HUD Rule Would Dismantle Protections for Homeless Transgender People

WASHINGTON — The Department of Housing and Urban Development on Wednesday proposed allowing homeless shelters to deny transgender people access to single-sex shelters of their gender identity.

The housing department said in an announcement that the proposed regulation would ensure that shelters “must not discriminate based on sexual orientation or transgender status,” adding that the changes better accommodate the “religious beliefs of shelter providers.”

The Trump administration has been pushing the change, arguing that it would prevent men from surreptitiously gaining access to women’s homeless shelters to abuse residents or track down spouses and partners.

But advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights and civil libertarians said the rule would mean transgender women, potentially even other women mistaken as transgender, could be referred to shelters that also accommodate men, where they could face abuse or assault. Some women could lose access to shelter entirely.

The housing department did not immediately respond to questions about the proposed rule.

The new rule continues a broad dismantling of protections for transgender people across the federal government and comes less than two weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that civil rights law protects gay and transgender workers from workplace discrimination. A bipartisan amendment pending in the Senate seeks to restore access to the military for transgender applicants barred by the Trump administration.

“This new rule would be particularly dangerous for the Black and brown transgender women who face extraordinarily high rates of unemployment and homelessness at any time, and particularly in this economic crisis,” LaLa Zannell, an advocate for transgender rights at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

Transgender people, particularly teenagers, are at high risk for homelessness. A report released in April by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law estimated that at least one in five homeless youth identify as L.G.B.T., several times larger than their share in the general population. The same report said nearly a third of transgender and nonbinary people surveyed experience homelessness during their lifetime.

A study by the Center for American Progress and the Equal Rights Center found that only 30 percent of shelters across four states — Connecticut, Washington, Tennessee and Virginia — would house transgender women with other women and 21 percent of those shelters would refuse shelter entirely.

Transgender rights groups also say the rule change is written broadly enough that it can affect people who are not transgender. A 2019 version of the proposed rule said shelter workers, when choosing to admit someone, were allowed to “consider a range of factors” that could include the person’s physical appearance.

“There’s some risk of not only transgender people being swept up by this, but also cisgender individuals who may not conform to whatever social norms are set by a particular shelter,” said Dylan Waguespack, the director of public policy at True Colors United, which works on preventing homelessness among L.G.B.T. youth. “It’s a completely bad-faith argument to say that gender identity protections remain.”

The equal access rule, created by the Obama administration in 2012 and broadened in 2016, established protections for transgender people in shelters and other facilities funded by the housing department’s Office of Community Planning and Development.

Robin Maril, an associate legal director at the Human Rights Campaign, a prominent L.G.B.T. advocacy group, said the housing department pushing ahead with the rule change, even after the Supreme Court ruling, signaled that Trump administration officials were trying to get around that ruling by redefining what counted as discrimination.

“We’ve seen this time and time again by this administration, of mincing words, and going out of their way to discriminate while saying they’re not,” Ms. Maril said. “It’s reclassifying what discrimination is. It’s trying to make turning someone away not discrimination.”

Officials have previously said that such rules will ensure that men cannot slip into women’s shelters to abuse residents. In the announcement, the housing department added that those turned away from shelters under the rule must be provided with information about other shelters in the area.

The Williams Institute report said that such policies lead “many transgender people to go unsheltered instead.” Even those that are admitted, the study said, face “an increased risk of harassment and victimization,” that is “often met by inaction by shelter staff.”

A report released in 2011 by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said more than half of the transgender people surveyed who had used a homeless shelter reported being harassed, 25 percent were physically assaulted and 22 percent were sexually assaulted.

“There are going to be a lot of places where shelters are primarily religious and are primarily run by folks who don’t want to serve transgender women in women shelters,” Ms. Maril said. “It sounds great to say ‘Well, you can get a referral,’ but if that referral is to a men’s-only shelter, that is not an option. That is not a safe option.”

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