Beyer and Brackett say their group was careful not to use Polis.

"There were people who exploited her," Beyer says.

The public dialogue sometimes turned personal.

A Washington-based columnist wrote that buying into the notion that Polis is a woman "is like asking me to call my weird Uncle Herman your highness just because he takes a notion that he's the Emperor Napoleon." Transgender writers reacted with outrage in the blogosphere.

The attention was overwhelming for Polis, who says she is bipolar and epileptic. She didn't understand how reporters uncovered her arrest history, which included a prostitution charge. Men with fetishes for transgender women were calling and sending Facebook messages. She thought some groups wanted to use her for publicity.

"Everybody's not out for your best interest," she says.

The spotlight also took a toll on Vicky Thoms, the 56-year-old woman who stepped in to help Polis during the attack.

Thoms says she was stunned when she walked into the restaurant that night to grab a soda and saw the fight.

She didn't know Polis was transgender.

"It didn't make a difference," Thoms says. "To me, none of it is about the transgender thing. … It's about human kindness."

Thoms, a mother of two, was overwhelmed by media attention after the incident, she says. She hasn't gone to McDonald's since then, and looks over her shoulder whenever she goes out.

"It's been hell," she says of the past year.

Born a girl

A crash comes from the kitchen at Polis and Hock's apartment. Bottles of salad dressing, ketchup and syrup spill from the refrigerator, tumbling to the ground.

Hock is making dinner — taco salad for herself and meatloaf for everyone else. She covers two Styrofoam plates of food with aluminum foil to take to Polis' mother and half-brother, who are staying at a nearby apartment.

A week before, Polis had undergone breast augmentation surgery.

Hock describes Polis as generous and loud. She has always thought of Polis as a girl. When they were growing up in Essex, people sensed Polis — born Christopher — was different as she entered her teens.

"They knew that she was changing or something," Hock said, topping her salad with sour cream. "They just didn't know what it was. I guess they ain't never seen it."

Hock remembers hanging out on a porch with neighborhood kids when she was about 13. Polis came flying down the sidewalk on Rollerblades.

Her feet in skates, Polis approached another front porch. She was trying to escape someone making fun of her. No one answered the door.