‘It’s Not Just About a Rainbow Lanyard’: Are Laws Enough to Prevent Discrimination Against Trans People Experiencing Homelessness?

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy by Edith England. Click here to access the article.

Equality laws, such as the British Equality Act 2010, mean that public services must not discriminate against trans people. This matters because it gives trans people a right to use services and means that services must try to meet their needs as well as non-trans people. Trans people face high levels of discrimination and stigma in society, which puts them at high risk of poverty and homelessness. Access to services that can help is especially important for them, but trans people often find these services unwelcoming. In Britain, everyone who is homeless has a legal right to help with finding somewhere to live. But rates of homelessness amongst trans people in Britain are still high. They often stay homeless for a long time and become homeless repeatedly. Understanding how homelessness services could meet their needs better is important. It is especially important to understand why trans people still get worse service, despite equality laws. Why is equalities legislation not enough to prevent them from feeling excluded? To understand this better, I spoke to those involved in the homelessness system in Wales. I spoke to 35 trans people with recent experience of homelessness, and 12 frontline homelessness workers. Through this, I was able to explore how laws and policy intended to create equality for trans people operate on the ground.

 I found that the trouble lies with the way that services are set up. Homelessness services are much easier for some people to use than others. However, workers in the system didn’t always recognise this. They believed that services welcomed everyone who needed to use them. One manager explained that it ‘doesn’t matter if you’re a purple alien…we don’t discriminate’. But trans people I spoke to had very different experiences. They felt that staff did not know how to react to them, making them feel uncomfortable. They felt that they had to pretend to be someone they were not in order to fit into the service. They did not feel that they were welcome. They also pointed out that they sometimes were not able to choose the titles or pronouns which matched their gender on official systems.

Another problem was that services did not recognise when trans people were homeless. For instance, domestic abuse is a leading cause of homelessness and British homelessness services work with specialist domestic abuse services to help survivors. But services often ignored domestic abuse when trans people reported it. Trans people are at high risk of all forms of domestic abuse. They also face additional forms of abuse related to being trans. This can include threatening to ‘out’ them as trans and refusing to use their correct name or pronouns. Trans people felt that services did not see them as homeless unless their partner was physically violent. As one participant explained ‘he made my life hell for four years before he laid a finger on me.’ Trans people were offered solutions that did not work for them. For instance, they were often asked to consider shared housing. This meant sharing a house with people they did not know. Trans people are at high risk of violence: shared housing puts them in danger. They felt that this showed that services were not serious about equality. One participant explained: 

You go into their office and they’re all wearing rainbow lanyards and it’s happy days to look at it, then I’m saying well I can’t be in a flat with other people and they’re saying…we’ve got no choice.

Finally, trans people felt that homelessness services treated them differently to other applicants. Workers were often very worried about cases involving trans people. These cases were unusual, and although a lot of workers had some training, they did not feel confident. One worker explained ‘it’s not something we’d come across every day [so] I’d want to have a chat with my manager.‘ This was well intentioned. Workers were trying to give trans people a good service. They recognised their own lack of knowledge and did not want things to go wrong. But when services did not know how to react to them, trans people felt they did not belong in the service. They felt that workers were not willing to listen to them. They felt that because they were trans they were not seen as able to make their own decisions. This restricted their choices and made them feel objectified. One participant described this feeling of being ‘automatically a ‘case’ They found this patronizing, and paternalistic. One participant explained that she had to fight to get the worker to recognise her needs.  ‘You go in and you say I’m trans, I’m a trans woman, and it’s right then, on the rollercoaster, off you go. Love, I’m not a kid, I’m here for a reason.’

Homelessness is a disorientating, traumatic experience. It has both short- and long-term impacts on health and life chances. Early, effective intervention reduces the amount of time people are homeless for. It also makes it less likely that they will be homeless again. Trans people are no different to anyone else when they become homeless. They want to be treated professionally and with respect. They want their homelessness to be recognised. They want help to find solutions which work for them. Throughout this, they want to be recognised as worthwhile human beings. Services are trying to do this, but they are not going far enough. Services themselves are not designed to be inclusive, workers are not aware of the specific barriers faced by trans people, and trans people are not offered the same choices as other homeless people. Improving homeless services to make them more inclusive is essential, because trans people are relatively more likely to become homeless.  Changing the law to make public services more inclusive is important. But it is not enough.   To become genuinely inclusive, services need to look at how they are organised and run. They need to ask themselves who finds it easy to get their needs met, and who does not. They need to look at how formal and informal systems promote exclusion. Most of all, they should work with paid trans people to evaluate and redesign services so that everyone feels welcome.


About the author

Edith England is Lecturer in Social Policy at Cardiff Metropolitan University.

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