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A Call to Action: Alleged Hate Crime Against Maryland Trans Woman Garners National Attention

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Violence and discrimination against transgender people is in the news again after a video went viral of two females attacking another female — a transgender woman — allegedly because she used a women’s restroom at a McDonald’s in Baltimore County, Md.

“They started ripping my hair, throwing me on the floor, kicking me in my face,” Chrissy Lee Polis told the Baltimore Sun.

The attack is alarming and brutal. A recording by a McDonald’s employee who shoots the occurrence on his or her phone but does not help also seems to pick up laughter. None of the other employees intervene, and one warns the attackers to flee when the police are arriving. Only one customer comes to Chrissy Lee Polis’ aid.

At least one employee was fired, and the two attackers, one who is only 14-years-old, have been arrested.

The story has made national news, with media like Good Morning America and Ms. Magazine taking notice.

Chrissy Lee Polis is joined by advocacy groups in calling the attack a hate crime motivated by anti-transgender animus. Maryland has a hate crimes statute inclusive of gender identity that allows prosecutors to pursue these charges.

But the attack follows the failure just weeks ago by LGBT and allied advocates to get the Maryland General Assembly to pass the Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Act. The measure passed the House of Delegates, but was turned back by the State Senate without an up our down vote. The bill as written would have banned discrimination on the basis of gender identity in employment, housing and credit. A provision to ban discrimination in public accommodations (which would cover restaurants) was removed by the bill’s sponsor, Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk, who cited difficulty in passing the inclusive legislation because of legislators’ fear of addressing the issue of bathrooms at public accommodations.

Assault victim Chrissy Lee Polis is recovering.

Assault victim Chrissy Lee Polis is recovering.

The legislation advanced farther this year without public accommodations than it had in the past years it was introduced, but in the end, anti-transgender organizations — some designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center — still used baseless arguments about bathrooms. The piece-meal approach divided Maryland’s LGBT community, with a few transgender individuals and allies faulting the strategy and actively working against passage of a partial anti-discrimination bill in favor of one inclusive of public accommodations.

During the legislative session, Maryland Senate President Mike Miller made horrifying comments to the press about the legislation, calling it “anti-family.” SSL Campaign Manager Dan Furmansky, who has lobbied extensively in Annapolis on LGBT issues as former executive director of Equality Maryland, and who spent a month in Annapolis during the legislative session on behalf of the UUA, publicly criticized Maryland Senate leadership for killing the Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Act in an op-ed that appeared in the Washington Blade last week.

The UU Legislative Ministry of Maryland actively worked to pass the Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination measure, with clergy testifying in Annapolis and congregations gathering an impressive number of constituent communications to legislators in favor of the measure. The UUA’s LGBT Witness Ministries Coordinator, Delfin Bautista, also testified for its passage before a House committee.

“Maryland legislators need to display maturity — maturity that should be required of public office-holders — and debate the issue of protecting transgender individuals from discrimination, including discrimination in public accommodations and bathrooms,” Furmansky said.

Vicky Thoms stepped in to stop the assault

Vicky Thoms stepped in to stop the assault

The silver lining has been the outpouring of support and solidarity from people across the country with the individual who was targeted simply because of her identity, and because of her bravery to live her life authentically. The support is standing on the side of love in action. Several hundred Marylanders held a vigil last night at the McDonald’s for Chrissy Lee Polis, the individual who faced such overwhelming violence and hatred, and to honor the one bystander who intervened, Vicky Thoms. Thoms says she was punched in the face by the one of the attackers when she tried to stop the assault.

The lead sponsor of the Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Act, Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk, issued a strong statement to her colleagues, reported in Metro Weekly:

“Incidents such as this illustrate why the transgender community in Maryland and elsewhere needs to be protected through antidiscrimination legislation. It is time to rectify the wrong that has been done to transgender citizens of our State…This attack, which took place in District 8, has been broadcast all over the national news, and the video has gone viral, bringing shame to the State of Maryland for allowing such things to take place. I challenge each of the Senators who voted to recommit HB235 on sine die to serve as primary sponsors of a stronger version of HB235 in the 2012 legislative session.”

Del. Pena-Melnyk’s call for a “stronger” version of the legislation is a reference to the necessity of adding public accommodations into the bill that the State Senate must pass next year.

Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk, lead sponsor of Md's Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Bill

Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk, lead sponsor of Md's Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Bill

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz also condemned the attack:

“Last week’s beating of Chrissy Lee Polis in Rosedale once again reminds us of our responsibility as citizens to do all that we can to ensure that our neighborhoods provide a safe and welcoming environment for residents and visitor…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 plays a role in deciding what kind of a society we deserve and what kind of a society we will help create….That responsibility is shared by each of us who call Baltimore County home.”

The legislature has adjourned and does not reconvene until January 2012. Meanwhile, local activists are pressing Baltimore County to join other Maryland jurisdictions in implementing a local gender identity anti-discrimination law, inclusive of public accommodations.

Said Furmansky: “The Baltimore County Human Relations Commission should call for a county-wide anti-discrimination law similar to Baltimore City and Montgomery County, and the County Executive should issue a statement indicating that he is in full support of such a measure. Laws are not the ultimate answer, but they serve a fundamental role in moving society forward. Anti-discrimination and hate crimes statutes provide legal recourse for individuals who face violence and discrimination, and serve as a prosecutorial tool for law enforcement responding to such cases. More importantly, laws serve to educate communities, spur important conversations that open people’s minds, and make our society more welcoming and safe for all.”

Click here to learn more about how you can make your religious community a more hospitable and life-saving space for transgender people.