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Weeks after the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was slapped with a lawsuit relating to potential policy changes regarding LGBTQ people, Secretary Ben Carson has come out with some frightening ideas about trans people in homeless shelters. More specifically, he believes trans women will make cisgender women uncomfortable because of their “very different anatomy.”
The claim came during a House Appropriations Committee meeting on Tuesday about the department’s budget for the year ahead. At the start of the meeting, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) referenced LGBTQ anti-discrimination materials being “purged” from the department’s website and requested an update on Carson’s review over those policies. And that’s when the HUD secretary stressed that the issue is “complex,” particularly when it comes to anti-discrimination protections for trans people.
“We obviously believe in equal rights for everybody, including the LGBT community,” Carson began, according to CSPAN. “But we also believe in equal rights for the women in the shelters, and shelters where there are men and their equal rights. So we want to look at things that really provide for everybody and doesn’t impede the rights of one for the sake of the other.”
Quigley went on to press Carson, asking how transgender anti-discrimination protections could possibly impact cisgender people. Carson responded by suggesting transgender women’s bodies are so different, cisgender women do not want to be around them.
“There are some women who said they were not comfortable with the idea of being in a shelter, being in a shower, and somebody who had a very different anatomy,” Carson said, leaving Quigley visibly stunned.
Of course, Carson’s comments quickly drew criticism from LGBTQ advocacy groups. The Human Rights Campaign claimed the “consequences are devastating” when homeless shelters are “unwelcome spaces for LGBTQ people,” and GLAAD CEO and President Sarah Kate Ellis called the statement “factually inaccurate anti-transgender rhetoric.”
“It is because of derogatory myths like this, which have been debunked time and time again, that the transgender community faces disproportionate levels of discrimination and homelessness,” Ellis said in an official post from GLAAD.
Research backs up Ellis’ statement. The Transgender Law Center reports one in five trans people experience homelessness at some point in their lives due to discrimination or family rejection. 29 percent of homeless trans people also report being turned away from a shelter. That means for the trans community, equal access to homeless shelters is a major issue.
At first blush, some may agree with Carson and that women who feel “uncomfortable” sharing accommodations with a non-op or pre-op trans woman have the right to their own shelters away from trans women. But do Christian women have the right to a separate facility away from Jewish women? Are white women entitled to “separate but equal” shelters away from women of color? The Civil Rights Act of 1964 says “no.” Years ago, it outlawed discrimination based on race, color, and religion in public accommodations.
Furthermore, separating transgender women from cisgender women in the shelter system may already be illegal. Earlier this month, a federal court ruled that employment discrimination based on one’s transgender gender identity is “necessarily” discrimination based on sex, and therefore violated Title VII under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Discrimination from accessing a homeless shelter could just as easily fall under sex discrimination protections for public accommodations, too. If HUD tries to separate transgender women from women’s shelters and trans men from men’s shelters, HUD may be slapped with yet another lawsuit.
In reality, one’s sex assigned at birth has little bearing on their actual gender identity, as sex is simply an approximation made by doctors at birth that may be incorrect. That means transgender women’s assigned sex doesn’t define who they are as individuals: They’re still women, and they deserve equal access to women’s shelters.
Whether Carson wants to or will act on separating trans people from cis people, we don’t know yet. But if his goal is to make sure his department “doesn’t impede the rights of one for the sake of the other,” he could at least start by making sure trans women feel welcome. Unless he’s ready to face another lawsuit.
Ana Valens is a reporter specializing in online queer communities, marginalized identities, and adult content creation. She is Daily Dot's Trans/Sex columnist. Her work has appeared at Vice, Vox, Truthout, Bitch Media, Kill Screen, Rolling Stone, and the Toast. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and spends her free time developing queer adult games.