Baltimore anti-trans hate crime: Why “toemageddon” matters

Heavy trigger warning – detailed discussion of transphobic violence.

Last week, Chrissy Polis, a transgender woman, was viciously attacked and beaten by two cisgender (or cis, i.e., not transgender or trans) girls at a McDonald’s in Baltimore, Maryland. Several people, including employees, merely stood by and laughed as Polis was repeatedly stomped on, jumped, dragged by her hair (to the point where chunks of her hair were strewn on the floor), and punched. One onlooker repeatedly referred to her as an “it.” Only the manager and one customer attempted to intervene. One employee apparently saw the incident as entertainment to be captured on video, continuing to film even after Polis, who is epileptic, began to have a seizure. She was left on the floor while the man filming encouraged her attackers to leave before the police arrived. [Sign the petition to hold the employees who stood idly by responsible.]

Why was Polis so brutally attacked? Simply because she wanted to use the restroom.

TransGriot has the video of the attack here. It’s horrifying; I felt sick watching it. But I think any cisgender person who won’t be triggered by it should watch it. See what the costs and consequences of our gender fundamentalism are for a real human being just trying to live her life like anyone else.

The ability to do something as basic and essential as using the bathroom without harassment, without being spit on as Polis was, without risking our safety or our lives, is something most cis people take for granted. In most situations it’s something we do without even thinking. Trans people and especially trans women don’t have this privilege. Using gender specific bathrooms, especially in public, is often a fraught and far from mundane task.

Few cis women would feel safe being forced to use the men’s bathroom, even if they are consistently read by others as female, and as the Transgriot points out, not all cis women “pass” as female by our narrow, prejudiced measures of femininity. Any woman, cis or trans, in a situation where some people read her as an “effeminate” male would be in even more danger in a men’s bathroom. Polis couldn’t use the men’s bathroom safely. And she couldn’t count on using the women’s bathroom safely, either.

Just a few years ago another trans woman, Christine Sforza, was bashed over the head in a New York City McDonalds for being in the women’s bathroom. Her attacker went free and she was arrested, even though she was the one who called the police for help. There wasn’t any video evidence of the assault. There usually isn’t. Neither woman’s experience was an isolated incident. This happens literally every day to trans and gender nonconforming people. But it usually happens out of sight, whether it’s in communities that are invisible because we don’t care about them as a culture (because of class, or occupation – like sex work), or hidden in plain sight as bullying, domestic abuse, or intimate partner violence. Every day.

Polis’s case has gotten attention because it was caught on video, and because of the racial aspect: her attackers are black and she is white. Much of the sympathy she’s gotten, even at supposedly progressive sites, has invoked racial slurs and stereotypes, and has described her attackers with animalistic language and imagery that has long history of being used to support anti-black racism and white supremacy. Polis’s gender identity wasn’t initially reported; now that it’s been made public, some of the sympathy she got at first has given way to victim-blaming vitriol.

If the attack on Polis hadn’t been caught on tape…If her attackers had been white…if her gender identity had been reported from the beginning…would this be a news item? Would people care quite as much? Probably not.

Because the news media is informed by a racist culture that depicts blacks as naturally violent and sub-human, and as a threat to white people rather than dealing honestly with the realities of systemic white privilege and macro-level structural violence against individuals and communities of color.

Because the news media is informed by a transphobic culture that blames trans and gender non-comforming people for any violence and discrimination perpetrated against them, and depicts them as a threat to cis, gender conforming people, rather than dealing honestly with the realities of systemic cis privilege and the daily harassment, discrimination, and violence trans* people face as individuals and as a group, as Diamond Stylz notes:

(Posted at Diamond Stylz, ht Questioning Transphobia)

Until just a couple weeks ago, the Maryland legislature had been considering legislation that was supposed to protect people against discrimination based on gender identity. But Equality MD, the main group lobbying for the legislation, made a “compromise” with liberal state politicians to remove public accommodations (including bathrooms) from the bill, because they felt this would make the bill more likely to pass (it didn’t). In doing so they ignored the protests of the MD trans community even as they claimed to speak for them, and ignored the fact that stand-alone “bathroom bills” have failed repeatedly, due to opponents portraying trans women as predatory “men in dresses” who would use the law as a pretext to assault cis women in restrooms.

The attack on Chrissy Polis is just one example that the exact opposite is true: the real danger is posed by cis people, to trans people. As Transgriot puts it, cis people are the real bathroom predators. Polis now feels afraid to leave her home. Her past criminal record, completely irrelevant to the case, has been made public, almost certainly as a way to smear her as being responsible for the attack. She’s worried that the publicity over her gender identity and record will hurt her chances of getting a job in the future. As she says, no one should have to be afraid to go outside or face job discrimination just because of their gender identity.

This is why legislation that protects the rights of people of all gender identities to use public facilities is a non-negotiable necessity. Maryland also has no hate crime laws that protect gender identity (or sexual orientation). On the state level, this attack can only be prosecuted as a hate crime is race is shown to have been a factor.

The two attackers in this case are 14 and 18. At least one of them can still be called a child. That’s horrifying. People who call these young women “monsters” or “animals” are missing the real horror of the situation, perhaps deliberately. This is what we’re teaching kids to do. When we portray gender variant people as scary and threatening, as lurking in bathrooms to assault cis women. When we turn our heads or even nod approvingly when boys beat each other up for being “effeminate.” When we ignore sexual and physical violence, even fatal violence, against people because of their gender presentation. When we lose our collective shit over a boy with pink toenails.

We’re teaching them that it’s perfectly acceptable to lash out against fellow human beings, just because they don’t fit into neat little gender boxes.


9 Comments on “Baltimore anti-trans hate crime: Why “toemageddon” matters”

  1. Mark says:

    “The ability to do something as basic and essential as using the bathroom without harassment, without being spit on as Polis was – much less fearing for our physical safety, or our lives…”

    The fact that we still have to write and read sentences like this one is in itself a brutal attack on all of us. The fragility of the lives of those who do not fit social conventions is something we all forget, because we all have to, because the consciousness of this fragility can be maddening. Chrissy Polis certainly got the worse of this end last week, as she had to actually experience the violence against LGTB people that is in the air all the time. Furthermore, transgender people have an added layer of fragility: nobody, nor the lesbian, the gay, or the bisexual communities (much less the heterosexual world) wants to engage positively and sportively with them. At the end it really seems to me that we all have a closeted conservative inside of us, because we all have been raised with the same fear and anger against difference. The terrifying part is that only some of us want to recognize it, and fight it. This is truly a shame.

    • Grace says:

      You’re so right. It shouldn’t even be a question that everyone should be able to use the bathroom safely. And yes, it’s truly terrifying that so many people don’t see how this fundamentalism – that’s what it is – is hurting and killing people, or don’t care.

      You bring up a good point about transphobia among LGB people. I’ve been really shocked by how transphobic some LGB people can be. You would hope that the community would be more supportive, given how intertwined these issues are in the culture and how much gender phobia queer people face if they are too “effeminate” or too butch. Sadly it may be precisely because the issues are so closely aligned that there’s so little support for transgender people in organizations that are supposed to be for LGBT issues. Too often oppressed groups seek to fight their oppression by trying to align themselves with groups that have privilege, at the expense of other oppressed groups. It’s a powerful tactic that keeps privilege in place – if all oppressed people were in solidarity with each other instead of trying to get scraps tossed from the table of privilege, think how powerful we’d be.

  2. Faith says:

    Thanks for speaking out on this, Grace.

    As a trans woman, I found the video especially terrifying because Chrissy looks so normal. I thought I was safe because I blend in pretty well. Now I don’t feel so secure. If it can happen to her, it can happen to me.

  3. Mark says:

    Dear Grace,

    I think that once more you have nail it: “oppressed groups seek to fight their oppression by trying to align themselves with groups that have privilege, at the expense of other oppressed groups.” I often say, with my most profound respect to specific, individual cases, that the way the battle for the right to marry has been frame by gay man is basically the right to become Nancy Reagan: to live in suburbia, raising 2 kids, having one dog, owning a large house, and being as racist, classist, and misogynistic and phobic as any upper middle class white family. There is an implicit notion that if we are “like everybody else”, then we will be respected and would be “normal”. It often has been described how conservative gay man can be, and in many discussions I have found myself talking to people that openly want to move away and as far as possible from the liberation movement of women and the early sexual revolution that brought the gay identity and the gay movement into life. The notion that poverty, classism, racism, misogyny, and transphobia are all linked to the discrimination of gay man seems foreign to them… and to most people. That is why we need to emphasize, as you so properly have done, the fact that violence against the transgender community is violence against all of us, and that the rights for the transgender community are rights for all of us.

  4. Karen says:

    I always deeply regret it that these things happen when I’m not around. Those girls wouldn’t have known what hit ’em.

  5. Christina Shannon says:

    Watch the interview from some days after the attack, where the victim’s description of how the assault began indicates that it wasn’t what is being portrayed here. Yes, she was viciously and brutally and persistently attacked, but not for using the women’s bathroom, and not for being transgendered. In her interview, the victim, clearly states that she was initially confronted and soon attacked by the fourteen year old because the fourteen year old thought the vicitim was hiting on her boyfriend (an employee at that McDonalds).

    Is it possible that this was just a ploy? Maybe. But the victim, in her interview, never says that her attackers used anti-trans slurs. Others did; that’s been made clear, and they should be charged with a hate crime for their part in either allowing the attacks to continue or egging on the attackers. The two perpetrators should deffinetly be put on trial for, “assault and battery with intent to do great bodily harm.” It’s not at all clear, however (not yet) that their brutal and heinous crime was motivated by bigotry – either racial or transphobic. According to the victim’s own account it was motivated by the virtually psychopathic (if not sociopathic and narcissistic) jealousy of a young teen thug and her equally callous accomplice.

    I’m a transwoman, in transition, and the level of hatred and violence against us is quite frightening, real, and (at least seems as if) condoned as justifiable via the excuse of trans-panic. So far, however, it doesn’t look like this is one of those casses – despite the assumptions being made and propogated by well meaning posters who are obviously upset by this particular attack. I’m upset too, but not in any way because I believe it was a hate crime. I’m upset because it was an inexcusable, senseless, and vicious assault, which was coincidentally perpetrated against one of my transgendered sisters.

    I’m also very upset because of the bystanders’ responses, which, by the way, have been established as being due to their knowledge of and hatred of the victim because she is transgendered. There’s your actual hate crime!

    • Grace says:

      I did watch Polis’ interview, and I think it’s pretty clear from her account of the crime that she felt the attack was related to her gender identity (and her race as well). She also says that they called her a “dude.” Add that to the fact that the fight was over her using the bathroom, and that the employee who filmed it said it was because a “man in a wig” tried to use the women’s bathroom, and this seems a pretty clear cut anti-trans hate crime to me. That it started over a guy doesn’t make it anti-trans, and it’s possible that even that part of it was due to a transphobic response on the part of the girls, feeling that their femininity was being threatened by a trans woman hitting on a man, maybe even that she was hitting on him successfully.

    • Grace says:

      I was commenting on the run previously, forgot to say welcome to the blog and thanks for the comment.

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