by Rudy Harries
Content warning: homelessness, transphobia, homophobia, suicidal ideation, family rejection
There are no exact numbers for how many trans people experience homelessness in the UK. Llamau published a report called Out On The Streets in 2019 which addressed the issue of homelessness amongst LGBTQ+ people under 25 in Wales, where I live. This report found that LGBTQ+ youth are 4 times more likely to experience homelessness than their straight and cisgender peers. While there was no specific number for trans youth, it’s thought that they are even more disproportionately affected by homelessness.
Homelessness – the Hidden Issue
This is one of many pressing issues that the trans community faces that is rarely, if ever, spoken about in mainstream media in the UK. This is partly because it is rarely trans people who are given the platform to talk about trans issues, and partly because the media at large is hostile to trans people and homeless people. So, it’s to be expected that they don’t care much for anyone at the intersection. On the rare occasions where trans people are permitted to speak up, we tend to position the media circus as far removed from the everyday lives and realities of trans people. In many ways, it is; trans people do not spend the majority of their time fighting to access sports, for example. However, many of us feel the impact of the legitimisation of transphobic discourse in ways that inflict serious harm, and I am not just talking about hate crime.
When I started taking T in late 2018, the situation in my family home became dangerous. I had been talking to a local unisex domestic violence advice service. After a risk assessment they strongly recommended that I leave and report to the council’s homelessness services. I vividly remember the moment that they grimly informed me that statistics said that if I chose to stay I would be dead within a year. It didn’t hit me until that moment how serious my situation had become. I’d been plagued with suicidal ideation for most of my life and had only just started to be happy to be alive. The idea that it could be ripped away terrified me. The decision to flee was difficult, like jumping off a cliff to avoid a hungry wolf without checking to see if there was an ocean to catch me at the bottom, but I made it anyway.
Help that isn’t…
That’s how I found myself in a bizarre interview in which homelessness services attempted to figure out whether I “qualified” for support, or whether I was “capable” of surviving on the streets. After hearing my story, and because I was trans, disabled and under 25, they quickly decided that I did indeed qualify for support. However, as a trans man who had only started medically transitioning a week before, there was a question mark as to where exactly I should go for support. The services for domestic violence victims are strictly gendered. I have to say that the team at the council were very respectful of my transness, and they initially offered me a place in a man’s shelter.
As they were going through where it was and how it worked, my gut told me that it wasn’t going to work. I had been abused by several men in the previous couple of years, and I couldn’t imagine being respected by an all-man environment. Historically men had been abusive in a myriad of different ways, and since I’d socially transitioned to appear more masculine I had experienced more abuse, if anything. It seemed that in the face of my burgeoning trans masculinity, cisgender men felt their own masculinity threatened, and went out of their way to intimidate me in order to “assert dominance” and assuage their own masculine anxieties. I did not feel that I’d be safe in a man’s shelter, and I said so. The support worker was understanding once I explained my predicament, and instead offered me a place in a woman’s shelter.
Again, my mind began to spin the possibilities. Fresh in my mind was the tabloid dogpiling of Black nonbinary writer Travis Alabanza after they dared to use a woman’s changing room in TopShop. A lot of it boiled down to a ridiculous anxiety: “this person has facial hair and a specific set of genitals so their presence in a woman’s space is inherently predatory”. The harassment Travis faced had already been going on for months and would continue for months more. At the same time, prominent feminists endorsed by the DV charity sector were “speaking out” about how the inclusion of trans women in DV shelters was going to put (cisgender) women at risk.
Of course, I’m not a trans woman, but I knew that going through transition in a woman’s shelter, sprouting a beard and having my voice drop, was going to be controversial. It’s not lost on me that as a person who was assigned female at birth, transphobic activists theoretically want me in women’s spaces, but I had already been harassed in women’s bathrooms for appearing masculine, and I knew this was going to worsen as T started to change my body. I had visions of a transphobic member of staff calling the Sun, and having my life splashed across the tabloids. At such a vulnerable moment, I knew I couldn’t risk it.
The alternative to danger is … more danger
I asked the support workers what Plan C was. It turned out to be a room in a shady bed and breakfast above a pub, next door to a man who had just been released from prison for assaulting a gay man in the street. There was no access to cooking facilities outside of a kettle, so the breakfast we were provided was the one square meal we had. It was served to everyone at one time, and if you missed it you didn’t eat. So for several weeks I was forced to sit opposite a violent homophobe and try my best not to betray my queerness. I remember desperately trying to keep my voice high and agonising over the few t-shirts I’d managed to bring with me when I fled to figure out which would make me look least gender non-conforming.
It felt almost as dangerous as the situation I’d fled from. I sat in the room wondering why I’d bothered. Here I was, given up my home only to find myself somewhere else where I had to hide and make myself small to avoid violence. At the time I didn’t feel angry about it; I was too busy trembling from hunger and omnipresent fear. Now, almost three years later, I feel angry. Not at the support workers who put me there; they did their best and let me make the choice for myself. No, I feel angry at the so-called feminists who worked so hard to make me feel unsafe in gendered spaces.
The need for better services
Since then, I’ve worked with a lot of organisations in the DV/homelessness sector, and very rarely is one of these organisations trans-antagonistic. In fact, most of the time they are actively looking for ways to be more trans-inclusive. The outrage that is spread across the press is largely not reflected in the actual organisations supporting people. While a fair few of these organisations are guilty of allowing anti-trans feminists to retain their influential ambassador positions, they almost always distance themselves from the views expressed by these feminists, and insist that their projects are trans-inclusive.
The fact remains, however, that trans people are scared to access these services in the first place due to the loud discourse about these issues. Many “gender critical” feminists insist that they are not anti-trans, that they have sympathy for trans people but simply disagree with “trans activists”. I often, in the year that I was homeless, made an effort to engage with them on social media and tell them my story, to try and explain to them that their actions were causing harm. The responses would be one of two things; either they would accuse me of lying or brand me some variation of a “sex traitor” and imply that the abuse I faced was a choice I made. Never, not once, did any of them reflect on what I’d said and apologise. So when I and other trans people say that these people are not engaging in good faith, and that they are lying about being sympathetic to trans people, please believe us.
Anti-trans feminists are actively putting trans people in harm’s way, and they don’t care.
Homeless trans people fleeing domestic violence desperately need projects that they can feel safe in. We need a range of options that we are free to choose from, including traditional gendered shelters if that suits us but also specialised queer-friendly unisex shelters that strongly reject anti-trans feminists and are run by queer people with lived experience of homelessness. In the meantime, existing organisations must do more to ensure that anti-trans feminists are exiled from their orbits, and commit more strongly to protecting trans victims of homelessness and abuse.