Baltimore Attack On Transgender Woman Debated As Hate Crime

Transgender woman Chrissy Lee Polis brutally attacked by two teenage girls at a McDonald's restaurant outside Baltimore last week. Since then, a video of the beating has been widely circulated online and watched by hundreds of thousands of people. The attack has sparked outrage and also prompted a broader discussion around gender identity discrimination. Host Michel Martin speaks about the attack and gender identity issues with Nick Madigan, crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun. Also Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We're going to switch gears, now, and tell you about a story about another one of those videos that's gone viral for all the wrong reasons. In recent years, a number of attacks in public places have been captured on cell phone cameras and posted on public sites. In Chicago last year, the beating death of a student in Washington, D.C., a random attack on a metro passenger.

Now the brutal beating of a transgender woman in a McDonald's outside of Baltimore last week has sparked outrage locally and nationally after the video of the assault was posted on the Internet. An 18-year-old woman and a 14-year-old girl have been charged in the crime.

Police say the suspects attacked the victim, 22-year-old Chrissy Lee Polis, in the restaurant's bathroom and then repeatedly punched and kicked her in the head and stomped on her, only stopping when she appears to have had a seizure. A video of the attack was recorded on a cell phone camera by a McDonald's employee. Chrissy Lee Polis later talked to the Baltimore Sun. We'll play a short clip.

Ms. CHRISSY LEE POLIS: A guy approached me asking how I was doing. So I said, not now, I want to go use the bathroom. Come back out, the girl spit in my face. And she approached me, she said, are you trying to talk to my man? I said no. I didn't even know that was your man at all. The other girl came up, spit in my face, and they started ripping my hair, throwing me on the floor, kicking me in my face. But, really, to tell you the truth, they just seemed like they wanted to pick a fight that night. But everybody in that McDonald's sat there and watched me get hurt and nobody did nothing at all. Nobody.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon Nick Madigan who's covering the story for the Baltimore Sun. Also with us, Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. NICK MADIGAN (Reporter, Baltimore Sun): Sure.

Ms. MARA KEISLING (Executive Director, National Center for Transgender Equality): Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Nick, I'm going to start with you because initially it was reported that the two suspects, both of whom are women, were upset that Chrissy Lee Polis was using the women's restroom. Is that what in fact motivated the attack? I just want to mention, we're not playing the audio of the attack because, first of all, it's very hard to listen to; and at this point, we don't feel that it would add much value to the conversation to listen to this person being brutally assaulted. So, for that, just that being said, I want to tell you. So, Nick, is that what motivated the attack?

Mr. MADIGAN: Yes, exactly. Yes. The objection, apparently, was that in the words of one of the two alleged attackers, that she was a dude who was trying to use the bathroom. In other words, they recognized her as a man, even though she has long hair and makeup, but still has somewhat recognizable male features. And they, at least, came to the conclusion that this person should not be using the women's bathroom. And the attack actually occurred, as far as I'm aware, right outside that bathroom.

And we should correct, though, that two people did step in. One, a McDonald's employee who made somewhat of a half-hearted effort to stop this attack, ultimately. And the other one was a woman named Vicky Thoms, who's 55 years old. She's a cosmetologist. She walked in and watched this, stunned for a couple of minutes and then she stepped in and was punched in the face for her troubles.

MARTIN: Mara, you helped organize a rally at the site of the attack in the days, you know, following. Tell us what you were hoping to bring attention to.

Ms. KEISLING: It's very simple. There is constant violence against transgender people, all over the country. In a study we recently conducted that you did a story about a few weeks ago, we saw that five percent of the transgender people who were transgender - out as transgender when they were in school - were physically attacked by teachers.

And overall, 26 percent of our sample of 6,500 people had been physically attacked at some point in their life for being transgendered.

MARTIN: And by transgender you mean what? For people who are not familiar with the term.

Mr. MADIGAN: So the transgender person is just simply somebody whose gender identity, that is, their internal sense of their gender is different than the sex they were assigned at birth.

MARTIN: And so Chrissy Lee, do we know, is a biological male but presents as a female? Certainly, honestly, when you see the video, I would assume that that was a female, a biological female and she identifies herself as a female. She wears her hair long. She wears women's clothes. So, Nick, do we know whether she does - I don't know whether we know whether she's still biologically...

Mr. MADIGAN: Yes. She presents herself as a female. We do not know whether there have been other attempts physical or otherwise to actually change her gender. Her legal name is Christopher. At least that's what we're able to discern from a minor criminal record that she has from court documents. She's always known as Christopher.

MARTIN: Mara, I wanted to mention that this video has been - it was taken off of YouTube, but it's still been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. And I want to ask you why you think that is. And also why you think - what is it that motivates or sparks this, like, physical attacks on people?

Ms. KEISLING: Sure. I first just want to follow up on something that was just said. By all accounts, Chrissy Lee is biologically female. That's not the question. She may have been assigned male at birth, but what sort of medical intervention she may have had or not had is sort of irrelevant. Some people can afford that financially, some people can't.

As for the video going viral, you know, I think that's a pretty sad statement on our society. You know, it used to be, in a situation like that, if a camera came out, that would quell the violence. People didn't want to be seen committing violence on cameras. Now, when somebody thinks they have a chance to be on YouTube, they may become more violent.

Now, in this case, it seemed like the perpetrators were totally out of control. But it is just so shocking to see a human being of any kind - transgender or not - being beaten the way she was beaten, being dragged across the floor by her hair, having a seizure. And then having all of these people just stand there watching.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about a brutal attack on a transgender woman. It occurred in a McDonald's outside of Baltimore on April 18th. We're speaking with Baltimore Sun criminal justice reporter Nick Madigan who's covering the story. And Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Mara, I want to talk more about that. You cited numbers earlier and we also reported on this that people who present outside of the gender in which they were born, transgender people, are often subjected to violence. And the brother of Chrissy Lee Polis told the Baltimore Sun that she had been picked on throughout her life. And I wanted to talk more about that. Like, why do you think that is?

Ms. KEISLING: Well, transgender people are way too often used to this. We get picked on in schools. We get picked on at work. And it has a lot to do with, you know, people's own insecurities. But, you know, whether it has to do with, you know, the puritanical background in America or, you know, people's own insecurities about their gender, it's something from a very early age that's pounded into us.

I mean, the worst thing as a kid you can be called is something contra to your gender. And, you know, I think it's something as a society we have to figure out.

MARTIN: Well, you talked about that at the rally. You said that it's time to stop the joking, the discrimination and disrespect. What exactly do you think should happen? Are there specific policy changes or legal changes that you want to see?

Ms. KEISLING: You know, it's simple. Understand that I was born, I have parents, I have a child, I am human. Respect me. Now, there's all sorts of laws we also need. We do need anti-discrimination protections. But, yes, this is an area that is definitely heating up and is definitely growing. There are more and more transgender people coming out and we're demanding our rights and we're demanding to be respected.

MARTIN: You know, I'm trying to think of a way to ask this question. You know, obviously people are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. That's the law of the United States. But I don't know that there's any way to justify people attacking this woman in the way that they did, you know, for whatever, I can't think of a justification for it.

So having said all that though, what about the whole discomfort question of the bathroom? One of the things you can hear on the video is Chrissy Lee saying, what bathroom am I supposed to use?

So for those who say, well, I am uncomfortable with the idea of somebody whose gender is ambiguous to me in the bathroom that I am using that's assigned to my gender. And I just feel I need to ask that because that is a real question that some people have. How do you respond to that?

Ms. KEISLING: Well, first of all, you're right. Nobody deserves to be beaten like this under any circumstances for anything. So, pretending this is about the bathrooms doesn't make any sense. Secondly, now, I was at the McDonald's for the rally, but they had closed for the evening as a gesture of goodwill, and so I didn't actually go in. But I understand the bathrooms there are all locked single-use bathrooms. So, yeah, which bathroom is she supposed to use? You know, somebody would've been uncomfortable.

And, remember, this has happened in every civil rights discussion for centuries. White people were afraid to go to the bathroom with black people. People were afraid to go to the bathroom with, you know, non-Jewish people were afraid to go to the bathroom with Jewish people. People are uncomfortable going to the bathroom with lots of different kinds of people.

And you know what? We probably need to be sensitive to that as we move past it, but we have to move past it. And this particular story is not about the bathrooms. There may be an excuse that it was triggered by the bathrooms, but it would just be an excuse.

MARTIN: Nick Madigan, can you just...

Mr. MADIGAN: It's about violence, is what it is.

MARTIN: Well, Nick, in the final minutes that we have left, can you just tell us, what are the next steps in this case? And one of the things that I think some people would be interested in is that you're saying that the police are still investigating whether to charge this as a hate crime. What are they investigating? I mean I have to say, the dual-edged sword here - on the one hand one doesn't know the motivation of the people who recorded the attack. On the other hand, there is an ample record here that wouldn't exist if someone had not. And so...

Mr. MADIGAN: Exactly.

MARTIN: So, what's next?

Mr. MADIGAN: That's the point that the state's attorney made to me on the phone. He said the person who shot the video, in a very real sense, did law enforcement authorities a favor by recording that video so that there is ample evidence not only of the attack, but of the people who perpetrated it. They're still interviewing witnesses. Both the police and the state's attorney's office are trying to figure out which additional charges, if any, to bring.

The charges that they have at the moment are serious. They involve both first and second-degree assault and they may just stand on those. We'll have to see what happens.

MARTIN: Nick Madigan covers criminal justice issues at the Baltimore Sun and he joined us from the studios at the newspaper. Mara Keisling is the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. That's an advocacy organization founded in 2003. She was here with us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. MADIGAN: Thank you.

Ms. KEISLING: Thank you, Michel.

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