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LGBT Housing Discrimination is Real

One of the most heart-breaking experiences I had as a case manager was with a lesbian client who was invited, with her biological children, to stay at the family shelter where I worked. But because the faith-based shelter’s rules excluded same-sex couples, her female partner was not allowed to join them, even though they were, undeniably, a family unit. That family, understandably, elected to continue living in their car rather than being broken up.

June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Pride month, and we at the Alliance (and I personally, as a proud L) want to use our blog this month to highlight issues around LGBT housing and homelessness. A good place to start is the basics of the fight for fair housing: ensuring that everyone has equal access to housing opportunities, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

LGBT housing discrimination is real. Stories like the one from the shelter I worked at are all too common. And the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found in a national study that even at the initial stage of a rental search--an email inquiring about a listing—landlords discriminate against same-sex couples.

Even though the federal Fair Housing Act still does not include sexual orientation or gender identity as a protected class, HUD has been making strides under the Obama Administration in using its regulatory authority to ensure greater equality in housing for LGBT people, including for LGBT people experiencing homelessness.

In 2012 HUD released its final rule on Equal Access to Housing in HUD Programs Regardless of Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity. Among other things, this rule required that housing funded by HUD be made available without regard to actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status.

The rule also clarified that, for HUD programs, the terms “family” and “household” include people regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status. So, if the shelter I worked at had been HUD-funded, under this rule it wouldn’t have been allowed to exclude the lesbian family.

The rule also prohibited inquiring about someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity to determine eligibility for HUD-funded housing. The rule, however, included a limited exception to allow for inquiries into a person’s sex for purposes of determining eligibility for emergency shelters with shared bathrooms and sleeping areas.

After some time, though, it became clear that further clarification was needed to ensure that transgender people experiencing homelessness were not further traumatized when they sought shelter.

To address that concern, HUD issued guidance earlier this year. When someone seeks assignment in a single-sex shelter, providers should assign that client to shelter that corresponds with the client’s gender identity and should give serious consideration to that client’s own assessment of where the client would feel most safe.

These kinds of protections are vital for transgender people experiencing homelessness, who are disproportionately represented among the homeless population, often due to economic and housing discrimination related to their gender identity. Transgender youth are especially vulnerable and often become homeless as a result of being rejected by family because of their gender identity.

Finally, even though the Fair Housing Act doesn’t explicitly protect anyone from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, HUD can still use the Act’s existing categories to offer some protection for LGBT people.

For example, disability is a protected category under the Fair Housing Act (and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act), and HIV/AIDS (or even being perceived as having HIV/AIDS) qualifies as a disability. While HIV is an equal opportunity virus, HIV/AIDS is still most prevalent among men who have sex with other men, and actual or perceived HIV status discrimination can act as a proxy for discrimination based on sexual orientation. But discrimination based on actual or perceived HIV status is illegal. Additionally, housing discrimination based on someone’s nonconformity with gender stereotypes could be construed as discrimination based on sex, which is also illegal under the Fair Housing Act.

Near the beginning of the Obama Administration, then HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan vowed to make HUD the “most welcoming, inclusive and respectful workplace environment [for LGBT people] in the Federal government.” I’ve never worked for HUD, so I can’t attest to its inclusivity as a workplace (though my LGBT friends over there seem to like it a lot).

But HUD has made a lot of progress in the past few years to become more responsive to and inclusive of the LGBT people it serves, including those who are experiencing homelessness. And highlighting that kind of effort and encouraging folks in the field to follow it is a great way to kick off Pride!

What kind of work has your organization, agency, or continuum undertaken to ensure that you’re providing inclusive and welcoming services for LGBT people experiencing homelessness? Share your experiences with me at mmitchell@naeh.org.