4:44 PM EDT, April 25, 2011
The savage assault on a transgender woman at a Rosedale McDonalds last week was exactly the kind of crime that lawmakers in this year's General Assembly had hoped to deter by extending anti-discrimination protections to people who openly change their gender identity. The measure was approved by the Maryland House of Delegates but was withdrawn in the Senate before it came to a vote there. Even if it had passed, it might not have changed how the Rosedale incident unfolded or how it will be handled by the criminal justice system. But it would have sent a powerful signal that transgender people are not fair game for bigots and that the courts will punish severely those who violate their rights.
That principle apparently was lost on the two female assailants who beat and kicked 22-year-old Chrissy Lee Polis nearly to unconsciousness April 18 as she lay helpless on the restaurant floor. The attack, which was recorded on video by a McDonald's employee who witnessed the assault but evidently did nothing to stop it, only ended after the victim suffered a paralyzing epileptic seizure. The harrowing images that went viral on YouTube Friday have since been watched by a worldwide audience of hundreds of thousands — and Rosedale has become the unlikely epicenter of a national conversation about violence directed at people who don't fit society's conventional view of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Until more of the facts are known, it is impossible to say for certain whether the beating of Ms. Polis was primarily motivated by her gender identity and whether the two women accused in the assault should be charged with hate crimes. Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger is investigating the incident to determine whether there is enough evidence against the two suspects arrested by police to prosecute them under the state's hate crime law in addition to the assault charges they now face. But the national, even global attention the case has received demands a response beyond just the criminal justice system. This is a situation where the entire community needs to stand together and unequivocally condemn bigotry, hatred and violence.
To its credit, McDonald's seems to get this. The restaurant's parent company quickly issued a statement on its Web site condemning the beating, and the owner of the Rosedale franchise fired the person who shot the video. He says he may terminate additional employees if it determines they aided or abetted the attack or failed to take reasonable steps to protect the victim. And the franchise is slated to close during a vigil Monday night in a gesture of respect and support for Ms. Polis.
But Baltimore County officials were slow to understand that their community is now being held up to ridicule all over the world as a hotbed of intolerance. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz was silent on the matter until Monday afternoon, when he issued a statement condemning the attack. He did, however, hit the right note: "Although this vicious attack was an isolated incident and in no way reflects upon the Rosedale or greater Baltimore County communities, it does serve as a wake-up call that we all have a role to play in establishing the norms we expect in our county. It is the conversations around our dinner tables and the casual chatter among friends that develop patterns of behavior. Each and every one of us has a responsibility in deciding what kind of a society we expect and what kind of a society we will help create."
Likewise, this incident should prompt the General Assembly to revisit its failure this year to toughen the state's anti-discrimination law to protect transgender individuals. Although Maryland law already makes it illegal to discriminate against lesbians, gays and bisexuals, transgender people face unique challenges not shared by their LGB peers in finding mainstream acceptance, and too often they are the silent "T" in the LGBT struggle for equal rights. Passage of a measure aimed specifically at protecting the rights of transgender people would bring greater clarity to the law in such situations.
The video interview with Ms. Polis posted on The Sun's Web site by reporter Justin Fenton offers a poignant description of the social rejection, isolation and fear of violence transgender people face daily, as well as the enormous psychic effort required to overcome such unrelenting hostility. No one should have to live that way. But things will only get better when public officials summon the courage to declare that there is nothing wrong or strange about transgender people and that they should be treated with the same respect and dignity accorded to anyone else.
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