Query from reader re Trans Issues

BTPS writes:

Mr BTPS works in a council run homeless night shelter in the Netherlands for people with drug, alcohol and psychiatric problems, where the dormitories and showers are divided along male/female lines. However, the shelter has a new client who is on the first stages of transitioning from MTF, and there is much discussion about where to house her. Basically, it would be unsafe to go with the male wing due to transphobia and the fact that she has a female gender-expression, thus wanting to be treated as a woman. But, occupants of the female wing are not happy for her to sleep, shower and change clothes with them either – most of them have very bad histories of being abused by men and unfortunately see the trans woman as ‘really a man’ who still has the physical capability to rape and abuse them. Further, there isn’t room to provide a trans-wing. So, Mr BTPS would like to ask: any advice on how they should proceed at the shelter? The option of explaining and discussing the situation with the other occupants (both female and male) at the shelter, as well as the option of making an exception for the transitioning client, are being pursued. But these have not proved to be very successful due to general transphobia and differences in religious/cultural backgrounds of the non-trans occupants.

Please leave your suggestions in comments!

20 thoughts on “Query from reader re Trans Issues

  1. It’s worth pointing out where the actual danger lies. Trans women are statistically very likely to be attacked or raped. The cis women in the ward are not as likely to be in danger from a woman who is transitioning.

    If there is any way to get that across to them, that would be great. Otherwise, I’d suggest that the social discomfort that arises from placing the woman with the others is less of a harm than the possible physical attack she might face with men.

  2. To be up front, my comments summarize feminist practical solutions for relations and methods of action more than discussing the sex/gender binaries in tension with trans experiences. Thus, I offer a framework for thinking about strategies and action in the interest of Mr BTPS and cisgender guests alike.

    The experience of transpeople encountering situational or life-long poverty is relatively under-discussed. Attempting to apply values such as fairness, flexibility and equity is unlikely to be simple. This person has likely entered the shelter’s culture in what I would call “the middle of the story.” At this point, asking current residents to make concessions while they are already adjusting is difficult. The solutions and adaptations made at this point are going to be highly limited. The place to begin is when organizations counsel patrons, clients and guests at “first point of contact” (during the moments of entry and welcome). In this case, a good practice would be to discuss the potential diversity of their neighbors with patrons at the time they request services. Beginning a conversation afterward, in the middle of the story, requires re-negotiating a much more difficult re-adjustment. At this point, most residents are already settled into their understandings of the collective values and commitments of the local culture.

    There is often resistance to including these discussions or notifications during intake – when people make first contact and request services. However, practice shows that the additional efforts of inclusion help 1) increase the level of respect overall among localized groups, and 2) discourage individuals with deeply sociopathic behaviors – those likely to act in dangerous ways in any case – from getting in under the usual screening criterion.

    Other resistance from professionals often emerges in claims of “inefficiencies” in having these conversations at intake. As is true in many other situations, the level of effort expended at first point of contact almost always ameliorates the output of far more energy required to make later adjustments. Early generalized understanding typically mitigates later complications.

    Returning to the situation as it is right now, and given what I explain above, there may be reasons to consider some solutions that would otherwise seem unfair or unusually preferential in favor of Mr BTPS.


    1) finding ways to readjust or reallocate resources – staffing, personnel, facilities, space – *temporarily* to allow for the *initial and ongoing* inclusion of Mr. BTPS. This may mean converting storage, office or common space into living quarters. It may also mean providing for specifically designated times for use of showers and restrooms. Some residents may feel this is unfair and express their dissatisfaction, and that is an opportunity to discuss with them their own choices in leading to the current solutions. This can offer for some invitations for change, such as “If we can find ways to make Mr BTPS welcome among everyone just like you are, then we can readjust back to the way things usually run.”

    2) avoid overgeneralizing the profile of cisgender (“not trans” for lack of a more hearty definition) male and female guests. There may be some who are relatively fixated at the extreme pole of resistance and transphobia, and there are likely to be many more who say and act like they are transphobic, but they can be invited to act with hospitality. For the average person, these problematic values are probably shallow and easily changeable even when the expression of transphobia may appear deeply rooted or extreme.

    Find a few individuals in the group and ask them one on one to help with the work of creating hospitality. My experience is that people who are guests of poverty-based services find respect in being asked to contribute. Yes, this is usually in the form of labor and environmental tasks, and at the same time this can also be in fostering better community relations.

    3) some transpersons will resist what they consider “special treatment” such as I have suggested. The reality is that there must be periods of specialized action (in English I use this term to displace “special treatment”) to correct unfair structural and procedural traditions. These temporary preferential actions provide for movement toward broadly equitable practices. Suppose Mr BTPS claims that this is a new unfairness (“It’s not right to force me to be segregated”). Whether aware or unaware, this is usually true – it is unfairness, of a particular kind – and at the same time this kind of thinking operates under the banner of a subtle and problematic identity politics. Accept responsibility for the unfairness: explain a) how it contrasts with unfairness of a larger transphobic society, and b) that temporary specialized action such as this is almost always necessary to break transphobic patterns. All change to oppressive systems requires sacrifices of various kinds, and the idealism of identity politics – valuable for its visionary commitments – must be synthesized and counterbalanced with reasonable concessions. The role of an ally will be to remain vigilant that the temporary concessions are indeed temporary, and as minimal as possible.

    I realize I am presuming certain levels of willingness and capacity for conversation, and that may not be the case. Still, in working with these situations it is important to continue aiming for eagerly optimistic assessments of people in order that we don’t mistakenly underestimate one another. I tend to think that practical solutions to transphobia are within reach when we are aggressively hopeful.

  3. Thanks for the suggestions, Christian M!

    Mr BTPS is already considering and trying to work out a plan to have separate showering times and some temporary measures put in place to accommodate the situation. But he’s very keen to hear about other measures too. I’m not a social worker (just a philosopher) but I like the idea of asking one of the currently residents to act in a community relations fostering way. Unfortunately, Mr BTPS tells me that something similar has been done before at the shelter with not such great results (though it didn’t involve trans issues). Those who’ve undertaken the welcoming role and who were thought by the care workers to be trustworthy enough to do so, have later been found to have been not so trustworthy at all. Clearly this doesn’t rule out the welcoming role suggestion, but shows that the situation will have to be considered very carefully.

    RE M: I think that the issue of sharing a room is more complicated than you suggest. The issue isn’t simply that the cis women will feel socially uncomfortable about sharing and that this doesn’t constitute real harm. The cis women at question have suffered really horrible abuse. Telling them to get over their social sticking points and accept the room-share is likely to stop them from coming to the shelter and make them even more vulnerable/ susceptible to harm. It’s certainly true that the trans-woman is more likely to suffer physical harm in the male wing. But there are other kinds of very serious harms at play here, which makes the situation and the harm-calculation much more complicated.

  4. Excellent suggestions, Christian M. Might I also suggest contacting the local university for a volunteer/coop/workstudy arrangement with a female student specializing in the area of queer and gender theory (?) to be a conversation partner/watchdog for the unhoused lady?

    If she has to sleep in a converted broom closet in a shelter full of transphobes, having a friend nearby might make her feel better. Ask her how she feels about it first, obviously. But she might like the idea.

  5. That’s fair, yes.

    A small point, but “trans woman” is not hyphenated, in the same way “black woman” or other modifiers of “woman” isn’t. Many trans women feel that dehumanizes them.

  6. If there is any way to get that across to them, that would be great. Otherwise, I’d suggest that the social discomfort that arises from placing the woman with the others is less of a harm than the possible physical attack she might face with men…

  7. Just my analysis of the question rather than actual solutions:

    Why are trans people expected to actually literally bear the burden of cis people’s prejudices? Why is the assumption that trans women will be disturbing to cis women considered naturalized and acceptable and unquestionable and this is not identified as the transphobia that it actually is?

    A trans woman who accesses a shelter is in need just as everyone else who does, right? I actually know a trans woman who is homeless and who stays in shelters and I cannot begin to describe the discrimination she experiences. No matter how she describes herself (male or female) she is accused of lying, and she is eventually placed with men or in a private room away from everyone else, because apparently she is so dangerous that cis women must be protected from her, or all cis people must be protected for her. Primarily, she is located as the problem and transphobia is naturalized and invisible.

  8. And talk about the transphobia, how it’s traumatic to be misgendered, to be stigmatized, to be categorized as an automatic danger because of other people’s prejudices, and how this happens everywhere and not just in shelters. Or how so many trans women live in poverty because it’s hard to find work for everyone and trans women have a really high unemployment rate relative to the rest of the population, and how this means a disproportionate number may end up needing to use these services. And who may choose not to use these services because they do not feel safe. And of course, given that trans women are vulnerable to sexual assault and violence, access to these services is vital.

    This is completely the wrong question. It should not be “how do we accommodate the prejudices of cis women who hold misconceptions about trans women?” It should be “how can we accommodate trans women’s needs in homeless shelters without adding further to their trauma?”

  9. Given the amount of domestic abuse in the cis lesbian communuity, I assume you’d totally coddle homophobia from the other women if an abused cis dyke rocked up, house her alone, that kind of thing. Quality.

    I mean, why is there always the assumption that a trans woman will want to change in front of other women, shower with them? We’re all so desperate to flash cis women, ya know. None of us could possible need OUR privacy from objectifying abusive cis eyes.

  10. Sorry to leap to snark, but most of my friends have been homeless. This is almost universal reality for most of our community, and guess what? It rarely changes, because shelters never dare challenge their cis residents’ prejudices.

    No shelter would coddle prejudice of other kinds in the same way (to the point of exclusion and isolation, I mean), but it’s fine for trans women cos the prejudice we face is the very negation of our identities. So hey, whatever trauma we accrue from experiencing this over and over and over doesn’t really matter, right?

  11. I feel you, queenemily. Really. I’m coming up on 80 sleepless hours with just a few catnaps in between because the shelters are stupidly full here (yes all, I’m homeless again) and campus cops keep harassing me. I’m stuck sleeping in stairwells, my storage locker–if I can get there–and the one computer lab here that I can hide in. But that requires sleeping vertical in a chair. The hump on my back and a nasty case of bronchitis are close to finishing me.

    But nobody’s ever put the kind of beating on me that trans women get regularly. Nobody’s ever put me through sexual torture. Nobody’s ever knocked me down and ran off with my cash because they didn’t like the sound of my voice.

    I know how bitchy some women are in those places. I’ve never seen a trans woman in a shelter here. Ever. But I know how often transwomen end up unhoused, and I know they’re getting turned away. And that’s worse than shitty. It’s probably a death sentence for them. If I ever did see something like that, Girlfriend would be more than welcome to stay in my storage locker with me. But I don’t see anything. Nobody even asks us here.

    I think BTPS is doing a good thing here. At least he’s trying.

    I’m guessing by your writing style that you’re American, and I won’t bullshit you with online hugs and cheesy hopeful fluff. You’re in one of the worst places in the world to be who you are. But yeah, protecting people from torture and humiliation matters. It matters to more people than you know.

  12. I’m with queenemily and Lisa – the framing of this question is all wrong, and puts the focus on cis people’s feelings rather than providing proper support for a trans woman.
    At the end of the day, if the cis women in that shelter are going to refuse aid purely on the basis that the shelter treats with dignity a kind of woman that they don’t like, then that is not a failure of the shelter. They may have suffered horrible abuses, but so has the trans woman in question, I’m willing to wager. Telling the cis women to get over their ‘social sticking point’ (which, btw, should read ‘ridiculous bigotry’) seems to me to be necessary, simply because they should not be given primacy in deciding which women get to use the space.

  13. Cheers everyone for your comments!

    I should clarify: the original question wasn’t meant to be framed as “how do we accommodate the prejudices of cis women who hold misconceptions about trans women?”. And I certainly did have in mind the issue of “how can we accommodate trans women’s needs in homeless shelters without adding further to their trauma?” (as Lisa Harney put the questions). The question was really how to proceed in order to bring about the best solution for all parties concerned. Yes, it would be great and we would live in a wonderful world if there was no transphobia. But unfortunately there is. Given that and the other complexities of the situation, the question was: what would be practically the best option, if (and when) dialogue fails?

  14. Okay, the post (as I read it) centered the cis women as seeing the trans woman as a problem, and how to serve this trans woman while accommodating these fears of trans women as rapist, abusive predators. As long as accommodating transphobia is the concern, this will continue to be the case. If any solutions offered must be based on accommodating transphobic stereotypes about trans women, I’m not sure I can suggest anything because the outcomes are pretty much guaranteed to be inhumane and dehumanizing. I have talked to trans women who have been in this position (being housed with the men, or treated as a problem to be solved in general), and this can leave psychological scars. As in the friend I mentioned above talked about committing suicide after her experience.

    I don’t have any suggestions because the complexities of the situation seem to suggest that trans women’s needs are expendable compared to cis prejudices. Could you explain to me how this isn’t the case? And I mean other than explaining that transphobia exists, ’cause I think people here already know.

    What kind of policies does this shelter have with regards to dealing with other forms of prejudice?

  15. I mean, I’m not trying to be difficult or mean or any of that – but I felt like the question was a bit loaded from the outset, hence my comments.

    I also found this pdf online which may have information.

    Also this article:

    High numbers of trans people living on the street have prompted homeless shelters to provide dedicated trans facilities.

    AP reports that activists have underscored the deaths of homeless trans women in Atlanta and Austin, Texas as indicative of the adaptations which are necessary for shelters to accommodate all people in need.

  16. Bearing in mind the various excellent comments here, it’s sounding to me like the best solution is to treat the cis transphobic women as one would treat racists. That is, imagine that there were quite a few white women who had been raped by black men and that this had intensified their already existing racism. As a result, they insisted that they would find it too traumatic to be housed with black women. I’m assuming the shelter would simply inform them that they had a zero-tolerance policy on racism, and that they (the racists) would have to leave unless they overcame their prejudices. Similarly, the shelter could tell the transphobic cis women that they should leave if they cannot overcome their prejudices. And all of this would be best done by declaring a zero tolerance policy on transphobia when the women are admitted.

    But possible worries remain: (1) Some transphobic women might stay and be abusive. However they should simply be thrown out, as one would do with abusive racists (I’m assuming). (2) A lot of transphobic cis women in need of treatment will not get it because they leave the shelter. This may sound like a big cost, but I’ll bet the shelter would accept this cost if it were dealing with the parallel racist case.

    I’ve found my views changing as I read the comments. I was initially thinking that the shelter should find a way of giving everyone the treatment they need, and of course that would be the ideal. But I’m increasingly convinced that the shelter should deal with transphobia as they deal with racism. So I guess the question is how the shelter deals with racism. And how it would deal with having a whole lot of racists and a black person in need of treatment. I’ve made some guesses about that. I’d be interested to know, though, how the shelter would actually deal with this.

  17. A zero tolerance policy is good for dealing with the potential for overt types of hate crimes, but as mentioned in comment#4, people are all too capable of feigning friendship and turning their role as “welcomers” into one that allows them to continue to do harm.

    Without making the trans lady feel that she’s being policed or segregated, even with the zero tolerance policy, the shelter should come up with some type of plan to monitor her safety. A private room would be a good start, and I mentioned the conversation partner (hand chosen from outside the shelter setting) as much for non-invasive protection as conversation, but beyond that, I’m not sure what to suggest. Can anybody else think of an inoffensive way to do this?

  18. Hi all,

    I think the discussion has slightly taken a turn I didn’t intend or want it to. My concern wasn’t how to safeguard the cis women’s prejudices at the cost of the trans woman’s needs. As I see it, the cis and trans women concerned are all incredibly vulnerable to abuse and they all suffer harms that bring me close to tears. Given this, the query was to ask for suggestions/ideas for practical solutions that could be implemented relatively fast, and that would be amicable/protect everyone concerned. I want to see the trans woman safe, but I also would like to see the cis women safe (however unreasonable they are). It’s very difficult for social workers to change people’s attitudes, beliefs, fears, etc, on short notice and this takes time. This is the case with every kind of prejudice at the shelter and dialogue/discussion doesn’t always work. The social workers can’t forcibly change people’s beliefs, but they do expel people who attack others on whatever grounds. (Depending on the severity of the attack, for the night or for couple of nights.) So, if a cis woman attacked the trans woman, the cis woman would be expelled and there’s nothing she could say to justify her actions. Still, I would like to see the situation resolved in a way that didn’t make either the trans woman or the cis women even more vulnerable than they already are.

    Lisa: the shelter at issue doesn’t yet have trans facilities. But I’m told that providing separate trans facilities is the likeliest outcome in the long-run and something that the shelter is working towards. Unfortunately, they can’t do so overnight, and need to implement a temporary measure. Further, I certainly didn’t intend to suggest that the trans woman wouldn’t or shouldn’t be given the help that she needs. I was trying to think through how to provide that help in the most amicable way.

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