Abel Cedeño and Queer Youth of Color Are Still Caged for Self-Defense

In 2017, Abel Cedeño was an 18-year-old high school senior when the bullying he’d experienced for so many years came to a head. Defending himself from a homophobic attack, Cedeño injured one student and killed another. In September 2019, a New York judge sentenced him to 14 years in prison.

Cedeño is in a cell after daring to defend himself against vicious bullying — bullying he’d reported many times to school officials, and to the point he and his mother, Luz Hernandez, went to the New York City Department of Education to request a transfer to another school. The Department denied the request.

After years of physical, emotional and sexual torment, Cedeño has been met with more homophobia and abuse behind bars. “In jail, they say, ‘Stay away from the three Gs: gambling, gangs and gays.’” When another prisoner spit at him on one of his first days at the Coxsackie Correctional Facility in upstate New York, he understood the homophobia he suffered on the outside was only going to be exacerbated.

This past June, we witnessed the largest LGBT nonprofits, corporate media and politicians push the same line for Pride Month as last year, and the year before that: Life in the U.S. is progressively getting better for queer and transgender people. That may be true for a few gay and lesbian elites, but not for most queer people — people like Cedeño, who celebrated his 21st birthday on July 18 in a prison cell.

Stories like Cedeño’s don’t fit the “LGBT progress” narrative that was bolstered on June 15, when the Supreme Court ruled that LGBT people may be protected under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On paper, this will grant queer and trans people a better chance at suing employers who discriminate against them because of their identities.

As coronavirus rages inside prison walls, and global rebellions rage against state violence and the neglect of people like Cedeño who are at the intersections of oppression, the Supreme Court decision sucked up the meager airtime that mainstream corporate media outlets allot for LGBT news. The decision reinforces the notion that the U.S. government is slowly but surely working toward queer liberation, but whether it will help many queer and trans people depends on who you ask.

Queer organizer Dorothee Benz has worked at some of the nation’s largest LGBT legal rights groups, including the Center for Constitutional Rights (one of the groups that filed the legal case leading to the Supreme Court decision). Benz described who is likely to benefit: “The queer people that they’re most thinking of here are the same people that they thought of in the marriage equality struggle, and by default, that’s white folks. By default, that’s people with middle-class jobs, and things like that.”

The mostly white gay men and lesbians with platforms in corporate media don’t reflect conditions experienced by trans and queer people of color who may never have had stable housing or “above-ground” income. Speaking to Truthout by phone, Cedeño explained that at 18, he didn’t know other queer people who were out at school or in his neighborhood in the Bronx, and “[already having] enough problems at home,” such as being in and out of shelters, prevented him from coming out to his family. “I had to come out because of this experience… So I [came out to my family] in my free phone call when I was in the police station.”

Jackie Shane is the pseudonym of a member of the network of Black trans/queer radical activists who organize as the Lucy Parsons Project. Speaking to the need for queer and transgender communities to organize their own safety networks, she says that under increasing militarization and surveillance by police and other state institutions, “Our self-defense is all we have.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Gay Pride held in Cedeño’s hometown of New York City. The first Gay Pride in 1970 was an anti-police brutality “Liberation Day March” centered around a protest to free political prisoners at the city’s Women’s House of Detention, where Black Panthers Joan Bird and Afeni Shakur were imprisoned for yet another battle against the cops. Today, corporate Gay Pride events are public relations fests for companies and, yes, the police.

Widespread protests sparked by police murders of Black people are centering people at the intersections of class, gender and racial oppression. Last year, Layleen Polanco, a Black trans woman, was killed by extreme neglect by corrections officers (guards knew of Polanco’s disability, epilepsy, but shoved her into a solitary confinement cell regardless). Tony McDade, a Black trans man, was shot on May 27 outside his Florida apartment complex by a cop who is currently on paid leave, and whose identity is a secret. The state’s largest labor organization for police officers, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, is attempting to argue in court that police who murder civilians should be covered under a victims’ rights law (Marsy’s Law).

U.S. courts routinely imprison queer people of color who defend themselves against anti-queer, anti-trans attackers. Two of the most well-known cases, the cases of CeCe McDonald and the New Jersey 4, mobilized activists and helped us rethink the U.S. legal system as a site of liberation, but legislators, corporate media, politicians and many LGBT nonprofits are not hearing us.

Instead, they praise what has become a Pride Month tradition: the federal government makes a legal concession that promotes the justice system as progressively fairer toward some of society’s most marginalized people. For example, the federal government picked June to thumbs-up gay marriage (2015); to give trans people the chance to openly serve U.S. militarism (2016); and memorialize the country’s first LGBT National Monument (also 2016).

At a time when unemployment rate is at its highest since the Great Depression, poor and unemployed queer and trans people can watch on as the community is thrown a bone in the form of anti-discrimination labor laws. When trans and queer folks who are employed are able to find a lawyer to take their case, few actually win, especially against corporate employers who already have laws of their own that make suing corporations hellishly hard.

Shane puts no faith in the law as a liberator for Black trans women. Instead, she told Truthout, “the law has only ever been a tool for the criminalization” of Black and Brown queer people. With Cedeño’s case, “we see how impossible it is for people like us to be regarded as targets of harm,” to the point that lawyers’ organizations continues to flag the ‘LGBTQ+ panic defense’ — a legal tactic used by lawyers with cisgender clients who have been charged with violence against queer and trans people. Using this strategy, the defense argues that their cis clients were taken off-guard by a victim’s gender identity, so they attacked. And so it follows, Shane noted, that when trans people defend themselves, “it is we, and not the [transphobic and] homophobic people attacking us, who are unprotected by the state.”

The prison industry’s reforms via “trans-friendliness” trainings and empty policies like 2003’s Prison Rape Elimination Act may lead to more retaliation from prison guards, rather than less sexual violence. Queer and trans people are money magnets for the people who run prisons, psychiatric help who staff the wards, politicians whose campaigns receive funding from them, and the many, many others who benefit from the industry’s growth.

An assistant professor at the University of California-Riverside’s Ethnic Studies Department, Alisa Bierria writes about the intersections of anti-Blackness, gender and prisons. Bierria is also a longtime organizer with Survived and Punished, a group that works to free people who defend themselves against abuse. As she told Truthout, “Incarceration is yet another act of violence” that serves to reinforce a series of already “tragic events” in the life of many young queer people of color like Cedeño.

“Incarcerating Abel Cedeño for self-defense against anti-trans/queer torment is particularly insidious,” Birria said. “Valuing the lives of young people — especially young trans/queer people of color and young Black people — demands our divestment from systems of punishment … that deplete our resources” and “diminish our capacity to meaningfully address and prevent violence.”

Cedeño has plenty of ideas for better uses of resources vacuumed up by policing and prisons. He would love to see “a therapy program, community service, and some sort of leadership program where they teach you … how to apply to jobs and give you all the necessary skills to succeed.”

It wasn’t until Cedeño was temporarily released on bail that he learned about the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in Midtown Manhattan. Cedeño talked about his time there excitedly — how lucky he was to have had access to mental health and medical help and to meet LGBTQ teens. After Cedeño’s imprisonment, his high school in the Bronx closed for the academic semester — long enough to spend time and resources on contracting out the work of installing expensive metal detectors around school, but not counseling or programs to assist queer and trans teens with transitioning or tactics for coping with queerphobia.

Caging youths might fulfill someone’s revenge impulses, but it won’t heal or end harm that is ultimately a society-wide problem. Instead, police and prison abolitionists, like those behind 8 to Abolition, recognize that investing in health care (such as centers like Callen-Lorde) is a proactive way to deal with social problems like bullying. Trauma-informed practices (an approach in which recognizing trauma shapes care) would ensure that educators and administrations listen to students like Cedeño when they tell them what they need. Defunding violent state institutions like the police is one step toward a more supportive environment for youth like Cedeño, and could free up money and resources that instead could go to community health care, housing and education, with the goal of establishing restorative justice practices to curb violence.

A growing movement of abolitionists understand government institutions, and their partners in the corporate and nonprofit worlds, are better at producing violence than solving it — and they’re working on alternatives to the state’s “justice” system, one with accountability and healing at its center.