Transgender Day of Visibility feels a little different this year, given all the attacks on the existence of trans people in the public space in the US and their echoes in Canada. Celebrating and encouraging the visibility of trans people is a way of refusing the hateful rhetoric that just sees trans people as threats or as undeserving. The housing and homelessness sector has been one of the main sites where these attacks have been occurring, along with schools, sports, and prisons. This is because shelters and, with them, many housing services remain largely gendered, which means that trans people rely on the implementation of inclusive policies in order to be able to access these services. 

It should be self-evident that trans people, like everyone else, deserve access to emergency shelters and housing supports. However, in the context of the increasing attacks on trans people’s rights, service providers may once again find themselves needing to make the case for trans inclusion. This blog will provide five arguments in favour of trans inclusion in the homelessness sector. The reason for doing this is twofold. The first is that there is still work to do to make trans inclusion a reality, and the second is so that service providers have the knowledge needed to push back on any challenges to trans visibility in their workplaces. 

1. Trans People Have a Right to Be Included 

In 2017, the Canadian Human Rights Act was amended by Bill C-16 to add “gender identity and expression” as a prohibited grounds of discrimination under Section 3(1). This makes it illegal to discriminate against trans people in the same way that it is illegal to discriminate against women or people of colour. Designing services in such a way that trans people cannot access them constitutes discrimination, according to the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC). The OHRC goes on to say that there is a duty to accommodate trans people: “Employment, housing, services and facilities should be designed, and may need to be adapted, to accommodate the needs of trans people in a way that best promotes their integration and full participation.” 

This sounds pretty clear-cut, however, discourse around rights is often unconvincing since it doesn’t get at why people are opposed to trans inclusion. Such arguments are basically an appeal to authority which avoids tackling the underlying prejudices. It is important to remember that while trans people have a right to be included, having this right does not make the inclusion of this population a reality. 

2. Access Without Safety is No Access at All 

One argument against trans inclusion is that services should accommodate trans people, but only according to their sex assigned at birth. In this logic, trans women would be included in men’s shelters and trans men in women’s shelters. This, however, ignores safety, which is critical. When placed in facilities that correspond to their sex assigned at birth rather than their gender identity, trans people are effectively “outed” as trans, exposing them to harassment or even violence. Additionally, the act of treating a trans woman as a man, for instance, is a form of harassment. It is insulting and hurtful and is enough in itself to make a service unsafe. Rather than experience harassment and violence, many trans people will choose to avoid transitional housing services, which leads to worse outcomes. 

Real inclusion only happens with safety, and safety is based on choice. Trans people should be given the choice of which gendered services they feel most comfortable accessing—if making services inclusive to trans people is in fact the goal. 

3. Inclusion Defeats Fear 

Most people who advocate for the kinds of false inclusion described above do so not out of a genuine desire to have good outcomes for trans people, but because of prejudice. Some prejudices about trans people are that they are predatory, deceitful, mentally unstable, violent, and fake. Ultimately, these are all based on fear—fear of people who are different. 

This fear is why rights-based arguments so often fail to convince. Trans rights are seen as “trumping” other people’s rights to safety only because trans people are seen as threats. It might seem paradoxical, but the only way to successfully include trans people is by overcoming fear, and the best way to overcome fear is through inclusion.  

By allowing trans people to access gendered spaces based on choice, we begin to break down fear and prejudice, because we create positive examples of inclusion in practice and give different people the chance to get to know each other.  

4. Base Expectations on Behaviour, not Identity  

There will always be people who engage in predatory behaviour, and some of those people will be trans. Sometimes we fight so hard against the prejudice that we only see trans and other marginalized people as victims, not as people who are also capable of reproducing harm themselves. However, intimidation, harassment, violence, and sexual violence have unfortunately always been present in shelters; they are not being brought in with trans people.  

When trans people are accused of causing harm, they are often punished in ways that call into question their right to access services that correspond with their gender identity. Trans people may also be held to a higher bar, with their behaviour more scrutinized, because of prejudice, which makes it easier for perceived violations of behaviour expectations to bring their presence in the space into question. 

If service providers are worried about potential harmful behaviours of trans people, it can be helpful to focus on the behaviours they are worried about themselves, not on the identities of the people involved. Rather than excluding trans people, create clear behaviour expectations with fair consequences for violating them that apply to everyone. Hopefully, by encouraging inclusion, this will allow the prejudiced fear of trans people to dissipate. 

5. Disproportionate Need and Disproportionate Harm 

According to the CMHC, trans people are twice as likely as the general population to experience severe poverty and homelessness. About half of the population of homeless youth identify as 2SLGBTQ, and they are about twice as likely to be homeless due to violence or abuse. More than half of the trans population has difficulty meeting housing costs, according to the 519.  

When experiencing homelessness, trans people have distinct needs. As one example, trans people may end up with no health card or be unable to use it, since it does not correspond to their chosen name and gender identity and their appearance may have changed. This makes it more difficult to access hormones and other necessary care. It also makes it harder to find housing, which often requires ID. Access to stable housing and support allows trans people to change their IDs and get medical care. 

Service organizations exist to help those in need, and trans people are more likely to need housing support than other groups. This means that barriers to trans inclusion are disproportionately harmful. Trans inclusion is then an ethical imperative for service organizations to avoid shutting the door on some of the people who most need them.  

In Conclusion 

Although it is unfortunate that we need to prepare to defend people’s basic rights, inclusion is an ongoing process that requires constant attention. As long as gendered services exist, there will need to be special attention paid to the inclusion of trans and gender non-conforming people. Trans inclusion became a legal reality with a stroke of a pen in 2017, but to make it real on the ground will require the long, slow work of breaking down prejudices, unpacking fear, and developing new practices. 

Here are a few additional resources about trans inclusion for service providers in the homelessness sector: