By Gwendolyn Ann Smith
I would hope you would not need me to point out that transgender people tend to live on the margins of society. It can be difficult for us to reach a lot of necessary services, including the most basic of our needs.
I was reminded of this in the last week or so, as I called a health care provider. After outing myself to the disembodied voice on the other end of the line, I could hear that awkward pause as they tried to figure out exactly what to do with me. Eventually I got transferred to another employee who also had no idea how to help me, and eventually hung up on me. This experience is not uncommon.
This is what is driving the battle over public accommodations — particularly restroom — and what keeps transgender people from seeing medical professionals, legal aid and any number of other services they need to survive. Our presence is, at best, something that confuses people, something that makes them want to deny the vital needs of transgender people.
On top of this, transgender people, no strangers to discrimination, usually just put up with it. We don’t reach out for care, or turn away from services when we face an all-too-familiar uphill battle. We don’t want to be viewed as a problem: we just want care.
Between March and June of 2015, the Center for American Progress and the Equal Rights Center performed a telephone survey on 100 homeless shelters across four east coast states. The organizations had both a transgender and a non-transgender woman call these shelters, and then compared the answers they received.
The trans woman on these calls would inform the shelter of her trans status and would indicate that she was homeless and needed shelter. She would them ask about availability, as well as if the shelter would house them with other women.
The results were unsurprising, and depressing. Only 30 percent of the shelters were willing to house transgender women with other women at their locations. More than this, 21 percent refused shelter to trans women, while an additional 13 percent offered an isolated location or shelter with non-transgender men.
It is worth noting, too, that two of the four states had LGBT protections, and those states were twice as likely to provide appropriate shelter compared to states that did not. Also, shelters specific to women were over 10 percent more likely to shelter a trans woman.
Nevertheless, callers were misgendered, told they would make other residents “uncomfortable or unsafe,” or were hung up on.
I should also mention that this survey was held just months after the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released guidelines to ensure equal access for transgender people in homeless shelters. These guidelines enacted under HUD Secretary Julian Castro, stated that transgender people were not to be asked intrusive questions about their genital status and should not be denied access based on identity paperwork nor due to others discomfort with trans people. It further specified that a person’s gender identity be respected.
In all the above, the majority of shelters failed.
HUD created the 2015 guidelines in response to the LGBT Equal Access Rule issues put in place in 2012. That rule prohibited discrimination based on marital status, sexual orientation, and, of course, gender identity.
The guidelines have — as of Sept. 20 — been strengthened, with HUD issuing a final rule requiring that transgender people be treated equally in any federal-funded shelters. This new rule should prevent what the Center for American Progress and the Equal Rights Center discovered last year in their survey.
At the same time, my long-expired glasses are not tinted rose. I am certain that transgender people will still find themselves turned away for the same reasons, if — hopefully — in lesser numbers. I don’t think I am being cynical in an era where Kim Davis was allowed to flaunt the Supreme Court of the United States on marriage equality, or while transgender students and others are still being barred from appropriate facilities around the country, in spite of policies from the Department of Education and rulings throughout the current administration.
I also would be remiss to not stress the last three words in the previous paragraph. We are in the waning months of the Obama administration, and face a somewhat uncertain future as both Clinton and Trump continue to swing it out. If there’s anything the Obama years have taught me, it is not only the person at the top who does the work, but people throughout a president’s bureaucracy. It’s not that Obama himself made these HUD rules happen solely by his own hand, but by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people working in the West Wing and elsewhere.
Depending on who next occupies the Oval Office, the work started prior to 2012 and strengthened in 2015 and 2016 could be dismantled. Transgender people who have seen their rights expand over the last eight years might see them continue to be reduced, perhaps even more if we end up with a hard-right Supreme Court in place.
Transgender people, as I reminded you, are already often on the margins of society. We still lack employment protections. We still face discrimination both large and small. We still have to fight for justice in scores of murders.
Rules like this from HUD are huge boons for us, but are also only one more step on a much longer path. It is vital that we be allowed to continue ever forward.