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I Am What I Am

Gwen Reacts to the Torrent of Bigoted Comments Following the Assault of a Transgender Woman

by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
Article appeared in Polare magazine: October 2011 Last Update: October 2013 Last Reviewed: February 2014

Gwendolyn Ann Smith: I recently violated one of the golden rules of the Internet I read the reader comments under a news article.

No one tends to address women wreaking havoc in men's rooms ... they couldn't draw parallels with images of male perverts sexually assaulting your daughter ...

Irecently violated one of the golden rules of the Internet I read the reader comments under a news article. The piece itself was a follow-up on the assault on Chrissy Polis in a Rosedale, Maryland U.S.A. McDonald's. A pair of women at the restaurant had assaulted Polis, a twenty-two-year-old post-operative transsexual. They beat and kicked Polis until she suffered a seizure. Why was she attacked? Polis used the women's restroom.

The older of the two women who beat Polis, Teonna Monae Brown was offered a plea agreement. In exchange for Brown pleading guilty to assault and committing a hate crime, prosecutors will seek a five year prison term at the sentencing hearing next month.

Those who have spent any time on the Internet know that comments after articles are typically not worth reading. They're littered with trolls, and even well-intentioned commenters can leave shaking their head. Indeed, the old axiom, "better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt" seems tailor made for the comment sections under articles.

Nevertheless, as I scanned over the plea agreement story, my eyes fell to the comments below, where one poster argued against the hate crime element to the case by writing that "any man could put on a wig and lipstick and go into the ladies room and be protected," saying that if Polis "wants to be a girl he still has to use a men's room if he is a man."

Others, too, pointed out that the fight started in the restroom, and that maybe "he" should not have been in there in the first place.

What we see here is something I first referred to some time ago as 'the bathroom meme'. This is the argument used by foes of transgender rights. They claim that extending rights to transgender people particularly those involving public accommodations will allow non-transgender rapists and paedophiles to be shielded by the law when they prey on others in an opposite sex restroom.

It's akin to the old 'gays recruit' meme born in the 1970s or so, equally ludicrous yet equally effective.

For the record, no transgender rights bill, including those that cover public accommodations, will protect rapists and paedophiles who attempt to harm your spouse, family members, or children. Rape, molestation, and any other such illegal activity remains illegal.

Meanwhile, such laws would allow for a host of rights beyond restrooms by providing equal access to goods and services at public establishments. You know, the ability to order a meal in a restaurant, or go to an emergency room, or do any number of things you might otherwise take for granted.

Yet the notion of potential attackers in the restroom remains the hot button issue or more succinctly, male attackers in the ladies' room.

No one tends to address women wreaking havoc in men's rooms, because this doesn't provide those opposed to extending rights the correct sort of ammo. They couldn't draw parallels between transgender people being treated fairly with images of male perverts sexually assaulting your daughter in the playground restroom by actually addressing the issues, now could they?

Consider Polis, a slight of build, young transwoman. She's about as far from the image that most people conjure up around the words 'rapist' as you get. Her attackers were, by and large, bigger than her, and clearly had the upper hand as they kicked her around the restaurant.

For that matter, she is a post-operative transsexual. This is not someone who should step one foot into a men's room. I don't think I'd be in the wrong to suggest that her going into a men's room would be far more likely to cause a sexual assault on a woman than allowing for public accommodation rights for transgender people.

Back to this random, anonymous comment left under the article. I find myself gravitating to that last sentence. "So what if this guy wants to be [is] a girl," the commenter says, "he still has to use a men's room if he is a man."

Yet Polis is not a man. She never has been, even if she may have been declared one at birth. Yes, she may have had the sexual characteristics of a male at one point in her life but she never seems to have been a man.

Regardless of the shape of her genitalia at birth, she sure isn't a man now. Polis is not a "guy who wants to be a girl." Polis is a woman. Ergo, she uses the women's room. This should not be hard to comprehend.

Here's the crux of it all, to me. Here is the one thing that most transgender people understand, yet is so often lost on others. While transgender people do have a history and background that may well set them apart from others in their preferred gender, they are nevertheless the gender they present as. If a transman presents as male there's likely a good reason for it.

Ditto for a transwoman presenting as female. There are even those who might be opting for a space beyond simply man or woman.

Those who oppose transgender equality feel the need to believe that transgender people, in expressing their gender as they see fit, are being deceptive. Moreover, they need to equate this perceived deception with the actions of violent and criminal predators. Never mind that no one has been able to find a shred of evidence to support their suppositions.

Ultimately, we're not out to defraud, we're out to live our lives honestly, and shed whatever lie we may have been living previously. We are exactly what we say we are.

Assault of Chrissy Polis

From Wikipedia: External Link A beating of a transgender woman occurred at a McDonald's restaurant in Baltimore, Maryland U.S.A. on April 18, 2011. The video of the beating was posted online and became a viral video. Both suspects of the beating were prosecuted. The beating lead to awareness of violence against transgender people in Maryland, and Howard County, Maryland passed a county law protecting transgender people.

The Incident

At almost 8:00pm on April 18, 2011, two teenagers beat a transgender woman at a McDonald's restaurant in Baltimore, Maryland U.S.A.. The victim, Chrissy Lee Polis, was twenty-two at the time of the attack. Polis, then a resident of Baltimore, said that she was going to use a restroom, when a female individual spat in her face. Then she and another female individual started attacking Polis. One of the attackers was fourteen years old. One McDonald's employee filmed the beating and the attempts of another employee and a customer trying to intervene in the attack. The other McDonald's employees in the video are heard to be laughing. The beating lasted for several minutes. Weijia Jiang of C.B.S. Baltimore said "Then after a powerful blow to the head, the victim appears to have a violent seizure, and as she bleeds from the mouth, spectators warn the attackers to flee before cops arrive". Polis said that she had been intoxicated during the attack, and that she had a seizure. Polis received cuts to the face and mouth. Polis, a White American, stated that she believed that race may have had a role in her attack. Both of the perpetrators were African American.

The Video

The three minute video of the incident was posted online and became viral. Justin Fenton of the Baltimore Sun said that the video was "apparently" first posted on You Tube but was later taken down. The same video later reappeared on other websites. On one website the video received over 500,000 views by the early evening of April 22, 2012. Fenton said "The video received widespread attention part because of the racial dynamics of the attack the attackers were black, and the victim is white". McDonald's issued a statement, saying that it fired the employee who had taped the incident on Saturday April 23, 2011.

Criminal Charges and Sentences

After the attack, a pro-transgender advocacy group, Equality Maryland, asked the county officials to consider investigating the case to determine if it was a hate crime. Scott D. Shellenberger, an attorney for the state of Maryland, said that hate crime charges may result from the attack; at the time he was not aware of the gender identity of the victim. On July 1, 2011, the fourteen-year-old admitted responsibility in the juvenile criminal system. The other attacker, 19-year old Teonna Monae Brown, pleaded guilty to her role in the attack on Thursday August 4, 2011 in the Baltimore County Circuit Court. Brown pleaded guilty to one count of first degree assault and one count of a hate crime. Prosecutors sought to give Brown a ten year sentence, with five of those years suspended. The maximum possible sentence for all of the crimes committed would have been thirty-five years. Brown was given the sentence sought by prosecutors. Some advocates for transgender people argued that the sentence was not severe enough. In 2010 Brown had been charged for an assault she had perpetrated at the same McDonald's restaurant. Brown is currently incarcerated at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women.

Aftermath

Polis said that as a result of the attack, she became fearful of going outside. David Zurawick of The Baltimore Sun said that the posting of the video publicized "the vulnerability and lack of protection for transgendered citizens in Baltimore". The week after the attack, hundreds of people started a protest against the incident. Some organizations representing transgender people stated that they wished to use the incident to highlight violence against transgender people. Shortly before the beating had occurred, a proposed Maryland law that would have added protections for transgender people did not pass the legislature, and the modified version that did pass did not have these protections. By November 2011 a bill to add protections for transgender people began circulating in the government of Howard County, Maryland. On Monday, December 5, 2011, Howard County passed the protections for transgender people into county law.

Further Information & Media Reports

The Smoking Gun: McDonald's Employee Took Credit for Filming Brutal Beating in Baltimore Fast Food Joint External Link
The Baltimore Sun: Transgender Advocates See McDonald's Beating as a Turning Point External Link
The Baltimore Sun: Trauma Still Fresh for Transgender Beating Victim External Link
ABC2News.com: Hundreds Turnout to Protest McDonald's Beating External Link

Polare Magazine is published quarterly in Australia by The Gender Centre Inc. which is funded by the Department of Family & Community Services under the S.A.A.P. program and supported by the N.S.W. Health Department through the AIDS and Infectious Diseases Branch. Polare provides a forum for discussion and debate on gender issues. Unsolicited contributions are welcome, the editor reserves the right to edit such contributions without notification. Any submission which appears in Polare may be published on our internet site. Opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Editor, The Gender Centre Inc., the Department of Family & Community Services or the N.S.W. Department of Health.

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