Does Maryland’s HB-235 Actually Protect Homeless Trans People?

Maryland is a complicated and controversial place to be right now for queer and trans people. First, its same-sex marriage bill – which seemed like it had a solid chance of passing the House after winning the Senate and the governor’s support – was set aside in the hopes of a more favorable voting climate in the future.

Now the issue is HB 235, the bill that many had hoped would provide much-needed protections for trans people in terms of housing, employment, and credit. Will the bill actually deliver on its promise of defense against discrimination? Or, as several trans activists are saying, does its language leave gaping holes through which many vulnerable trans people could fall?

To understand the importance of HB-235, you have to consider the urgency of the housing and homelessness problems in the queer and (especially) trans communities. Homelessness is a major issue for queers throughout the US, especially for teens and young adults; for trans people of all ages, though, the problem is even more serious.

As the National Center for Transgender Equality reports from a recent study of trans people:

+ Only one in four respondents reported being satisfied with his or her housing situation.
+ One in five did not have stable housing.
+ 13% of respondents reported not feeling safe in their current housing.
+ One third of transgender people were earning $10,000 or less per year (making the housing search especially difficult).

Bottom line, trans people face a greater risk of homelessness and/or housing discrimination than cis people. And what makes it worse is that homeless shelters often don’t present a viable option. As the National Center for Transgender Equality has found:

Transgender people have a very difficult time accessing homeless shelters that are safe for them. Nearly all homeless shelters in the United States are segregated by sex, and transgender people are often not allowed to be housed with the appropriate sex. If a shelter accepts transgender residents at all, often shelters require genital surgery before admitting them. Transgender women who are required to stay in men’s facilities report that they are sexually propositioned, verbally harassed, and sometimes assaulted. Even when people are allowed to be housed in the facility based on the gender with which they self-identify, some facilities need to increase the safety and privacy of the environment. For example, transgender men are sometimes housed in men’s shelters that do not have enough privacy in the showers and bathrooms (such as no curtains or stall doors). Another significant problem is that some shelters have strict sex-based dress codes. This problem is especially present in youth shelters, in which youth are often disciplined and ejected because of violating the dress code policies of the shelter.

The aim of HB-235 is, in theory, to end situations like this. It synopsis describes it as “Expanding the remedies available for discrimination by a place of public accommodation; clarifying the remedies available for an unlawful employment practice; authorizing a complainant alleging discrimination by a place of public accommodation to bring a civil action; etc.”

The problem is that ‘public accommodation’ may not actually be included in the bill. As Michiko Ota points out, the bill’s language refers to housing and places of residence – residence being the key word, as shelters are places in which one definitively does not establish a residence, but instead stays for a temporary period of time without any bill of sale or rent.

Even more confusing and frustrating, EqualityMaryland has continued its support of the bill while many trans groups have withdrawn theirs, and seems to be insisting that the bill does in fact provide public accomodations protection to homeless trans people. At the same time, though, their representatives are speaking elsewhere acknowledging the bill’s shortcomings, and urging people to support it as a foot-in-the-door approach with the view that once legislation is in place,  language about public accommodations can be added in the future.

Owen Smith is transgender, a Maryland resident and a field organizer for Equality Maryland. He told Baltimore OUTloud:

“With one in five transgender people getting fired from their job and 12 percent being homeless, we cannot allow another year to go by without protecting the most critically affected people.”

Furthermore, Baltimore OUTloud reports:

“Smith stated that he, too, had been fired from his job because he is transgender and had been homeless. Smith, whose position has been under attack by those favoring a comprehensive bill, believes the public accommodations provision would be worked on as soon as the legislative session is over either with a “patchwork” effort in the counties or in a more comprehensive bill for next year.”

Regardless of how one feels about ‘incremental approaches,’ it has to be monumentally frustrating and insulting for the trans community of Maryland to be offered legislation meant to protect them that clearly doesn’t address or understand the most urgent needs of the community — especially after years of being strategically omitted from other non-discrimination bills and promised inclusion later, as part of an ‘incremental approach.’

Our political system is such that marginalized groups are rarely involved in actually developing the laws that are meant to help them, and without the voices of the people on the ground, legislation can become so far removed from lived reality as to be useless.

This problem — that we compromise such a small percentage of legislative and governmental office-holders and a fairly small percentage of the entire population as well  —  is a constant obstacle for our community to grapple with. We often turn to media advocacy and social action groups as a powerful tool for change, historically trans people have felt slighted, shafted or blatantly discriminated against by the LGBs who are supposed to be allies and often turn out to be anything but — intentionally or not.

What would an effective system looks like; one based on the needs and input of the people it’s meant to serve?

More importantly, will we know anytime soon?

ETA: Journalist Dana LaRoca has pointed out a very very important aspect of Smith’s aforementioned statement:

Owen Smith misunderstands the survey when he says that 12% of transgender Marylanders are homeless. Twelve percent reported having been homeless at one time. The survey used by Equality Maryland was based on an online questionnaire answered by 132 Marylanders. That comes out to less than six people in each county.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

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13 Comments

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    Aaaah, my people! I didn’t really realize just how widespread this kind of thing is for trans people. Damn. Well, at least now I have something specific to do with any excess money I happen to come by.

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    it’s really unfortunate that many ‘mainstream’ LGBT organizations are willing to compromise on trans rights when a legal victory is in sight. i agree that there certainly need to be more trans voices at the table; particularly those belonging to people of color and lower income, who tend to be most at risk and most underrepresented in these organizations. perhaps the time has also come for more community-based solutions as well.

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    “If a shelter accepts transgender residents at all, often shelters require genital surgery before admitting them.”

    whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat.

    bunch of fucking nutters on this planet

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    Owen Smith misunderstands the survey when he says that 12% of transgender Marylanders are homeless. Twelve percent reported having been homeless at one time. The survey used by Equality Maryland was based on an online questionnaire answered by 132 Marylanders. That comes out to less than six people in each county.

    Equality Maryland promoted this bill without consulting the transgender community beforehand. Now they are suffering the backlash. Three weeks after the bill was introduced at the State House they decided to come to the table and talk with the community. Weekly meetings were arranged. Then last week transgender Marylander’s staged a protest against HB235 in front of the Supreme Court building. The next morning Equality Maryland cancelled all meetings with the transgender community until after the end of the legislative session; in other words, until nothing could be done about it.

    This bill started as a bargaining chip in the legislature to help get a marriage equality bill passed. That bill failed. Now Equality Maryland is stuck supporting a bill that can no longer serve its original function as a bargaining chip. What a tangled web.

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    I can’t believe that homeless shelters focusing on homeless teens are kicking them out for not complying with SEX SPECIFIC dress codes. I work with victims of domestic violence and what we focus on are identifying ways that abusers exert power and control – like denying housing because your clothes were not approved for your sex. what the fuck.

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      i know right? that seems totally backwards to me (i mean, tons of other things about this situation is backwards as well) and just sounds like shelters trying to impose their morality on people. WHY DO PEOPLE ALWAYS TRY TO DO THAT.

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    Please read for a fuller explanation why 235 has always been a half-baked attempt at protecting trans people created by a group of GL activists who had previously thrown trans rights under the bus:

    http://transgriot.blogspot.com/2011/03/why-hb-235-is-unjust-law.html

    http://transgriot.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2011-03-21T13%3A30%3A00-05%3A00

    This legislation doesn’t protect the most vulnerable portions of the trans community (and a large proportion of Maryland’s trans population is non-white) and sets a dangerous precedent for other states that civil rights for trans and queer people by drips and drabs is somehow okay.

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        The bill is unjust because it’s being pushed by a group which has sold out trans people before, which has censored opposition to the bill and which is bent on consciously misrepresenting the supposed protections in the bill. The bill will cause more harm because it can create a precedent in other “EQ” organizations that putting forth highly incomplete, cynical and poorly written legislation for trans people is somehow acceptable (but, of course, when it comes to marriage equality another standard is used). The bill was written that way it was because they wanted marriage equality to go through, not for the best interests of the trans/gender variant community.

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    The only reason that there even is a need for a trans-specific bill in 2011 is that in 2001 Maryland’s gays and lesbian elite lied to the Maryland Legislature by claiming that trans people were already covered under Maryland law – knowing full well that no Maryland court had ever said so and knowing that the likelihood of any Maryland court ever saying so was next to nil – and, therefore, trans people didn’t need to be in the 2001 gay rights bill.

    http://endablog.wordpress.com/2011/02/17/come-to-think-of-it-ive-never-seen-morgan-meneses-sheets-and-cathy-brennan-in-the-same-room-at-the-same-time/

    Ten years later, the successors-in-interest of those same elitist transphobes are pulling the same scam, lying through their teeth by definitively claiming that homeless shelter are covered under existing housing laws; in reality, there is no Maryland case law on the subject and, contrary to ‘Equality’ Maryland’s claims about the most recent extra-jurisdictional precedent supporting their mythology in actuality the the most recent extra-jurisdictional precedent strongly suggests that under existing law, there is no definitive answer about any particulr shelter because the question is always fact-dependent.

    http://endablog.wordpress.com/2011/03/21/saying-that-the-question-has-been-answered-doesnt-mean-that-it-actually-has-been-and-it-certainly-doesnt-mean-that-its-been-answered-correctly/

    http://endablog.wordpress.com/2011/03/21/sorry-equality-maryland-hb-235-does-not-protect-the-homeless-and-morgan-meneses-sheets-recycled-2001-brennanism-aint-gonna-fly-or-even-flap-its-wings/

    The reality is now as it was in 2001: Maryland gays and lesbians demand the certainty of statutory specificity for themselves but expect trans people to subsist on pipedreams, wishes and secret handshakes among people whose opinions will, when the time comes, be irrelevant.

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