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Feature Wed Jun 22 2011
When violence goes viral, as happened most notably in some of the raw video footage depicting and sharing with the world the outpouring of protests during the Middle East's Arab Spring earlier this year, it can be difficult to accept the images we see and the sounds we hear as reality. Our mind chooses to resist the Hollywood tendency to place ourselves in the lead "character's" shoes and we distance ourselves from those living another life, speaking a different language and living in a foreign land. We retweet and move on to the next slice of scandal, society or, if we're lucky, substance amongst the digital deluge.
But once one watches the video depicting the violent April 18 attack of 22-year-old trans woman Chrissy Lee Polis in a Baltimore area McDonald's, it's hard to forget the sound of her screams amidst a backdrop of ambivalence, at best, and egging on, at worst. It's difficult to erase the image of Polis' hair being pulled and her body being dragged along the floor by her teenage assailants, who leapt on her in the restaurant's restroom. It's impossible to un-cry the tears that may shed upon watching the attacks coming to an end only after an older woman interjected -- and the restaurant's employees warned the attackers that police were, finally, en route to the scene.
The video, in its somewhat surreal graphicness, clearly struck a communal chord, shocking over 150,000 of its viewers to date into action as they signed a Change.org petition calling for justice for Polis. Many more shared the video with their friends and followers through social networks and the incident attracted global media attention.
And while the emotional outpouring was palpable, particularly from the perspective of a journalist working mostly in queer media, one thing the vast majority of the coverage and commentary surrounding Polis' incident did not do was to place the horrific, near-fatal tragedy into a broader context of either the widespread harassment directed toward transgendered people using public bathrooms nor the broader-yet culture of violence and discrimination that faces many trans and gender-nonconforming individuals as they simply aim to go about their daily lives in public spaces.
Little more than a month after Polis' accident, a 32-year-old trans woman was attacked by three individuals in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven convenience store in Fredericksburg, VA. Last fall, then-26-year-old trans woman Tyjanae Moore was arrested and thrown into jail for using the women's restroom at the Houston Public Library, despite state law indicating that public accommodations could not legally discriminate on the basis of one's gender identity.
Here in Chicago, too, harassment against trans residents is described by the community's advocates as "the common denominator" for the vast majority of its members, regardless of their age, race, socioeconomic status or even where in the city they live. Last month, west suburban trans woman Meggan Sommerville reported she had been barred by her employer, Aurora's Hobby Lobby, from using the women's restroom. She has filed suit with the crafts retailer.
Thus was the impetus for the Chicago T-Friendly Bathroom Initiative, a project led by the relatively new grassroots organization Genderqueer Chicago and the Chicago-based advocacy LGBT group Equality Illinois. The project, launched in February, is asking businesses throughout the city to step up and certify their space as safe and welcoming of people of all genders, including those who identify as transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, bigender and even as gender-fabulous, as the project's wiki page reads. Such a statement publicly identifies their business' compliance with the Illinois Human Rights Act, a law expanded to protect LGBT Illinoisans from discrimination in the workplace and in public accommodations in 2005.
The initiative's organizers also hope to spread heightened awareness of what is a common fear held by many in the city's trans community but is often misunderstood or ignored altogether by others, even by those who identify as or consider themselves close allies with lesbian, gay and bisexual people.
Malic White, an initiative organizer with Genderqueer Chicago, took issue with the way in which incidents like Polis' attack were portrayed as isolated by some in the broader LGBT community. But White, too, understands why the issue may not be so readily on the radar of on the radar those who are not trans (i.e. cisgender).
"It's something they may not encounter in their everyday lives," White said. "A lot of people in the community might not be used to that kind of anxiety of 'Do I walk through the door that's labeled 'Male' or the door that's labeled 'Female?'' in any situation where gender segregation is happening."
"And you have to wonder, each time, what's going to happen to me if I make this choice or that choice."
Thus far, some 30 mostly North Side restaurants, bars, salons and other establishments have come aboard the initiative and signed onto the project's pledge. They display a window decal indicating to gender-nonconformists out there that their space is one that is welcoming to all.
To Shannon Minter, the legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, one of the leading national LGBT advocacy groups, the project reflects the spirit of the burgeoning trans rights movement's new defiance in recognition of the fact that having protective laws on the books, like the Illinois Human Rights Act, is never enough to ensure equality.
"What's different is now our community is speaking up about [these incidents] and mobilizing," Minter explained. "Often, in the past, there was no support system. These terrible incidents would happen and individuals were just isolated and had nowhere to turn for help and to actually let anyone know what happened. Maybe people thought they wouldn't be believed, that no one would care, or that the experience was so traumatizing and humiliating that they were too ashamed to even talk about it."
But today, actions such as the Chicago bathrooms initiative are providing the missing pieces of the puzzle, of which the laws on the books are only part.
"We have to use those laws to change the culture, but you can't just sit back and think that because a law has been passed everything will improve for transgender people," he added. "It's a tool and we have to use it for public education but it must be combined with community organizing and political work."
The initiative's focus on safe restroom access is also significant given social conservative opposition to both federal and state-level non-discrimination laws banning discrimination has often used the topic to stir up controversy around the proposals.
When a bill outlawing discrimination against trans individuals was proposed earlier this year in Massachusetts, that state's Family Institute argued that women and children would be "put at risk since access to sensitive areas such as single-sex bathrooms, locker rooms" would be permitted to "gender-confused people." They coined it "the bathroom bill," though neither the word "bathroom" nor "restroom" so much as appeared in the legislation.
An interest in countering the broader social climate of fear and hostility toward trans people using public restrooms is a clear motivator for those who have signed up for the Chicago project so far.
Publicist Scott Cramer said it was important for his client, the hipster-hopping and late night-bopping Berlin Nightclub to give "equality and respect to all, without hassle," when asked why his club joined the initiative. That decision has been a non-issue for the bar's patrons.
Seth Alexander, general manager of Edgewater's Metropolis coffee shop, said his cafe signed onto the initiative and re-signed their single-occupancy restrooms as gender neutral because it was an issue many of their customers and employees alike cared deeply about. Aside from noting a few moments of confusion, Alexander said there have been no complaints about the new signage.
Though the response has been "overwhelmingly positive," some challenges have persisted in getting the project off the ground. In addition to raising the funds to print window decals, a task they have thus far succeeded in, fellow Genderqueer Chicago organizer Kate Sosin said some establishments have taken a supportive toward the trans community in their words without necessarily following through with their actions.
"It's very much a popular stance to take today that you support and want to affirm trans people but actually doing that can be a challenge," Sosin said.
Some establishments, even those that are gay-owned, have questions whether there was truly a need for the initiative in the first place, suggesting that trans people "try harder" to pass and avoid being clocked or, as another source described being told, to "stop looking so freaky."
A point of particular contention for Sosin is perhaps the most glaring absence from the list of those businesses that have thus far signed onto the pledge: Lakeview's Center on Halsted, the city's premier LGBT community center. While the center recently re-signed its public bathrooms to offer either "male-identified" and "female-identified" options, this excludes many individuals who do not identify with either of those terms. While the center has at least one single-occupancy gender-neutral restroom, Sosin said it is usually locked and unavailable.
"We really need to start talking about this issue in all spaces including LGBT spaces because it is one of the biggest concerns for our community and it cuts across race, class and everything," Sosin noted. "And in terms of creating accessible safe spaces, LGBT centers and spaces need to lead this charge."
Despite these challenges, the group has ambitious aims to increase the number of businesses they've signed on to the initiative to 500 by the year's end, perhaps even broadening the project to include spots outside of the Chicago area. The project is even inspiring those outside of the city, as organizers in Portland, Ore., have also expressed an interest in establishing a similar campaign there.
Organizers noted that upcoming distribution days are planned throughout the city and in Evanston in the summer months ahead and encouraged those interested in participating to log onto their website to lend a helping hand in spreading the message.
And that message, noted co-organizer and Equality Illinois board member Christina Kahrl, remains fairly simple going forward, even if it comes with an important caveat indicating that the path toward justice for Polis, Moore, Sommerville and the thousands of other trans-identified Americans remains a long, curvy one.
"The law is, has been and should continue to be on our side of this issue. We should not have to be forced into doing something that goes against our sense of self and our own identity," Kahrl said, "but people are going to be bigots and you can't legislate bigotry out of existence entirely."
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.