A Dangerous Message in Dangerous Times: HUD’s Transphobic Shelter Ban

If you are a woman and happen to exhibit facial hair, a certain height or a noticeable Adam’s apple and you’re looking for a place at a federally funded single-sex or sex-segregated homeless shelter, you may soon be under particular scrutiny by the admissions staff. In other words, discrimination based on gender identity could become legal, especially discrimination that is based on stereotypical gender features – such as the ones listed above. This is according to a new proposal by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, announced in a July 1 press release.

In a nutshell, this proposed rule gives shelters the permission to reject people based on their gender identity and based on stereotypical gender-binary traits, ostensibly in order to protect cisgender people who wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing a space with someone who’s assigned sex at birth does not align with their gender identity. Essentially, this would allow shelter providers to make their own polices around admission determinations – a free pass for discrimination.

With this rule the Trump administration modifies and quasi nullifies the Obama-era Equal Access Rule under which trans people had the right to be housed according to their gender identity. Now, trans women might have to fear being placed into a men’s shelter, and vice versa.

But, hey, this is for a good cause! As the HUD claims in its press release, this “important update will empower shelter providers to set policies that align with their missions“ and “better accommodate religious beliefs of shelter providers.” Under the pretext of privacy, comfort, practicality and religious beliefs, HUD is putting the safety of transgender, as well as non-gender-binary homeless individuals at risk. 

This is particularly outrageous given that transgender people are already disproportionally suffering from the severities of homelessness. This rule would likely put even more trans – especially trans women – and non-binary folks in danger of harassment and violence. It is also likely that many unhoused trans people would rather choose the street and other unsafe conditions over the potential discrimination, rejection and harassment at a shelter.

But somehow, in the eye of the Trump administration, the safety of vulnerable trans and non-gender-binary individuals is not on par with the safety of unhoused cisgender people.

According to the HUD press release, specific-sex shelters must provide those rejected “with information about other shelters in the area.” In shelters that are not single-sex, people who are concerned about living with people of a different biological sex “must be provided a referral to a facility whose policy is based on biological sex.” So, while concerned and uncomfortable cisgender people would be given a referral, those people who are discriminated and rejected because they are not cisgender would merely be given ‘information.’ Providing a referral translates into safety, security and real responsibility. Providing information does not entail any of that. This difference in treatment between cis- and transgender people written into this proposal is just one obvious way in which this rule is transphobic.  

However, even if this rule would go into effect some states’ law may override it, such as California’s. As a recent San Francisco Chronicle article reports, many federal courts have ruled that the U.S. Fair Housing Act – which includes the prohibition of housing discrimination based on sex – is applicable to homeless shelters, making shelters in those states immune to the new proposal.  

And there is another reason for hope. On July 30, Rep. Jennifer Wexton of Virginia, along with 145 Democratic members of Congress, sent a letter to HUD Secretary Carson voicing their opposition to “this anti-transgender proposal.” The letter puts an emphasis on the unfounded nature of the HUD’s cited safety concerns. The authors argue that while the Equal Access Rule has been in place for years, in over 20 states, there has not been “any increase in public safety issues,” rendering the safety concerns fictitious. Importantly, they mention that this justification “only perpetuates harmful and dangerous stereotypes of transgender people who are seeking safe shelter and other emergency services.”

Regardless of whether this rule will go into effect or not, what this proposal suggests is that discrimination based on gender identity is righteous. A dangerous message to be sending out to shelters, especially during these times of crises, as housing insecurity is at an all-time high.