Safer Spaces: Transgender 101

On Friday October 4, One Roof hosted a Transgender 101 Workshop for our member agencies. Our aim: to answer the call of case workers, social workers, and other representatives from our member agencies who’ve repeatedly expressed that they want to know more about the issues facing transgender folks experiencing homelessness. Our members want to know how to best serve their transgender clients, how to best meet their needs, and we want to equip and empower them to do so.

The workshop was led by Dr. Jay Irwin, a Medical Sociologist in the department of Sociology & Anthropology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Dr. Irwin, a native Alabamian who earned his PhD from UAB, specializes in LGBT health, transgender identity, sexuality, mental health, and homelessness. He was very excited to hear of our concern for the transgender community and happy to help our community of service providers better understand transgender issues.

So, how do we best meet the needs of our transgender clients? A short answer and the most important take-a-way from this workshop: we treat transgender clients with respect, care, and compassion without judgment. But what does this respect, care, and compassion look like? How do we put this into practice and policy? Is this any different from the way we serve our non-transgender (cisgender) clients?

We at One Roof believe respect starts with language. Using appropriate and preferred language when talking to and about a client is key. One Roof’s mission is to equip and empower our community to prevent and end homelessness through advocacy, education, and coordination of services. Empowering our community includes empowering our transgender clients by advocating for the use of appropriate and preferred language on their behalf. If we simply ask a transgender person (or any person, really) their preferred gender pronoun, we give them the choice to let us know how they want to be identified and talked to. If we use a client’s preferred pronoun, we show them that we see them and hear them, that we are invested in their individual experience and want to serve them the best way possible. Asking about and using a client’s preferred language also allows them to maintain some sort of control in their life, to have a say in how they’re perceived. For our clients, some of the most vulnerable folks in our community, this kind of empowerment is crucial. Is this something we can put into practice?

We also believe respect extends to bathrooms. Using a public bathroom is stressful enough for many folks. Consider the vulnerable nature of the community we serve and consider how, for a transgender person, trying to figure out the best bathroom situation can come down to personal safety. So how can we respect our clients? How can we make our facilities safe? Dr. Irwin suggested that we ask clients where they feel most comfortable using the bathroom and honor their experience. You might have the following questions: What do we do if a transman has a negative experience using a men’s bathroom in one of our facilities? If a transwoman has a negative experience using a women’s bathroom? Well, what if, instead of basing practices around the assumption that negative experiences will happen based on a gender identity that may be challenging to some, we instead promote respect of all clients and emphasize and enforce zero tolerance policies for all types of harassment and violence? What if we offer and advertise safe bathrooms? We believe that honoring the experiences of all clients both shows and encourages respect. Is this something we can put into practice?

Now a more complicated issue: how do we safely place transgender clients in an emergency shelter or transitional housing? How do we meet their housing needs when many of our options are communal and gender-specific? Dr. Irwin presented the following best practice: if a person identifies as a woman, they receive services at a women’s facility; if a person identifies as a man, they receive services at a men’s facility. We believe this shows our clients that they are seen and heard, that we’re invested in their individual experience. We at One Roof also acknowledge the complications that might arise from this best practice. We know the realities of violence against transgender persons: transgender folks experience more violence of all kinds than non-transgender persons, especially transwomen of color. The possibility of violence against transgender clients is not something we can or will ignore when making housing decisions. But we have to think deeper about this. We have to ask if we’re projecting our fears when making housing decisions. Are we making decisions based on the potential negative behavior of others because a client’s gender identity may be challenging to them? What if we focus more on the behavior instead of the identity? If we address problematic behavior comprehensively, (again, promoting respect of all clients and emphasizing and enforcing zero tolerance policies for all types of harassment and violence), then we can provide safer spaces for our transgender clients. Is this something we, as a community of service providers, can do?

We at One Roof acknowledge that our suggestions here may seem idealistic rather than practical—but what if this is a time to be idealistic, to want and believe in safer spaces and therefore make safer spaces. We turn to you now, our community of service providers and the greater Birmingham community, and ask: How can we put this into practice? How can we promote and, really, demand respect for not just transgender folks experiencing homelessness, but all of our clients? How can we, through advocacy, education, and coordination of services, make our spaces safer for everyone?


Josh Helms is an AmeriCorps member serving at One Roof as the Capacity Building Assistant.

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