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:
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.