to prove myself to people all the time. I didn’t want to be that person anymore, and I looked forward to letting go of the burdens I was carrying.
My biggest test
My faith faced the biggest test in 2010 when I had to fight for my life in a transphobic attack that ended in my attacker losing his.
Taking someone’s life, even to save my own, changed my entire point of view dramatically. I accepted a plea bargain and while serving 19 months, I spent a lot of time in prison praying and asking for forgiveness for myself—and for my attacker. I also prayed that he would forgive me, wherever he was in the universe, and that he would know that I still love him.
I left prison more grounded in my spirituality than I had ever been. Community members mailed me materials on everything from meditation to numerology. I learned things from so many systems of beliefs—things about compassion, love, and understanding. I left knowing more about myself. The attack is something I am still coping with and healing from.
I once wondered how I was going to recuperate and how I would mold myself from that experience. The only way I could have dealt with it was through my spirituality.
I’m figuring out who I am and what spirituality looks like for me, even to this day. I realized that my faith had to be custom-designed to who I am. I now understand that if the higher powers didn’t want me here, I wouldn’t exist.
I have come to use the meaning of karma as a foundation for my beliefs. What I put out in the universe, I expect to come back to me. My faith is based in timeless tenets like love, forgiveness, understanding, and compassion.
How I am going to the next family reunion
I recently received a message from one of my cousins about a family reunion happening next month. I can’t wait to pop out. Despite my childhood trauma and my estranged relationship with most of my relatives, I love all of my family.
I am going, more spiritually grounded, to see the people who love and support me.
I am going to see people like my grandmother who I haven’t seen in over four years and who sent me letters of support while I was in prison.
I am going to be unapologetically trans and unapologetically myself.
I can’t live for anyone but myself. I want to show them just how unbothered I am. It took work—and something bigger than myself—to get here.
This piece originally appeared on ManyVoices.org, a Black church movement for gay and transgender justice. Cross-posted with permission.
CeCe McDonald was incarcerated for defending herself against a racist, transphobic assault in June 2011. After being released, CeCe quickly became a leading and outspoken fighter in the movements for LGBTQ liberation, prison abolition, and racial justice. She is currently working with actress Laverne Cox on a forthcoming documentary on her case, Free CeCe.