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.

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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