Trauma still fresh for transgender beating victim

The windows are wide open in the messy apartment, the afternoon sky darkening fast.

Chrissy Polis can't stand the Essex neighborhood outside, where everyone knows who she is. But she doesn't know how to get out, or where she'd go if she did.

"I just want to move because I want to see other things," she says.

There was a time when it seemed people from all over the country were talking about the 24-year-old. Many wanted to help her; others condemned her.

Polis became an unwitting symbol of the transgender community and the struggle for transgender rights when she stepped into a Rosedale McDonald's one April evening. Two teen girls beat her that night. When an employee caught the assault on his cell phone, the video went viral, making headlines nationwide.

The child of an unstable home made even more complicated by her gender identity issues, Polis would encounter a whirlwind of attention. Reporters dug into her past. A newspaper columnist opined that Polis shouldn't be referred to as a woman. And a group called the Trans Panthers tried to shield her from the media glare.

Polis received offers of help from strangers across the country but came to believe that some people were exploiting her for publicity. She pushed away help from an older transgender woman who tried to mentor her, feeling the advice was overbearing.

And seven months after the attack, Polis ran into trouble with the law herself.

A year later, Polis has faded from the public eye, as do so many others whose personal plights become the focus of broader social debates. But for her, it's hard to forget. She hopes she's made a difference — anti-discrimination protections for transgender people have since been enacted in Baltimore and Howard counties — but she still doesn't know what to make of it all.

"Suddenly, she's catapulted, and she's an icon," said Dana Beyer of the group Gender Rights Maryland. "Chrissy had no clue; she had no training, no experience, and suddenly this fame came pouring down on her and she had no idea what to do with it."

Polis wavers between saying she wants to tell her story to help others and declaring that she wants no attention at all. She doesn't follow politics or take part in transgender organizations.

"I don't even talk to them, or associate," she says. "I'm not trying to be like everyone else, in their groups."

Heather Hock, Polis' roommate and childhood friend, says the attack and its fallout "messed her up big time."

"She's never going to have a regular life and just walk down the road," Hock says.

A life

Two orange kittens bounce around the second-floor apartment in Essex. Polis only planned to get one cat, but she didn't like the thought of the siblings being separated. She has a twin brother herself, and their mother moved them around a lot, Polis says.

Hock heads out for a sandwich from Royal Farms. "You want something?" she asks.

"A life," Polis jokes.

It isn't clear how Polis, who has held jobs at Taco Bell and a flea market, supports herself these days. She says she's living off a loan from a non-bank lender and that she's set to get a settlement from McDonald's.

Her lawyer, Mark Scurti, says Polis never sued the fast-food company, but he won't say whether she received an out-of-court settlement. "The matter is concluded," Scurti says.

McDonald's spokeswoman Ashlee Yingling says, "The legal details of this matter are confidential."

After the April 18 beating, Polis was humiliated. She wasn't looking to tell her story.

"You're embarrassed after you get into a fight," Polis says. "I didn't even tell anyone I got into a fight at McDonald's."

But after the video emerged and began attracting attention on YouTube, support poured in. Politicians condemned the attack. People set up Facebook pages to offer good wishes. A vigil outside McDonald's drew a huge crowd.

The Trans Panthers Party for Self Defense — a Los Angeles-based group modeled after the Black Panthers — paid for Polis to stay in a hotel room for a few days as the publicity intensified.

"Happy to report that Chrissy Lee Polis (re: Baltimore McDonald's) is safe for right now at an undisclosed location and being shielded by Trans Panthers from any potential threats and media hounds," the group posted on its Facebook page.

Members of the loosely organized group, which has chapters worldwide, chipped in so Polis would have money for food and other everyday expenses — "whatever we could give," says Trans Panthers member Megan Knowles.

Group members tried to stay in touch, though it was sometimes hard.

"Chrissy moved around a lot because she's trying to balance her life and was trying to fit into society," Knowles says. "But we tried to."

Some people offered to help Polis find counseling, medical care and other services, Scurti says.

Others offered money, but much of that "never materialized," he says. "There were just a few [people] that she could really rely upon."

A human story

In Polis, many organizations saw a human face for the stories they'd been trying to tell, Scurti says.

"A lot of groups wanted to highlight the abuse that has impacted the trans community," says Scurti, whose practice concentrates on gay- and transgender-related law issues. "Without the human stories, it's very difficult for a legislator or a council person to pass laws to protect a group of folks."

The push for laws to protect transgender people from discrimination in Maryland started long before the attack on Polis. But leaders of the community say the incident helped bring the cause to the attention of a mainstream audience.

Sharon Brackett of Gender Rights Maryland says the media overstated Polis' role in the passage of transgender anti-discrimination laws in Baltimore and Howard counties.

Still, the video was a visceral example of the violence transgender people have faced, Beyer says.

"People could actually relive it themselves in a way that made it far more personal," she says. "And people start to care. It became a very powerful thing."

Brackett says, "There's no person, no normal human being, who can look at that video and say that's OK."

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.

"She's been picked on from Day 1," explains her father, Gus, on the couch watching television at Polis' apartment.

He's still worried that people are out to get his daughter.

"She's always had everything hard on her," he says.

While Polis' family and friends tell stories of bullying, she says she wasn't picked on in school. She says she dressed in unisex clothing and sat out of gym class. Polis wanted to be a tornado chaser when she was little. She had seen the Magic School Bus, the TV series developed to make science fun for kids, and weather fascinated her.

Her voice never changed, she says; it just always had that same squeaky sound.

Polis and her father have tried to work on their relationship after he was severely injured in a car accident last fall. They didn't get along when she was growing up.

When her father talks about her, sometimes Polis is "she," sometimes "he." But he's certain that Polis was "born a girl," he says, with "all the hormones and mannerisms from Day 1."

"She just didn't have that drive that a male-role person would," he says.

'Big Sis'

Brackett was flat on her back in an Arizona hospital when she saw video of the attack on her iPad.

"That could have been me," thought the then-49-year-old, who had flown to the Southwest for gender reassignment surgery.

After the beating, Brackett met Polis at a Panera Bread restaurant with Thoms.

"You have to understand that Chrissy is ... very much a creature of the streets," Brackett says. "She's street smart, tough. And she was very suspect in what my motivations might be."

Brackett says she only wanted to help, as others had helped her. She told Polis she might need her to speak for three minutes in Annapolis the next year, for testimony on bills that would ban discrimination against transgender people. Polis never did testify.

Polis nicknamed Brackett "Big Sis," and over the next few months, Brackett lent Polis money when she needed food. Polis also says she paid her cellphone bill for months. She advised Polis to lie low as she pursued legal action and urged her to get a GED.

Brackett saw Polis as someone who lived entirely in the present, with little concept of the future.

"On occasion, she would push away help because the help would often come with constraints," Brackett says. "There were a lot of people trying to help her. She wants what she wants when she wants it. She's a little impulsive that way."

Polis says she ended her friendship with Brackett because "she wanted to run my life." According to Polis, Brackett counseled her to break up with her boyfriend, a middle-aged man who is in jail.

"She got tired of me advising her," Brackett says.

Polis' life was complicated not only by her circumstances but by her actions. In December, a Baltimore County police officer came to Polis' apartment when she said she was robbed of $800 in her Essex neighborhood. She allegedly became belligerent when the officer arrived, and police said she told different versions of what happened. Polis was charged with disorderly conduct and received unsupervised probation.

Brackett and Polis had lost touch by that time.

"I wanted to show her that there was more to life than she was experiencing," Brackett says. "She doesn't have a hard life because she's trans. She has a hard life because she has a hard life. And being trans just makes it harder."