One Maryland trans activist called it a “perfect storm.” Barely a week after the state’s proposed Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Act died in committee, a brutal and unconscionable attack on a Baltimore-area trans woman occurred at a local McDonalds restaurant. This event captured the nation after the video of this unprovoked beating went viral. Sadly, this was not a one-in-a-million occurrence or even one in a thousand. This kind of brutality has become virtually commonplace. You can bet that everyday, somewhere, a trans person is in the midst of a verbal and/or physically violent attack.
In dealing with trans discrimination issues, there are often several recognizable elements that typify these events. Most common are employment issues, public accommodations issues and hate crime issues; but, as set forth in my March 5, 2011, column, “Injustice at Every Turn,” there are many particulars wherein trans persons find they have not been accorded a level playing field. We don’t always have a clear path to determining the core issues — it’s often a combination of many factors.
What went wrong in this Maryland McDonalds? With whom does the culpability lie? And, what can we do to put an end to this needless and senseless violence that makes the lives of many trans persons survival obstacle courses?
Many have called for accountability regarding this incident. Many have pointed the finger at McDonalds. It’s certainly true that the fast food chain fired the employee who originally filmed the four minutes of hell for the victim, Chrissy Lee Polis. And, it’s also true that they issued a statement condemning the actions of the two customer perpetrators. Regardless, I find myself wondering if McDonald’s still shares some blame for this incident.
Yet, is this really about public accommodations? Ms. Polis reported that one of the perpetrators had made a disparaging comment about her use of the women’s restroom. “That’s a dude, that’s a dude and she’s in the female bathroom.” The fact that the beating took place in a public establishment lends credence, whether deserved or not, to charges that there were public accommodations concerns. That a McDonalds employee made the video and posted it on YouTube furthers that assumption. Some have made the case, however, that even if Maryland had enacted public accommodations protections, incidents like this one would still occur. And, this may very well be the case. But, at least mandated legal protections would go some distance into establishing that vicious behavior motivated by hate would have serious and remedial consequences should establishments be found culpable.
So, even though it would be convenient to call this a public accommodations issue, that’s really only part of what should concern us here. And, even though it’s apparent that malice and hatred played a huge role in the events as they unfolded, it would be incorrect to look at this event merely through the prism of hate crimes and hate crime enhancement (the local district attorney has decided to handle this as a hate crime).
Change.org published a petition from one individual demanding redress from McDonalds: “Despite a decent record of workplace discrimination protections for gays and lesbians, McDonald’s lacks standard policies for protecting transgender individuals. McDonald’s does not include gender identity or gender expression in its anti-discrimination policies, nor do they require employees to go through diversity trainings that cover the subject of gender identity and gender expression.”
Furthermore, McDonalds has a deplorable track record regarding the hiring of trans individuals. I corresponded with Denise Leclair, president of the International Foundation for Transgender Education (IFGE), about this problem. She responded, “McDonalds has promoted the fact that for a tremendous number of people it has been their entryway into the job market. They have run commercials to this effect, showing successful businesspeople who say that McDonalds was their first job. They use this to position themselves as an American institution, like mom and apple pie. However, this is not true if you are transgender.
I have heard from countless trans women that they can’t get hired there, and they have no corporate policy protecting gender identity or gender expression. If they are the gateway that they claim to be, then they are also de facto gatekeepers, locking an entire population out of the job market. The message is clear: people like you (trans) don’t belong here.
If people in places like McDonalds had ever had a trans coworker, they might see trans people as actual people, not just stereotypes. It might not have made any difference in the Chrissy Polis case, but maybe it would have. What I do know is that this is not an isolated incident. There have been numerous cases of discrimination against trans people in McDonalds, both as potential employees and as customers. It might be legal, but it isn’t ethical, and the bottom line is that is it is simply bad business.”
The violent behavior at this Baltimore McDonalds may have been averted had the company pursued a policy of equal hiring practices and if local and national workplace protections were in place. Certainly, having trans employees goes a long distance in the education process, and may help to remedy the kind of ignorance which is part and parcel of hate motivated crime. It’s possible that, had a trans individual been employed at this McDonalds, co-workers would have had a different response than to film and watch while an innocent victim was being pummeled and dragged across the floor by her hair!
A comprehensive perspective on this incident and others like it makes it clear that efforts to reduce and/or remove discrimination require we factor in workplace protections, public accommodations protections and hate crime protections. It should be obvious that education is not only the mortar by which we craft legislation, and public policy; it’s our only hope to move forward toward a world free of ignorance and discrimination. But it’s hard to educate when you can’t even get your foot through the door. : :