“We are lost and forgotten in the larger reality,” said Katie. “We don’t matter, not enough to change what brings us here.”
Katie was sitting across from me at a local Caribou Coffee outside Metro Center station in Washington, D.C. We talked for a little about where we both were from, with me telling her about my growing up experience as a Jehovah’s Witness in small northern Ontario towns, and the things my father had done to make sure I would turn out straight and the conversion therapy I had endured. This seemed to allow her the ability to open up and realize that I somewhat understood a very small amount of the issues she had faced and wanted to listen.
“I was eight years old when I knew I was different,” Katie told me. “I wasn’t playing with the other kids the same way and was often being told that I was an abomination, sick, wrong. My parents were religious to a fault and always told me that I had to bring myself closer to God and ask for his grace.”
Katie went on to describe how things became even more difficult as she got older and began to dress differently and act more feminine. Her mother discovered her wearing girl’s clothing and that was the end of her life at home. She was ejected from her home when she was only 14 years old and left to her own devices.
“My father came home from work in a panic. He was worried that other people in the town of Edgerton, Minnesota, would know that I wanted to be a woman and that the family would be shunned. It was a small town and religion was the core of the whole town. My uncle came and drove me to the nearest big city and let me out with a bag of clothes and one hundred dollars. He told me that if I ever decided to be normal that I could come back but that the only forgiveness would be once I purged myself of Satan.”
Katie then went on to live for the next two years on the streets bouncing from city to city and working her way to New York City, having been lured by an older friend who had promises of a job and a new life. It was a rare thing for Katie to trust anyone, let alone someone promising things that were seemingly too good to be true. However, this friend was also a lover who convinced Katie that they were in love, “and perhaps I was,” she said.
“I came to this city that promised it all, the rich and famous, if you can make it here you can make it anywhere! I was a wild-eyed kid that didn’t know better than to trust someone who finally said those words that I always thought would be real only in a dream world.”
Katie ended up turning to prostitution when things on this end fell through. There weren’t any services that could really help her and she was left to do the best she could. Being turned away from women’s shelters and not being able to enter men’s shelters without being preyed upon, facing violence and possibly rape.
“It was the scariest time in my life. I never knew that even in a city with a strong community that I would still be viewed as an outsider.”
Katie’s story isn’t an unusual one. The problem of housing and fighting to get off the streets is a very real one. In a recent report created jointly by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality it was found that:
Respondents reported various forms of direct housing discrimination with 19% having been refused a home or apartment and 11% reported being evicted because of their gender identity/expression.
One ﬁfth reported experiencing homelessness at some point in their lives because they were transgender or gender nonconforming. An astounding 55% of those trying to access a homeless shelter were harassed by shelter staff or residents and 29% were turned away altogether, and 22% were sexually assaulted by
residents or staff.
Almost 2% of respondents were currently homeless, which is almost twice the rate of the general population (1%). Respondents who have experienced homelessness were highly vulnerable to mistreatment in public settings, police abuse and negative health outcomes.
“Homelessness isn’t the problem, it is the result of compounded problems however it doesn’t make it any less real,” Mara Keisling, Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told The New Civil Rights Movement. “This is an issue that effects so many people across the country and our community is one that is hardest hit when it comes to access to appropriate services. We have been working diligently to alleviate some of the underlying issues that are resulting in so many homeless people.”
Keisling has been an outspoken advocate for the rights of transgender people. A graduate of Harvard University and a proud Pennsylvanian, she has lived her life to educate people and organizations on ways that they can become inclusive, even when there isn’t a welcome sign.
“You are deﬁned not by falling, but how well you rise after falling… I have walked these streets and been harassed nearly every day, but I will not change. I am back out there the next day with my head up.”
- Survey Respondent, Injustice at Every Turn
“The ability to find housing is a huge issue for the transgender community,” continued Keisling. “We have accounts of some who engage in sexual acts simply to be able to have a place to sleep for the night, thereby increasing the amount of sexual partners astronomically. It is true that there is a large portion of the ‘homeless’ that do engage in prostitution, however, our view should not be one of disdain but rather how can we help. No one actively wants to be homeless and wanting for the simple necessities of life. There must be options and we applaud the advances taken on by HUD and also look with an eye to individual programs and agencies doing there part as well. We cannot rely solely on governmental agencies.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced at the recent Creating Change conference in Baltimore that a new rule that will help the fight against discrimination by ensuring that all HUD core programs are open to eligible persons regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, who spoke about this new rule and other HUD actions to address LGBT housing discrimination issues at Creating Change, stated, “HUD is working to ensure that our housing programs are open to all,” and that the rules state “clearly and unequivocally that LGBT individuals and couples have a right to live where they chose.” Secretary Donovan mentioned that HUD will work to provide training and guidance on this new rule which, according to Keisling, is a major area in working to end discrimination countrywide.
“If we look at the example of what has happened in Pennsylvania where they face an extremely conservative legislature where it would be virtually impossible to get most pro-LGBT bills passed, Equality Pennsylvania has begun to effect change by going community by community and having anti-discrimination policies passed,” Mara Keisling adds. “This has created an education of the citizens of that state and will eventually allow them to go before the legislature and show that the majority of communities throughout the state are in support the LGBT community.”
Education is a major part of solving the issues that are being faced by members of the LGBT community across the country. Lisa Mottet, who is the Transgender Civil Rights Program Director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, has been working on this issue since 2001 when she was the legislative lawyer for the Transgender Civil Rights Project, thanks to a two-year grant awarded by Equal Justice Works. Since then she has been one of the front runners in helping to attain standard of living and equality measures that work to protect the transgender community.
“When I first toured D.C. area homeless shelters, I saw group showers and washrooms that had no stall doors,” Mottet explained. “Transgender women in particular were adversely affected. They were asked to take off or trim their nails, remove or alter their hair so as to appear more masculine. They feared the repercussions of simply being who they are in a world that was not willing to accept the reality of who they are. One woman I spoke with told me that she didn’t shower at the shelter, having to find alternate ways of being hygienic because as she put it, ‘I am not willing to be the Pamela Andersen for these guys.’ It isn’t uncommon to see these women having to find alternatives to shelters.”
Mottet, also, went on to describe how many turn to prostitution or sex in return for a place to sleep. They will stay with a “boyfriend” who can often times be emotionally and physically violent. Some end up turning to hooking up with random strangers, where bareback and unprotected sex can be the norm.
“It pays more,” says Mottet. “When you are homeless with little to no recourse to escape you don’t necessarily see the downside to making the extra money. There are cases where they see this as perhaps having a silver lining because of programs that help those who have HIV, where housing vouchers and health care are covered by state or government programs. It isn’t to say that they are actively trying to become infected but if they do, there is the perception that you can at least get a better shake than where you are now.”
One of the largest areas of concern to Mottet was the inability for many transgender people to access proper identification. While you may be able to switch the sex on your driver’s licence or other state issued ID, it does little when you can’t have your name changed to match. A name change can be costly and require going to court to be able to have this effectively done along with publication costs of alerting the public to the name change, a price that is often times out of reach.
Mottet went on to explain how there are resources out there for communities, states and even federal agencies who are wanting to become inclusive. She advocates for education by and through the LGBT community, who often have the knowledge and experience to make a difference.
Research suggests that supportive personnel who work within institutions that are support systems for communities are only able to accomplish work that benefits equality through education. By having systems that utilize resources and facilitating training and continued education, LGBT persons are able to feel comfortable to use community programs.
“Going to hospitals before there is an issue is a perfect example of where we sometimes fail. Proactive is vastly better than reactive. There are nurses, technicians, and staff in hospitals, jails and prisons and police departments that are busy and doing the best they can within their communities to fulfill their jobs. As a community if we took the time and became advocates for ourselves and began diligently educating on a regular basis we would see marked changes for the better,” concluded Keisling.
Growing up in Northern Ontario as a Jehovah’s Witness, Michael Talon experienced firsthand the struggle for equality. Now living in the U.S. he works with advocates for federal equality, including immigration. Michael currentlty owns and operates OnRecord Media, which works with LGBT supportive companies and organizations helping to create an economy and political atmosphere that focuses on inclusive policies and employment.
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