For many of us who have been following the story of Chrissy Lee Polis, the 22-year-old transgender woman who was brutally attacked in a suburban McDonald’s near Baltimore ten days ago, it’s been a difficult week. Watching the story go viral provided a sobering look at the amount of phobia and ignorance that still surrounds many people’s concepts of both gender and race.
The attack occurred on April 18th, when Polis stopped at the restaurant to use the ladies’ room. Polis told the Baltimore Sun that she heard her assailants saying “that’s a dude, that’s a dude – and he’s in the female bathroom.” Immediately afterwards, she was beaten, dragged across the floor by her hair, and kicked by two teenagers as a McDonald’s employee recorded the attack on his camera phone and other workers stood by idly. The cell phone recording of the attack (TRIGGER WARNING: extremely violent) shows several employees gawking and laughing as the attack progresses. A sole employee makes an attempt to break up the fight, but retreats almost immediately. A grandmotherly woman attempts to come to Polis’ aid; a police report revealed that she was punched in the face by one of the assailants when she tried to intervene. After two minutes, Polis collapses into a seizure on the floor. The McDonald’s worker who is taping the scene warns the attackers that they need to flee because the police are coming.
A crowd rallies outside the McDonald’s where the crime took place
Coverage of the story on the web has been as painful to watch as the footage itself. It was awful to witness the first wave of discussion, which appeared almost exclusively on white supremacist blogs, with transphobia piling on top of racism as details about Polis’ identity emerged. It was painful to watch mainstream, high-traffic blogs use the word “tranny” in their coverage (the best example of this being, if memory serves correctly, Time-Warner-owned blog Smoking Gun, though their posts appear to have now been scrubbed of the slur). And it was painful to watch Polis’ own twin brother continually refer to her as “my brother” and pointedly use male gender pronouns at her support rally (here, at 1:15). All around, a damning look at the country’s state of gender awareness, or lack thereof.
Polis has been released from the hospital, and spoke to the Baltimore Sun about her experience living as a transwoman in her neighborhood. The McDonald’s employee who filmed the attack has been fired. Both attackers have been apprehended and charged with assault. Hate crime charges may or may not be applied to the case; we’ll likely know in about a week.
In the face of the ugly, seething hatred that surrounds this story, the most encouraging element has been the turnout of support. Over 135,000 people have signed a petition demanding that the McDonald’s Corporation holds its employees accountable for the assault. More inspiring than anything have been images of the rally held at the scene of the crime this past Monday. Hundreds of people showed up outside McDonald’s to voice their solidarity with Chrissy Lee Polis. One of the right-wing hate sites covering the assault early on asked the question, “what happens when sanctified leftwing grievance groups collide over black homophobia?” In their small imagination, people can only choose one side: black vs. white, gay vs. straight, trans vs. cis. There are no gradations or complexities in their world.
Except, that’s not what the images and footage of this rally show us. There are people from all across the race, gender and class spectrum standing up for Chrissy Lee Polis. Trans activist Dayna Beyer, who helped organize the rally, recounts the event:
What was initially intended to be a vigil as the victim appeared severely injured… evolved into an upbeat rally of a united community demanding an end to violence and discrimination.
Having been involved in far too many vigils for murdered trans women over the years, and accepting the general apathy in both the trans and LGBT communities, I expected 30 people to ultimately show up. Instead, 300 did.
…when the program ended and the crowd would have normally dispersed, a funny thing happened. No one left.
People mingled for another 75 minutes until the lights were turned out in the parking lot. There had been no trouble, no counter-demonstration, no hate speech – just love and sisterhood and camaraderie. Locals and activists, gay and straight, cis and trans.
Maryland still has a long way to go. Earlier this month, the Maryland Senate voted down a bill that would have provided protection for trans people against discrimination in housing and employment. Before the bill even hit the Senate, language pertaining to use of public accommodations was stripped from it. Blogger Amanda Hess writes, “opposition to the bill largely focused on the toilet issue—a hysterical concern over gender non-conforming people sharing public restrooms.” Perhaps the tragedy of this event will push lawmakers to rethink their position.
Perhaps things will change.
Image by Anne’s Legacy Photography