Gender Prison: Lest we forget

I do not forget that as a college professor, I'm probably better off socially and financially than 99% of other transpeople. But I don't let being in the 1% fill me with complacency.

ASTT(e)Q is Action Santé Travesti(e)s et Transsexuel(le)s du Québec. They are speaking up and speaking out on the problem of transgender and transsexual women accessing shelters in Montreal. And while it would be nice to think that this problem is restricted to a local problem, the situation in Montreal is rather the norm across our own country.

Even in freezing temperatures homeless transwomen are being turned away from homeless shelters in Montreal. And the reason given for the refusal to accept the transwomen is simply that they are transgender.

While such refusals are frequently justified by administrative regulations, members of ASTT(e)Q believe that these exclusive practices are rooted in discriminatory attitudes towards trans people.

The majority of women's shelters in Quebec require transwomen to have undergone gender confirmation surgery and/or to have changed their legal sex.

Such requirements are unattainable for most homeless trans people, due to prohibitive costs, and extensive administrative requirements. Trans women are left with no alternatives, as men’s shelters are clearly not an option. With no place to turn, homeless trans women find themselves on the streets, which in -30 below temperatures is nothing short of deadly.

Just this week, a trans woman who had her surgery months ago was refused access to a woman’s shelter because she didn’t have an ‘F’ on her identity documents! While we believe trans people should have access to shelter and housing regardless of surgical status, this is a clear case of discrimination disguised as administrative regulations.

--Mirha-Soleil Ross, ASTT(e)Q staff

For every positive story about transpeople, there are a dozen stories like this.

We are currently seeing many important legal and social advances for trans people, including in neighbouring Ontario where one can change their legal sex regardless of surgical status. In Québec, trans people have been relentlessly educating intervention workers and calling for shelters to address the exclusion of homeless trans people for decades. Yet shelters continue to refuse trans people based on the outdated policies of the Québec Department of Civil Status.

--Nora Butler Burke, ASTT(e)Q coordinator

In the context of life threatening temperatures, ASTT(e)Q urges all shelters to immediately remove barriers to admission for trans people based on the legal documentation in their possession and/or their surgical status. More broadly, we advocate for access to shelters, as well as other gender specific services, to be available according to one’s social identity rather than according to their legal or surgical status.

Can't happen here, right?

Let's check out Pinellas County, FL. Dateline Largo.

Tracy Abel was settling into a homeless center, Pinellas Safe Harbor, when she was accosted by two guards. They told her there had been a mistake. Someone who had access to such things discovered that her Social Security number belonged to someone who was at the time of issuance a man. Upon questioning Abel admitted that she had not been able to raise the $19K necessary for her reassignment surgery. But she did have a "female" designation on her driver's license.

It turns out that didn't matter to the guards. The shelter staff banished her to a courtyard usually reserved for residents who misbehave. It was outside,windy and cold. They claimed that she needed to stay there because someone might figure out that she was born a man and harm her.

Throughout this incident the guards disrespectfully referred to Tracy as "he". Ironically the behavior of the guards drew more attention to Tracy, even though she was supposedly being separated from the other women to avoid drawing attention to her.

The Sheriff's Office, which runs the shelter, and the Pinellas Homeless Leadership Board are apparently trying to address the problem…Tracy was not the first transwoman to be treated as she was. Under new guidelines a shelter such as Safe HArbor that receives federal funding through the HLB is required to ensure the safety and privacy of transpeople by providing, among other things, a separate shower and sleep facilities away from the general population and treating them respectfully.

The HLB also wants shelters not receiving such funds to comply with the new guidelines. And it will offer sensitivity training to the groups it does fund.

What it amounts to is how people present themselves, that's how they are to be treated — even if they haven't had the surgery, even if they haven't changed all their documents yet. The policy says that as much as possible, shelters are to make accommodations so individuals can be served.

--HLB executive director Sarah Snyder

An estimated 3500 transpeople live in the Tampa Bay region, according to TransAction Florida, a statewide advocacy group which consulted on the new guidelines. The National Center for Transgender Equality survey Injustice at Every Turn found that 16% of Florida respondents had been homeless at some point because of their gender identity. The national rate was 19%. Of those 55% of those who tried to access a shelter had been harassed by staff or residents and 29% had been turned away altogether.

Local social service agencies have observed that coming out as LGBT is an increasing factor in the number of youth (as young as 10) living on the streets or in the shelters.

Either their families have kicked them out or they've left the family or their previous living situation.


Several area aid groups have said that they have made accommodations on the rare occurrence of a transperson requesting services. But the communal-style shelters that segregate by gender such as Safe Harbor and the Salvation Army are another story.

It puts transgender women especially in danger when they're housed with biological men. As a result, a lot of times it's relayed that you might be better off somewhere else for your own safety. But a person who's seeking shelter should not have to be responsible for other people's behavior.

One important thing to get out to people is this isn't a choice and it isn't a lifestyle. We're just trying to live our lives like everyone else.

--Michael Keefe, executive director of TransAction Florida

Abel is a New Jersey native who began transitioning at 24 and moved to Clearwater in 2009. By 2012 she was unemployed and living in her car or occasionally on a friend's couch while a homeless aid group processed her housing application. A police officer referred her to Safe Harbor.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says his staff handled the Abel situation poorly. He says transgender residents are a rarity and his staff was at a loss how to proceed and initially believed they should refer to Abel by the gender revealed by the SSAN check.

Abel claims that the women residents at Safe Harbor were fine with her presence. Gualtieri says staff feared the women residents would be uncomfortable, but that Abel's female appearance would put her at risk of physical harm or sexual attack in she was placed in the male pod.

Our staff was kind of at a loss as to what to do. The staff on duty didn't handle it in the best way, with the best sensitivity and recognition of who she is, and felt they didn't have any options. … It should've been handled better.

--Gualtieri, who says that no supervisors were on duty at the time

Gualtieri met with Abel who says she is happy with the new rules.

My only concern is what happens if people don't follow them. If there's no penalty, no one really cares.


So the question I have for all of you: What is the situation at homeless shelters where you live? Are transpeople welcome? Or are they turned away to survive the elements as best they are able.

It is best if this issue is raised before someone is turned away and freezes to death or has to trade access to their body for a single night of warmth.

One last video story out of Salt Lake City:



The accompanying story is here.




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And here's a video…

Robyn's picture

…from Operation Shine America.

I feel the need to share that I was also homeless as a youth, during the freezing winter of 1967-68, when I traveled across the continent looking for some warmth. I admit that I did trade access to my body for a warm bed on one occasion. I've only felt bad about that…like…forever.

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triv33's picture

is ridiculous! Just a complete lack of human decency to continue to equate transgender with pervert and that's what they're doing with this crap.

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Pinellas County.

type1error's picture

That is Teahadist Jesusland. Downtown St. Pete is cool, but outside of a those neighborhoods is Alabama. They are sooo crazy in Pinellas County that they briefly stopped flouridating the water because the tea party members of the county commission thought it was dangerous. Its not surprising to have a lot of instutitional bigotry there.

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