Trauma still fresh for transgender beating victim

Chrissy Polis was beaten at Rosedale McDonald's

May 15, 2012|By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

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

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