Jessica Max Stein

Chrissy Lee Polis: The New Kitty Genovese?

Filed By Jessica Max Stein | April 26, 2011 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Chrissy Lee Polis, hate crimes against LGBT people, Jessica Max Stein, Kitty Genovese, LGBT

I couldn't sleep Friday night after watching the video of Chrissy Lee PolisKittyGenovese.JPG being beaten by two teenage girls at a Baltimore McDonald's. As I lay awake at 3 am, cartoonishly wide-eyed in the dark, I couldn't stop picturing Polis curled fetal-position on the restaurant floor, as her attackers kicked her in the head and at least four bystanders looked on. These bystanders include Vernon Hackett, the McDonald's employee who documented the beating on his cell phone, and who has since, rightfully, been fired.

But I was impressed by the two people in the video who did get involved: the manager, who put himself between Polis and her attackers more than once; and the older woman customer who also tried to intervene. What makes one person become involved and another just stand by? Some answers can be found in the intriguingly parallel story of Kitty Genovese.

The name of Kitty Genovese has become synonymous with public apathy. In 1964, the 28-year-old woman was raped and murdered outside her own Queens, NY, apartment building as 37 neighbors saw or heard the attack and did nothing. But did you know that Genovese was a lesbian, and that her sexuality may have been a factor in her famous death?

Forty years after Genovese's murder, her partner, Mary Ann Zielonko, with whom Genovese shared a home, told the story to NPR.

Kitty was the most wonderful person I've ever met.... We were together for a year.... One year exactly, to the day. Being a gay woman in that society was very hard, so we were in the closet a lot.

Yet an acquaintance of the two women says that despite being in the closet, Zielonko feels that neighbors may have figured out their relationship and wonders if anti-gay bias played a role in the incident.

Until now we've never had the opportunity to ask whether the neighbors' indifference might have had an element of homophobia (not that the word existed then).... Mary Ann [Zielonko] says some of the neighbors suspected they were lesbians, because they were always together.

Might the neighbors' suspicion that the women were lesbians have affected their decision not to intervene? Had Genovese and Zielonko been a straight couple, perhaps with young children, would the neighbors have seen them as more familiar, more comfortable? Would they then have been more likely to come to Genovese's aid?

Similarly, was Polis left to be beaten in McDonalds because she was read as a trans woman? As Vernon Hackett wrote on his Facebook page (the all-caps are his, not mine): "HE WAS A MALE IN THA BATHROOM WITH THOSE TWO GIRLS." Had Polis been a cisgender woman in "tha bathroom," would Hackett have put down the camera and intervened, instead of filming for over three full minutes, including thirty interminable seconds as Polis writhed on the floor in a seizure?

Sadly, social psychology findings - discovered largely due to the Genovese case - confirm these implications.

Research has shown that people are more likely to help those they perceive to be similar to them, including others from their own racial or ethnic groups. In general, women tend to receive more help than men. But this varies according to appearance: More attractive and femininely dressed women tend to receive more help from passersby, perhaps because they fit the gender stereotype of the vulnerable female.

The straight bias in the last sentence - I would put scare quotes around "attractive" and "feminine" - is both irritating and revealing. Yet it does seem that bystanders did not intervene in both cases because the victims were perceived as "unconventional" women. To me this is more evidence that cis dykes and trans women are natural allies. (But perhaps that is another post.)

The Genovese incident spawned the field of prosocial behavior, as psychologists investigated what factors make people more likely to intervene in these sorts of situations. Perversely, had Hackett been the sole bystander, he might have been more likely to jump in. Psychologists discovered a "diffusion of responsibility": the more people who witness an event, the less likely any of them are to get involved.

Another factor blamed in both incidents is our increasing preoccupation with technology. Rather than today's ubiquitous mobile devices, such as the cell phone with which Hackett filmed the attack, in the early '60s the bogeyman was television.

In 1964, psychiatrist Ralph S. Banay said television was at least partly to blame. "We underestimate the damage that these accumulated images do to the brain," he said... The witnesses became confused, and paralyzed by the violence they witnessed outside their window. "They were fascinated by the drama, by the action, and yet not entirely sure that what was taking place was actually happening."

If anything, this drugged-by-technology state is only worse today. Most teenagers, for example - such as Hackett and the two teenage attackers - spend 30 hours a week on "screen time," practically a full-time job. Reality shows have replaced reality. We forget that we can actually enter the story and rewrite it.

As Leone Kraus asked yesterday, what are the ethics of social media? How should we handle our unprecedented ability to turn private moments into very public ones? When is our duty not to document, but to intervene?

And yet, largely through this technology, we have all become able to be involved. Though Hackett took the video presumably to mock and sensationalize the attack - he can be heard laughing throughout the recording - the widespread attention his video received has enabled people to bear witness to the event, however belatedly; to support Polis; and to come together to condemn this inexcusable bias and brutality. As Zielonko said:

I still have a lot of anger toward people because they could have saved her life.... I mean, you look out the window and you see this happening and you don't help. How do you live with yourself, knowing you didn't do anything? That's the biggest lesson to be learned from this: really love each other. We have to on this planet.

We can learn from both of these incidents. We can bear witness, and we can be more quick to intervene in the future. We can also use this as an opportunity to remember our shared humanity, to remind ourselves and each other of the need for empathy and elementary kindness, to say the least.

After all, as writer and peace activist Barbara Deming wrote, "We are all part of one another." Let's act like it.

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Leigh Anne | April 26, 2011 5:27 PM

Thankfully, Chrissy Polis is doing much better. She suffers in the aftermath of the trauma, but has a lot of support from family and friends.

I wish we could say the same about Kitty Genovese.

I thought the depiction of the neighbors as being fully aware of the attack in its totality were largely debunked as poor journalism at this point. From what I've read neighbors were aware of minute aspects of the attack, with perhaps one knowing that she was stabbed in the first attack, but none knowing the full extent of any of them until she was found dead.

Is it a case of whitewashing the past or truly poor journalism at the time?

You're going to have to link on that one. I googled around and it seems to me that there are a lot of people who still believe the witnesses could see:

Jill Davidson | April 30, 2011 6:41 PM

The 38 witnesses seem to have been far fewer, and it doesn't seem to be the case that the 3 eyewitnesses did nothing. Nonetheless, there is a lot of evidence for a "bystander effect", none of which exonerates from blame those who did nothing in the McDonalds beating

"To me this is more evidence that dykes and trans women are natural allies."

This is defs one of the funniest things I have heard in a while. Let us know how convincing 'dykes' of this goes, ok? Should be entertaining.

I'm confused by your comment. This dyke doesn't need convincing; that's why I said it.

She's referring to the fact that due to the continuing influence of the second-wave feminist movement -- a movement which was explicitly transphobic to its core -- the modern-day lesbian community as a whole is tremendously and viciously transphobic.

In the context of that history, your claim is ironic in the extreme no matter how sincere it is for you personally.

Um, yes, it's pretty clear that *you* don't need convincing, since you made that statement yourself. I am talking about the *other* 'dukes'; I am guessing that ones who feel as you do are one in a thousand, if that.

And those who don't even see that trans women and cis gay women (LB) have common cause, b/c they see trans women as just women, and not as 'trans' women, are not even one in a million.

I do realize that for some trans women, the trans part is an important part of their identity, and I agree with you in those cases. However, a lot of us just see ourselves as women, period, and only as 'trans' women b/c we are forced to deal with that perception and definition of us by the cis ppl we have to deal with.

Personally, this is the only place I call myself a trans woman, b/c it's relevant in calling out cis privilege, but that isn't how I walk around thinking of myself. I also used to think of myself as a lesbian, even decades before I transitioned, but even now that I have, pretty much no cis person sees me as one. And really, I am pretty much at the point of not considering myself one, either.

Wow. Perhaps I am unduly influenced by my wonderful, fluid, inclusive queer/trans NYC community, but "one in a thousand" feels unrealistic to me. I'm curious about other people's estimates and experience.

Also, I am confused as to why you keep putting "dykes" in quotes. It is a real term, a genuine identity category. Unless it's National Scare Quote Day, or something? Maybe you were just trying to be "funny"?

"Wow. Perhaps I am unduly influenced by my wonderful, fluid, inclusive queer/trans NYC community, but "one in a thousand" feels unrealistic to me. I'm curious about other people's estimates and experience."

Well, perhaps you are 'unduly influenced' by that, I dunno. Must be nice to live there, but I kinda doubt it's particularly representative of lesbian communities outside major urban centers. I guess you must not go to the same websites I do, either, 'cause it's pretty obvious on most of them, too.

Oh, and whose estimates and experiences are you talking about? Other cis 'dykes', or other trans women?

"Also, I am confused as to why you keep putting "dykes" in quotes. It is a real term, a genuine identity category. Unless it's National Scare Quote Day, or something? Maybe you were just trying to be "funny"?"

Are you 'confused', or perhaps 'pissed'?

I am not trying to be 'funny'; I just really don't like the term 'dyke', personally, even when used by someone about themselves. That term isn't quite reclaimed for me (same as 'fag'). I was trying to indicate that I was replying according to your terminology, not mine. I do know a lot of ppl who use it, but I just can't personally, without qualifying it with (oooooooo) 'scare quotes'.

However, I have to admit I love 'queer', and use it for myself all the time, even though I know a lot of not quite young anymore gay men who cringe at *that* term like I do 'dyke'.

Nope, not angry at all, genuinely confused. Thanks for explaining.

Also, with the scare quotes joke, I was trying to be "funny" myself... I guess the scare quotes were appropriate, lol!

The mere fact this crime was posted on the Internet (and featured black on white crime) doesn't make it unique. There have been several beatings of trans women in McDonalds... one in NYC administered by the staff as she was in the bathroom stall as, yes, other employees looked on and laughed (and McDonalds Corp. didn't apologize for that one). A more horrific example was Tyra Hunter in DC who laying dying on the ground after being in a car accident only to have the EMTs refuse to treat her and laughed at her. Trans women have a long history of being ridiculed by police, medical workers and bystanders during or after they've been brutalized. Let's not pretend what happened here is anything out of the ordinary... it's more a matter that, before, most people (queer and straight) just didn't bother paying attention before. That's the real Kitty Genovese analogy.

Honestly, I didn't read a word of your article because I couldn't get past the incredibly offensive headline. Kitty Genovese was violently and brutally MURDERED. However traumatic, unfair, and unpleasant the attack on Polis was, she is still alive. She isn't even permanently maimed or disfigured. This is not to minimize what happened to her, or excuse the actions of the perpetrators or the lack of action of the bystanders. But seriously, let's get some perspective.

Please don't come back and try to explain that the analogy is about the public reaction, not the crime itself. Not good enough. If the underlying incident isn't comparable, then you can't compare the reactions.

I lived one neighborhood over from where Kitty was killed when it happened, and it has left a barely healed scar on all New Yorkers who lived through it. Even 47 years later, the mere mention of her name brings back heartbreak. So please don't invoke it, just to make a sensational and cynical point. It is not appreciated.

Om Kalthoum | April 26, 2011 11:32 PM

I'm with you Rory.

I read the headline, looked at the old photo and kept on walking. I was a teenager when that crime happened and I remember it well. The story deserves to be kept alive and the lesbian angle, more recently divulged to the general public, is important for people to know. But please, trying to tie this murder to the Polis beating is really distasteful.

Please don't come back and try to explain that the analogy is about the public reaction, not the crime itself.

She doesn't have to try, considering that she said over and over in the article itself that she was comparing the public reactions and apathy towards violence, not the crime itself. The headline itself was glib, but that's what headlines are.

But seriously, let's get some perspective.
If you wouldn't even read the article, how can you tell others to get perspective?

The 18-year-old who attacked Crissy Lee Polis may be charged with attempted murder. The fact that the assailant was stopped before she finished doesn't change the intent of her act.

But Kitty Genovese didn't have an amused crowd watching and filming.

Regarding the Genovese case: I don't believe the account of 38 witnesses seeing or hearing part of the attack yet taking no action has been authoritatively debunked. It's rather a deliberate rewriting of history on the part of some people. A.M. Rosenthal, an editor at the New York Times at the time of the murder in 1964, wrote a short book about the crime, "Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case." It was re-released with a new introduction in 1999 — and boy, does he pack a wallop as he teases out the lessons of this crime into a huge ethics dilemma for the entire human race. He also discusses the facts and the reporting in great detail, so unless people think he's a huge liar and there's some conspiracy at foot that includes the police, I think it's safe to say this very sorry crime really did transpire as commonly understood.

"To me this is more evidence that dykes and trans women are natural allies."

Definitely agree. But invisibility of trans dykes much? How about:

"To me this is more evidence that cis dykes and all trans women are natural allies."

Evie, you're absolutely right. Such a small phrasing, such a big difference. Thanks for catching that! I've changed it.

Yes, to me that's a lot of the problem. Even if we are accepted, and not just tolerated, we are still 'trans'. Ppl may be nice, polite, friendly, helpful, all that, but they never see us the same as cis women.

Jay Kallio | April 27, 2011 8:23 AM

I think it is relevant to point out some of the facts in this recent assault that are not obvious from watching the video. Vernon Hackett posted a three minute video, which in itself seems to drag on with continued beating and kicking to Chrissy Polis' head. In a three minute context, the interventions by the manager and Vivian Thom, the 55 year old women with a back injury who finally came between the assailants and Ms. Polis look significant. According to witnesses the actual assault took over ten minutes, over three times what we have seen, during which Chrissy was beaten, while the bystanders laughed, jeered, and snickered at the action. When Ms. Thom entered the fray, she said she did so because she thought the two assailants were going to continue and eventually going to kill Chrissy Polis.

Thankfully Ms Polis is not dead, but what witnesses saw was a young transwoman in a fetal position on the floor, seizing and bleeding from her head and mouth, and only one older woman got up to put her body on the line to stop what she perceived as a possible murder.

I too was alive when Kitty Genovese was murdered, and remain horrified and in pain over it. But I do believe that though the outcome was not nearly as severe this time, there are legitimate parallels to be made here, especially about how people will act if they believe the person being victimized is a second class citizen, be she a lesbian or a transwoman, or belong to any other disenfranchised group.

It may be nearly impossible to parse which factors are most important in a case like this, but I think it is important to ask these questions and be open to the answers we find. Our work remains to advocate until we are all equal citizens.

Also, there do exist many people in the world who do spring into action to help those unlike themselves. I am privileged to have met many of them on community volunteer organizations such as local first aid squads, fire departments, and other civic organizations. These are people who train themselves to respond in traumas and are devoted to helping everyone, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity. When that becomes a group or community norm, people act far more courageously when put to the test. We can get there. As soon as one person acts, others come to follow.