The bigotry behind a terrible assault

April 27, 2011

Christine Darosa reports on a violent assault in Baltimore--and the wider climate of anti-LGBT bigotry and discrimination that was behind it.

A 22-year-old transwoman named Chrissy Polis was viciously assaulted April 18 by two young women inside a Baltimore-area McDonald's--because she used the women's restroom.

During the 10-minute assault--in which Polis was verbally abused, spat on, hit and kicked in the head even after she had fallen to the floor, finally resulting in a seizure--other people in the restaurant looked on, some laughing, while one employee recorded the final three minutes of the beating on his cell phone.

One employee tried to intervene at one point, but the only meaningful assistance was given by 55-year-old Vicky Thoms, who stepped in to try to stop the violence, and received a punch to the face herself. The employees generally seemed more interested in encouraging the assailants to run before police arrived than in stopping the attack.

In fact, Thoms was quoted in a Baltimore news report saying, "The one employee there--I think it was the manager--said to me, 'You do know that's not a woman. That's a transvestite.' And I said, 'So? She's human.'"

Chrissy Polis
Chrissy Polis

A rally at the McDonald's on Monday, April 25 drew more than 300 people out to stand together in support of Polis, and against transphobia and violence.

The two young women have been arrested and are being charged with assault, and the employee who filmed the attack has been fired. McDonald's has issued a statement to let us all know "There is no room for violence under the Golden Arches."

As for Polis, she is out of the hospital and is healing physically, but she is still afraid to go outside and is worried about the publicity compromising her chances of getting a job, or possibly triggering more violence. She has reason to be afraid: this isn't the first violence she's experienced due to transphobia, and her trauma comes on the heels of the murder of another transwoman in Baltimore, Tyra Trent, just two months ago.

THE NATIONAL Transgender Discrimination Study (NTDS), conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force on the pervasive discrimination trans people experience in the U.S., found that 53 percent of respondents had been verbally harassed in public settings, while 8 percent had been physically assaulted.

Some LGBT groups have rightly come out in the week after Polis' assault calling for the passage of legal protections against discrimination, as well as the need for trans-positive education campaigns. These measures are certainly long overdue, but in a society where at least one trans person dies every month in the U.S. due to transphobic violence, many activists are asking themselves: is it enough?

To answer that question, it's necessary to take a deeper look at why anti-trans violence happens. Transphobia is expressed and perpetuated at the individual level through bigotry and violence, like that on display at that McDonald's, as well as through institutionalized discrimination. For example, the NTDS found that fully 90 percent of respondents had experienced some form of harassment or discrimination at work, with 26 percent having lost a job due to their gender identity.

Without legal protections for gender identity, people have no recourse when they are mistreated, making the job of winning equal treatment of trans folks in society much harder. These aspects of transphobia work hand in hand, as well--lack of government protections sends the message that trans people don't deserve equal treatment.

Transphobia comes from a deeper source, however: a perverse ideology coming at us constantly from the top of society that seeks to convince us that some people are worth less than other people, which allows the people in power to keep us divided.

For example, look at how trans people are usually portrayed in the corporate media: sick, freakish or a pathetic joke--that is, dehumanized and demeaned. The message we hear every day is that trans people are worth less, just as we are steeped in the message that people of color are worth less, that immigrants are worth less, that the poor are worth less. This divide-and-conquer strategy keeps us fighting among ourselves for the ever-scarcer resources at our disposal, while the people at the top laugh all the way to the bank.

All this helps obscure the fact that many trans people are themselves parts of other marginalized groups--many are people of color, many are immigrants, many are poor. The NTDS study showed again and again that as bad as discrimination is for trans people as a whole, it's even worse for people who experience also compounding oppressions like racism and poverty.

Add to this the fact that the severity of the economic crisis has opened the way to more scapegoating of the vulnerable--pressed aggressively from the top to deflect attention from the real causes of social problems.

This last point bears particularly on the Baltimore case--Polis is white, and the two young women who attacked her are Black. Whether or not race was a factor in the attack, it's certainly been a major one in the news coverage of the attack and discussion online. A comment on one local Maryland news site called the attackers "apes," and others have written worse things.

It's important that the discussion of transphobia in the U.S. not get diverted into a twisted narrative about "Black bigotry"--something that happened in the days after the victory of the anti-gay marriage Prop 8 in California--real questions about LGBT equality in a secular society got lost in an ocean of scapegoating of Black voters following the publication of misleading exit poll statistics.

Activists have a choice: Do we allow ourselves to be pitted against each other or do we proactively work to break down the barriers between us?

We have an opportunity--and an obligation--to make all our activism trans-inclusive, and in so doing, make all our activism stronger. For example, students fighting against budget cuts in education should reach out and include trans people in their coalitions--trans folks drop out of school at twice the rate of the general population due to harassment, yet return to school later in life at three times the rate of others. They have a clear material interest in making common cause with other students, as well as a unique perspective that makes coalitions richer and stronger.

Further, when we put trans-inclusive politics at the center of movements, we also create opportunities to break down transphobic ideas in the course of fighting for a common goal. Union history is full of stories about men rethinking sexist ideas when the women in their communities fought shoulder-to-shoulder alongside them in a strike.

We can build movements that break down the ruling class's divide-and-conquer strategy--and that teach us through our own experiences that when we fight together, we will win together.

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