It’s time to speak out against a proposal by President Trump’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to allow emergency shelters to discriminate against transgender and nonbinary people. While it’s always cruel to roll back protections for people experiencing homelessness, it’s especially so when everyone, regardless of gender identity, needs a safe place to live to protect ourselves and our communities from COVID-19.
We first learned of the Trump administration’s intent to weaken the Equal Access Rule last summer, but HUD didn’t formally publish the proposal and open it for public comment until a few weeks ago. Adopted in 2016, the current rule requires emergency shelters to house clients according to their gender identity, prohibits them from denying gender-affirming placements based on other residents’ objections or biases, and prevents them from requiring proof of biological characteristics or gender-affirming medical treatment.
The Trump administration’s proposal instead would allow a shelter provider to establish its own policy outlining how it would consider an individual’s sex in determining whether and how to provide services. The proposal is based on a crude and factually inaccurate concept of “biological sex” that ultimately could result in the denial of safe shelter to trans- and cisgender people alike.
This is especially alarming right now because people experiencing homelessness are twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to die from coronavirus as those who are housed. Homelessness disproportionately affects transgender people, including trans youth. Family members may force them to leave their homes through rejection or abuse, and trans people often face employment discrimination, which made it hard to afford basic needs like housing even before COVID-19 ravaged the economy. Given the racial disparities associated with both coronavirus and homelessness, HUD’s plan is particularly dangerous to trans women of color.
This economic precarity and housing instability may place trans and nonbinary members of our communities at a heightened risk of exposure to, and adverse outcomes from, COVID-19. With limited options to earn money in legal ways, some may turn to stigmatized occupations like sex work that make social distancing virtually impossible and increase the odds of pre-existing health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the impact of coronavirus.
Barriers to quality healthcare, such as lack of insurance coverage and discrimination or abuse by healthcare providers, further compound the health risks transgender and nonbinary people face on a daily basis. These glaring flaws in our healthcare system, which contribute to the persistence of broader social inequities, have only become more obvious during the pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, jails and prisons have proven to be hotbeds for COVID-19, which remains a threat despite emergency efforts to reduce Michigan’s incarcerated population and other safety measures. Because our society criminalizes many of the things people affected by transphobia and homelessness must do just to survive, this means trans and nonbinary people may face exposure in jail because they were trying to meet their basic needs or simply can’t afford bail.
This is not the Trump administration’s first step in endangering the lives of transgender and nonbinary people during this pandemic. In June, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reversed an Obama-era decision to include gender identity in a rule prohibiting sex-based discrimination by healthcare providers, facilities and insurers. Additionally, the administration has publicly sided with employers whom the Supreme Court determined were illegally discriminating against LGBTQIA+ people. Taken together, these stances provide a textbook example of systemic oppression.
As we battle the overarching threat of COVID-19, we must not forget about the many other longstanding public health threats, including transphobia, racism and antipathy toward homeless people, that continue to drive the failed response by those at our nation’s highest levels of leadership. We have until Sept. 22 to tell HUD to keep the Equal Access Rule in place. Please join us in defending safe shelter for all during the pandemic and beyond by submitting your comment here.