Ruminations on an Attack

public rest room stallsA few days ago a trans woman was attacked just outside of a women’s rest room at a Baltimore area McDonald’s. Two nontrans women, one of them a minor, beat her until she was curled into a fetal position on the floor, and then kicked her in her back, head, and neck. The terrible video, captured by a McDonald’s employee who did nothing to aid or defend her, was quickly posted on YouTube, whereupon some ignoble comments were added to the physical injuries already sustained. The violence lasted around 3 minutes, and the Internet erupted, all over again, with vitriol, calls for quick arrests and/or vengeance, and a whole lot of assumptions about transfolk, people of color, and the McDonald’s anti-discrimination policy.

It is, as is the case so often, a lot to sort through. Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

  • I’m not going to blame the lack of public accommodations protections in Maryland for this event, because of course, having PA doesn’t prevent violence. However, having PA protections and communicating about those protections to state residents does send a message that this kind of violence isn’t tolerated. Will people still attack other people? Sure, and in watching the video, I was struck that there would be moments of abatement followed by another round of kicking and screaming. Laws wouldn’t have prevented this assault, but the lack of protections also didn’t serve anyone in this episode, either. Whatever it was that made the Maryland legislators pull PA from this year’s HB235, I hope they remember this moment when the opportunity to bring it up again next year rolls around.
  • This is yet another example of how it is not transfolk who attack nontrans people in bathrooms—it’s the transgender people who are attacked. That the “men in dresses” concept is trotted out across United States jurisdictions to keep lawmakers from enacting gender identity protections is no accident; it’s simple misinformation, and it’s well over the boundary of immoral to act like there is an ounce of validity to this stance. I’ve been yelled at in bathrooms, even since before I came to see myself as transgender, because I wasn’t feminine enough for some stranger. After I began transition, I was asked not to use the men’s room during my gay bowling league nights because I made some other patron “uncomfortable.” You know what’s uncomfortable? Holding one’s bladder for 10 hours.
  • Here’s a list of some well known companies that do not include gender identity or expression in their nondiscrimination policies: Exxon/Mobile, IKEA, International House of Pancakes*, Home Depot*, Williams-Sonoma*†, Peet’s Coffee, Inc.*, and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. If we’re going to boycott McDonald’s because they don’t include gender identity or expression protections in their policy, shouldn’t we also forgo our business at these other companies? Why wait for an incident to occur?
  • I would pressure my colleagues and friends to find another response to this awful incident than a “throw away the key” mentality, especially as one of these assailants is 14 years old. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be held accountable, but I’m wary of giving them over to a criminal justice system that on a daily basis, does grave harm to women of color and to transgender people both. Couldn’t they learn more by having to do community service for a local trans rights or support group than stewing about in a cell? I grant that I’m a bleeding heart here, but I can’t believe this is the only option for these girls.
  • I recognize that the video is traumatic to watch, but making assumptions about what did and didn’t happen based solely on blog recounting of events and media reports—which already have corrected some of their original accounting—is problematic and potentially muddies the waters of discussion. It is not the case that all of the McDonald’s employees stood by and mocked the victim. The manager attempted more than once to break up the fight. Also, a bystander came to her aid. We need to be careful about how we talk about interactions in these violent moments, because generalizations obfuscate actual behavior and make productive conversation that much more difficult. And for the sake of people trying to use public facilities of any kind—we simply have to be clear about how anger, violence, and rescue occur in these instances or we may continue to hoist insufficient or inappropriate responses to them in their aftermath.
  • Although help eventually came to this woman during the moment of assault, the catcalling and harassment online afterward were riddled with transphobia and gender policing. For those of us with a longer memory of the DC/Baltimore era, this smacks of the Tyra Hunter case in which EMTs laughed so hard and so long at her trans body after Ms. Hunter was struck by a car, rather than administer care to her, that she died of her wounds. It is traumatic for many of us to see the blows actually falling and challenging to unpack the many moments of violence that we’ve experienced, witnessed, or heard about, without recoiling against this latest incident. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, violence against transgender people has been on the rise in the last several years. Why do we think we have a Transgender Day of Remembrance every year? Because we enjoy morbid parties?
  • That said, identities and social positions have a role in violent encounters, but they may not be the cause. Even the victim in this attack said that the fight was over a guy, not over her trans status. Using the McDonald’s incident as a bellwether over public accommodations is tricky and loaded, especially if the survivor herself comes forward to deny such a connection. If we disregard her voice here, what effect does that have on her agency?

I’m appalled that this happened, yet again, that some people stood by and took glee in posting the beating online, reveling in the comments on YouTube. I’m glad the spontaneous cameraman has lost his job, for whatever that’s worth. I hope the survivor finds fast healing and new support. I hope the assailants grow from this experience and temper their sense of entitlement. And I dearly wish that we respond to this even in a principled way that supports each other.

*includes protections for sexual orientation
†has no same-sex benefits for employees
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15 Comments on “Ruminations on an Attack”

  1. Jay Kallio
    April 23, 2011 at 10:14 pm #

    Everett, what Chrissy said was that the attack was not about “what so many people are saying it is about” – she may well be referring to race, because the police and media were reporting this as a race based hate crime. We can be too quick to think her statement is about us. The video is edited, and elsewhere she reports people jeering, “it’s a dude, it’s a dude!” so others would not go to her aid.

    Whatever the Maryland legislature decided last week, there was also a fear mongering anti trans hate campaign conducted in the state, and we must face that this kind of media campaign does intensify adverse public sentiment, and promote violence against us. Losing that bill, first by the elimination of protections in public accommodations, and then by the total rejection of assigning us any rights and protections at all, sends a clear message that it is OK to deny us any rights or safety, or personal dignity. That is serious.

    There is very good reason other oppressed minorities have fought for codified equal rights and protections under the law and other antidiscrimination legislation- because it does ultimately make a difference in the discrimination we face. Laws make it harder to overtly discriminate, provide recourse when we can prove discrimination of that an assault was hate based, and send the opposite message – that bigotry and discrimination is not OK for the public to pursue with impunity. It removes the social sanction for bigotry and hate, and makes it clear that society will not tolerate or be complicit in bigotry.

    I disagree that this event was not about transphobia. I do respect whatever Chrissy perceives this assault to be about, but I retain my perceptions as well. Sometimes we do not recognize when we are being discriminated against. Sometimes we block that information from awareness because it is simply too overwhelming to contemplate, and we cannot be overwhelmed with the despair such awareness would generate.

    Whatever the attackers intended, the jeering and catcalls from bystanders and the employee filming the assault with the intent to post it as evidence that “this was a man dressed as a woman in the women’s bathroom, and he knew he was a man and shouldn’t have been in there”, while during the event itself there were jeers of “It’s a dude, it’s a dude” reported by Chrissy, so that people would not go to her aid or stop the attack – all that speaks about transphobia. Our oppression is as much about the protection we are not given, when assaults maim or kill us. We are not deemed deserving of protection; our lives are expendable. Additionally, many times we cannot go for recourse when harmed, because we will likely face an unsympathetic, or hostile, humiliating legal system, and bad press. We do not want to be further traumatized. Perhaps we could not survive it.

    And bottom line, please note the very definition of what a hate crime is; a crime that injures an entire group, not just one individual, by instilling terror and despair on an entire oppressed community. The end result; of our being terrified to go out, of withdrawing from life, of being risk averse when the only way to grow and get ahead in life is to take the risks and face challenges – this is what is so life destroying about bigotry and hate. The true hate crimes may be relatively rare, but their cumulative impact of diminishing so many lives is tremendous. Our entire world is made less by the loss of so much talent, energy, and the inspiration of actively participating, loving people.

    We all need each other, and we need each other whole.

  2. evmaroon
    April 23, 2011 at 10:38 pm #

    Jay, I appreciate that you took the time to write out all of this and copy it from Facebook to here. As I said over there, I didn’t intend to say that this attack wasn’t about transphobia. Certainly transphobia played a part, made her vulnerable to the attack in the first place and served as fuel for the egging on of the attackers. I just want to try to unpack what else went on in the space because I think it helps us work to prevent future attacks. Here I’m thinking of the work of Marty Langelan, who has written books on de-escalating street, domestic, and workplace harassment and violence.

  3. Jay Kallio
    April 23, 2011 at 11:00 pm #

    I believe that efforts to de-escalate need to be done for the microcosm of this particular event, but the more overarching approach must be for the macrocosm of transphobia in society; legislation to focus the attention of public awareness of injustice, then the long term effort to “win the hearts and minds” through interpersonal interaction. They must work together, otherwise the trend of bigotry will not be changed. I understand the social work approach of finding an individual answer, but we face a much broader societal problem. We cannot expect that the individual answer addresses the tremendous problem of transphobia. This is an ongoing battle that will likely require generations of active engagement and the evolution of wisdom and compassion to resolve.

    • evmaroon
      April 23, 2011 at 11:11 pm #

      I don’t disagree, Jay, that we can necessarily extrapolate from an individual event to all events, which is why I regularly take a tack against generalizing. The reverse is also problematic—we have to be careful when placing a broad lens over individual moments so that we don’t confound what happened in the local with political agendas that may not match up. I want us to win those hearts and minds; I want to see the end of the false “transgender threat” mentality, of gender policing and rigid gender roles that pain and lessen the lives of millions of people. I believe in a multi-pronged approach that uses legal protections, radical subversion, and heartfelt compassion and respect to push against idiocy, bigotry, and lunacy. I don’t expect this single moment to win the battle, but if we start off by misunderstanding this moment, how do we make real progress? That’s my main question here.

  4. Jay Kallio
    April 23, 2011 at 11:49 pm #

    I think what you are saying is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. And accurately fix what actually happened here in this instance. But I invite you to look at how it may be equally valid to fix it, even if it “ain’t broke” in your view in this instance. It’s “broke” in the larger context, and needs fixing. Correct me if I am wrong.

    I’m certain people will see the event from very different perspectives and each of our views is limited by the set of personal experiences that inform their view. We all bring a primarily unconscious set of expectations and transference to every view. Therefore promoting the individual approach will necessarily be colored and inexact as a science. Many of these interventions, as well intended as they are, will fail, because the external social conditions override the individual interests and views. Forces greater than our individual will overwhelm our efforts.

    There is always a dynamic tension between the interests and priorities of the individual and society. My and Chrissy’s interests in this struggle may be precisely the same, or may diverge, as the consequences of speaking out adversely affect her life. She may be forced into making huge personal sacrifices that she has no way to predict in advance in order to pursue her justice. That is the long term price of activism. Or she might prefer to solve the issue on her personal terms, for the good of those directly involved. Those are all personal choices that I fully respect. I want Chrissy to have a good life, and her satisfaction with her resolution to this assault is important to me. If it retires the issue without making any difference on the level of society, so be it. The work will continue, either way.

    But I also contend that there may be several levels of “reality” going on here that may all be perfectly valid, and require action. In other words, it is not “misunderstanding” the microcosm to reframe it in a larger context, it is addressing a parallel, pervasive truth. I do not want to merely solve this problem at this McDonald’s restaurant, I want the change that will prevent these things from happening anywhere.

    I may be a bit more tolerant of the bumbling and inexact nature of the struggle for social justice, having seen over years that despite all our mistakes, the grinding wheel of justice turns on. I never go so far as George W. Bush in saying that “we create reality”, despite the facts on the ground, but on some level what he said works. If there is a greater, pervasive truth that resonates behind it, it may work. Because it is right that it work. I trust the process. Whatever needs to come up, will come up, even when it is not a perfect match, because we need to face this. Am I making sense?

    • evmaroon
      April 23, 2011 at 11:52 pm #

      No, I’m certainly not saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” not sure where I sound like imsaying that, honestly. In fact, I’m almost certain we’re nearly in agreement, Jay.

  5. April 24, 2011 at 6:15 am #

    Thank you, Ev. When I see two groups of women who are constantly being devalued and told nobody can or should love them fighting each other my heart breaks in a million pieces. These girls who attacked this other girl were undeniably cruel and deserve to be punished for assaulting another person. What is lost – and I am in NO WAY DEFENDING this despicable act – is how society does a great job of pitting groups who should be natural allies to one another against each other in order to prevent us from dismantling the systems that subjugate us both.

    • evmaroon
      April 24, 2011 at 8:09 am #

      I like to ask the question “who is served by” in these moments. If we are willing to throw the girls away like so much refuse, who is served by that? Definitely not Chrissy, not the trans community, not the girls, or any of these people’s families. I’m not willing to do the Tea Party’s work for them.

  6. April 24, 2011 at 6:31 am #

    Ev,
    Thank you for detailing the effects of this act on those involved and those of us on the outskirts. I also appreciate your list of common businesses lacking the all-inclusion policies so needed today. Nicely done.

    • evmaroon
      April 24, 2011 at 8:11 am #

      Thanks, Meredith! It was a little encouraging to see how many businesses do include gender identity or expression in their non-discrimination policies…private enterprise seems to be ahead of government jurisdictions on this one, presumably because it’s bad business to discriminate against one’s employees. Not that that doesn’t stop them…

  7. April 24, 2011 at 9:11 am #

    I wholeheartedly agree with you on so many of your points, especially that the girls should have some sort of community service rather than jail time. The only problem is that if someone assaults someone else similarly, and it’s not a hate crime (just “Jimmy made a ‘yer mom’ joke I din’t like, sew I kicked him in da head till I got bored”), then should they have community service instead of jail tiem for assault?

    These girls have got to be recidivists. I bet they would have beaten up a woman who walked into the room who just plain looked different.

    and “you’re not feminine enough to use this bathroom?” yeah. I’ve had that. true, back in the 80’s when Steve Perry’s hair was the norm, but yeah.

    • evmaroon
      April 24, 2011 at 11:28 am #

      When it comes down to it, I have enormous doubts about our prison system as a place for protecting the public. We lock up more people than any other western country by far, and we are one of only a scant few industrialized nations that still uses capital punishment. For violent offenders, I understand the need for accountability and public safety, of course. But I don’t for a moment believe that locking up young women does anything to help them or help us, and I understand that many prisons have anger management classes and the like. If people haven’t learned to respect others and respect themselves, and if society has zero expectations for them their entire lives, I don’t hold out much hope for group therapy. All of this is to say that sure, I agree with you on precedent setting for others. And I’m not sure that SE nod degree assault, which is what’s being talked about in this case, would get people a lot of jail time anyway.

  8. evmaroon
    April 24, 2011 at 11:28 am #

    Exceuse the autocorrect. That was second degree assault.

  9. April 25, 2011 at 7:09 am #

    These girls have got to be recidivists. I bet they would have beaten up a woman who walked into the room who just plain looked different.

    Any sources to cite for this assertion? It’s a pretty big accusation to hurl without basing on anything other than the fact they are accused of this crime.

    • evmaroon
      April 25, 2011 at 8:00 am #

      That is a big accusation and given that these people are 14 and 18, I’d rather hold out that they have the capacity to change than that they’ll always go for a fight. I don’t think we know anything about them yet to use to draw assumptions.

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