In September, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will finalize regulations that protect transgender individuals from discrimination by homeless shelters. The thought of ensuring that transgender people can find shelter if they need it has enraged many conservatives.
In an article announcing the impending change, The Hill spoke to Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association — notably not identifying that organization as an anti-LGBT hate group. Wildmon complained that everyone else will be made uncomfortable and unsafe if room is made at shelters for the “sexually confused.” Imagining a kind of person who doesn’t exist, he pondered, “What if I self-identify as a woman today, and tomorrow I want to self-identify as a man? Why not self identify as a minority? Today, I’m white. Tomorrow, I’m black.” Shelters are already prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race.
Wildmon says that it “makes no sense at all.” “Good, Christian organizations that are trying to help people do not need Washington dictating their bathroom or bedding policies,” seeming to imply that blocking transgender people from any shelter bathroom or bed ought to be allowed to be one of those policies.
John Ashmen, president of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, expressed the other “well-being and safety” concern objectors have: “One of the guests at a rescue mission overheard someone on the street saying, ‘Dude, if you go down to the rescue mission and tell them you’re transgender, you can sleep in the women’s dorm and even shower with them.’”
Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council (another anti-LGBT hate group), further fanned the flames of this myth over at conservative outlet LifeSiteNews. Citing a single example from Toronto, Sprigg insisted that the notion that pretending to be transgender is “not merely a hypothetical.” The individual in that case, Christopher Hambrook, had a long history of mental illness and sexual assault convictions — information that could have been easily found in a background check like most U.S. shelters conduct — but he was nevertheless admitted to the shelters where he preyed on women. Notably, that incident happened five months before Toby’s Law, Ontario’s gender identity nondiscrimination ordinance, was enacted — and it wouldn’t have protected him anyway.
Contrary to Sprigg’s claim that the policy could harm “vulnerable women and children who may have already been victims of physical or sexual abuse,” the new HUD policy contains provisions for making case-by-case determinations to ensure the health and safety of shelters. In fact, it explicitly ensures, “Nothing in this proposed rule is meant to prevent necessary and appropriate steps to address any fraudulent attempts to access services or legitimate safety concerns that may arise in any shelter.” It’s true that these determinations cannot be based on the individual’s perceived or actual gender identity, nor the complaints of other residents about that gender identity, but that’s because gender identity does not determine whether a person is a risk to others. If a shelter is concerned that a particular transgender individual would not be safe, it can’t simply be because they are transgender.
If a shelter does determine that there is a safety concern, it is required to provide an equivalent accommodation (e.e. a single-use shower) or a referral to another facility that will be able to meet the needs of the individual and mitigate any safety concerns. “HUD anticipates that the use of this limited exception…would be rare,” the guidance explains, “since it would not apply unless the facts and circumstances demonstrated a nondiscriminatory risk to health or safety that could not be eliminated or appropriately mitigated by policy adjustments and physical modifications to buildings and facilities.”
Though conservatives have plenty of unfounded fears about what happens if transgender people access shelters, they offer no alternatives for where trans people seeking assistance should go. The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 19 percent of transgender people have experienced homelessness at the some point in their lives because of different forms of discrimination. Many of them trouble accessing shelter, with 29 percent being refused access altogether, 22 percent experience sexual assault by residents or staff, and 55 percent experiencing some kind of harassment by residents or staff.
Transgender people are more likely to need shelters, and without this rule, many shelters do not provide it. A Center for American Progress and Equal Rights Center study found that across four states, only 30 percent of shelters could confirm they were willing to house transgender women with women, with 21 percent openly admitting they would refuse shelter.
Some cities offer shelters specifically designed to be safe for transgender people, such as Washington, D.C.’s Casa Ruby, but there’s no guarantee they will be available or have room for everyone who needs them. HUD’s new rule will make it easier for transgender people everywhere to find shelter, particularly those who have been left destitute by family rejection and employment discrimination — the very stigma perpetuated by the conservatives who offer no solutions for transgender homelessness.