Transphobia, Discrimination and the Delivery of Homeless Services

Look around your community and you may find there are some services that identify as being Women’s Services or Men’s Services. You may even find a co-ed shelter that has a Men’s Dorm and a Women’s Dorm. Is that based upon biological sex? Or is that based upon self-identified gender? For example, if someone that is biologically a male identifies as a female, is she (an intentional use of a pronoun here) accepted and permitted within the Women’s Services and Dorm?

I am biologically male. I identify as male. I identify as heterosexual. I am overwhelmed by the amount of transphobia and discrimination within homeless service providers. Not all, to be sure, but enough that I felt compelled to write a blog about it. Too many services have no desire to consider service delivery based upon preferred gender identity. Instead, the default is exclusion, misgendering (assigning services based upon perceived gender rather than self-identified gender) – which can be accidental or intentional, and a lack of acceptance. While great strides have been made to counter sexism and homophobia (well, comparatively anyways), there still seems to be a considerable amount of fear of people that are transgender or do not subscribe to any other type of gender norm.

Identifying as a transgendered person comes with considerable risks. There are considerable rates of violence and verbal abuse experienced by transgendered persons. There is also quite a lot of discrimination experienced in employment, access to health care, and education – and of course delivery in homeless services.

I am a proponent of serving people in the gender that they identify with, and not creating mechanisms to further discriminate against people. Let me, though, take on some of the questions and comments I have heard in my travels.

If you have a Woman’s Dorm and then you have a transgendered person wanting to stay there, it makes all the women in the dorm upset. They don’t want that person (My Note: “her”) there.

This is an opportunity for education and teaching acceptance, as well as normalizing services to transgendered persons if the person identifying as female stays in the Woman’s Dorm. If you accept the premise that the other women are upset and then discriminate based upon their preference, how is that any different than, say, a dorm full of white people saying it makes them upset to have an Asian, Hispanic or African American person stay with them and wanting you to make concessions based upon the preference of the white majority in the dorm? You wouldn’t. Nor should you.

We have to protect the safety of the women. We can’t have someone like that in there. And when they don’t dress like or wear their make-up like a woman or take off their wig, the ladies get really upset.

Yup – “someone like that”. So what does it mean to be a woman, then? There are no shortages of stereotypes woven into this. I doubt there is a dress code or make-up code that all women must abide to in the shelter. Asking someone to keep an exterior appearance of matching stereotypes of womanhood is not a reasonable expectation for anyone.

We can accommodate and tolerate transgendered persons through a special room we have.

Is exclusion really the answer? I am all for creating safe spaces. They may be warranted in some circumstances. Key to me, though, is that having a “special room” is a choice, not something forced upon people that identify as transgendered. Also, I think we should try to champion for inclusion and acceptance rather than accommodation and tolerance.

It puts everyone else at risk. There is the risk of sexual assault and other types of violence.

Risks are present in all types of congregate settings. Lots of things can cause tension. How we manage a non-violent environment is important. How we create acceptance and integration and inclusion is important. Fear, in this instance, is not a compelling reason to NOT serve someone.

A lot of people we serve and a lot of our donors are Christian. We cannot offend their beliefs by serving them.

Organizations that are entirely privately funded can do what they want and serve who they want, within the broader structure of law. I would still argue refusing to serve people that are transgendered is discrimination and warrants appropriate challenges.

If any organization receives public funding, then there can be absolutely no circumstance under which discrimination should be tolerated or supported. We should work with people that identify as being transgendered to ensure trans-inclusion in how we design facilities and programs to better facilitate integration and complete acceptance.

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong

4 Responses to “Transphobia, Discrimination and the Delivery of Homeless Services”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. Adam Bovilsky says:

    In response to your concluding paragraphs that suggest privately funded shelters cannot be required to serve individuals based upon the gender they present, that is not always true. In some states in the U.S., such as Connecticut, even privately funded shelters are bound by state laws that protect gender identity and expression. They can be covered under the housing or public accommodation anti-discrimination statutes, depending on the state. Sadly, not all states have adopted such laws yet, nor the federal government. But is seems clear this is the direction of the country and it will only be a matter of time.

  2. One thing that complicates this even further is the possibility that a devious man might “pretend” to be trans so that he can bunk with the ladies and ogle them or whatever. I think this is much more likely in an 80’s sitcom than real life, and I don’t think it changes any of your conclusions above; I think it’s a question we want to have thought about before anyone brings it up. The solution they used at the agency that runs the Women’s Clothes program here in Austin was that if they regularly lived out in the community as a woman, that was good enough (And in Texas, a pretty sure sign that you really mean it, even in Austin). Some of the women still had concerns and/or were uncomfortable, but they did exactly as you recommend and worked to foster inclusion and acceptance. And six years later, it seems to be working.

  3. Paul Behler says:

    Dear Iain and All,
    There is a newer model for “Biological” presentations of gender that has been identified; “Relative Hippocampal size and It’s sexual determination”. It is just my quote but there has been a scientific study on the subject. In a nutshell, definitively male Hippocampus size to the rest of the brain (if I remember correctly) is 10’s of percentage points larger than female size. Gay male size tends to be identifiable and measurably smaller than male; yet measurably larger than female. The opposite is true for lesbian (larger than female and smaller than gay male). The possibility that this kind of “ID” measurement is on the horizon is strong and also possibly quite possibly explains the differences in behavior. Please do not ask me for the title as I do not have direct reference to it anymore; but, it is out there, published in print. This just might make the “Penis vs. Vagina” debate mute. And in closing, Richard Dodson, I have witnessed what you have stated about Austin and the pretending in the Greater Baltimore area as well.

  4. Shana Eubanks says:

    When I was the director of a homeless shelter, we were set up as male and female dorms. However, we allowed clients to self-identify and sleep where they were comfortable. Despite staff concerns, a curiously positive thing occurred; the clients embraced the trans clients as they identified. The clients had far less tolerance for drugs and theft in their dorms. So, I think we can learn from those whom we are serving and ask them for feedback (and offering education, if necessary) rather than imposing our fears onto them.