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The Assault on Chrissy Lee Polis: The Not So Innocent Bystanders

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Three minutes and 2 seconds. That's how long a McDonald's employee in Baltimore stood by on April 18, videotaping as two young customers attacked Chrissy Lee Polis, a 22-year-old transgender woman, punching her in the face, pulling her across the floor by her hair, and kicking her in the face until she appears to have a seizure.

This incident has received widespread attention, and rightly so. In an assault this brutal, there is so much to be disturbed by -- from the youth of Chrissy's teenage attackers to the gratuitous violence of their repeated kicks, slaps, and jeers, which seem never to end. But perhaps most disturbing is the fact that the video exists at all. Instead of intervening, a McDonald's employee stood by and filmed the attack while several others can be heard laughing and cheering in the background. Only one bystander, 55-year-old Vicky Thomas, tried to stop the beating, and was punched in the face in the process.

Violence is always unsettling, but the coupling of this brutal attack with the callousness of those who stood by and jeered adds a chillingly dehumanizing quality. That such an incident could happen speaks volumes about the place of transgender people in our society -- and about who must bear responsibility. In seeking to understand these horrific events, we must face the facts. Even before this attack, Chrissy had already been deprived of her dignity and humanity by living in a state, and a nation, that denies transgender people the most basic legal protections. In facing this reality, we must acknowledge our own complicity in failing to challenge the pervasive violence and discrimination against transgender people.

Every day, transgender women and girls in Maryland and other states are targeted by hate violence. According to a recent survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 53 percent of transgender respondents reported having been verbally harassed in a public setting, and 8 percent reported having been physically attacked.

And as experts in the field are well aware, violence against transgender people tends to be particularly brutal and severe. In 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported that transgender women and girls account for 50 percent of the victims of fatal hate crimes against the LGBT community. Tyra Trent, a 25-year-old African-American transgender woman was murdered in Baltimore just two months ago, an apparent victim of a hate crime.

While people are right to demand that Chrissy's attackers be brought to justice, the issue of violence against the transgender community is a much broader issue and requires a much broader response.

Earlier this month, the Maryland Senate voted down a bill that would have provided much needed protections for transgender people against discrimination in housing and employment. It is not too much to suggest that it is no coincidence that such a gruesome attack came on the heels of a legislative statement that it is acceptable to treat transgender people unfairly because of who they are. Even if there is no direct connection, the public message sent by such a vote is unmistakable.

Chrissy deserved protection from that attack, but she also deserves the many other basic protections that are currently denied to transgender people. She deserves the right to work free from discrimination and make a living. She deserves the right to choose where she wants to live without worrying about being denied housing because of her gender identity. She deserves the right to walk into a restaurant without fear of being assaulted because of who she is. And so does the entire transgender community. Until our laws reflect that simple fact, the transgender community will remain vulnerable to this type of violence. When our laws deny a community's basic rights, the culture that is sure to result is one that denies that same community its basic humanity.

Before we rush to assign sole blame to Chrissy's teenaged attackers, we should take a hard look at ourselves. Until we stop colluding in the denial of these basic rights, we are scarcely less responsible for what happened to Chrissy than those who delivered the blows -- or those who stood passively by.