Most shelters separate trans people by birth gender insteadof gender identity, advocates say
In the wake of Jennifer Gale’s death in Austin last week, LGBT advocates in Texas are turning their attention to the issue of transgender homelessness.
Gale, 47, a homeless transgender woman and perennial political candidate who ran for Dallas mayor in 2007, was found dead early on Dec. 17 outside a church north of the University of Texas campus. Gale, who was also an advocate for the homeless who spoke frequently at government meetings, died from cardiac arrest, authorities said, and the cold weather may have been a contributing factor.
A day later, Equality Texas issued a press release saying Gale’s death can be directly attributed to a lack of homeless shelters that accept transgender people and house them according to their gender identity. Transgender people face higher rates of homelessness due to things like employment discrimination, and shelters typically will house them only according to their biological gender.
"The reality is that there is a dearth of facilities available for women in general, and especially for trans women," Equality Texas Deputy Director Chuck Smith told Dallas Voice this week. "The lack of available facilities that would take someone as they are, is and was certainly a factor in terms of why she [Gale] spent most of her nights outside."
Marti Bier, an aide for openly lesbian Austin City Councilwoman Randi Shade, said the only shelter in Austin that houses women overnight, operated by the Salvation Army, would’ve forced Gale to sleep and shower with men.
"They would make her use her male birth name and completely disregard, and disrespect, her identity as a trans woman," Bier said. "There is so much to be learned from Jennifer Gale, and so much to be worked on in our community."
Like Dallas, Austin has an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity/expression in public accommodations. However, Smith said it’s unclear whether the ordinance can be applied to homeless shelters.
"That’s something that the city legal department is currently looking at," Smith said, adding that representatives from Equality Texas plan to meet with Austin officials in early January to further discuss the issue.
A spokesman for Dallas’ city-funded homeless shelter, the Bridge, said Monday, Dec. 22, that trans people are housed there according to their biological gender.
"If they live their life as a woman, they’re still on the men’s floor," said Alonzo Peterson, community affairs director for the Bridge.
But he added, "I think in the future we might be amenable to doing it the other way. We only opened May 20, so a lot of these thornier issues are things we just haven’t come across yet."
Chris Heinbaugh, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert’s openly gay chief of staff, said Monday afternoon, Dec. 22, he would look into the matter, but no further information was available by press time.
A spokesman for the Salvation Army, which operates a shelter on Harry Hines Boulevard in Dallas, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Two Dallas residents who attended a memorial service for Gale in Austin on Sunday, Dec. 21, said they plan to pursue the matter locally.
Kelli Busey, founder of Dallas Transgender Advocates and Allies, said she’d already begun contacting local homeless shelters to learn more about their policies and procedures.
Busey and Michael Robinson, founder of United Community Against Gay Hate Crimes, were among more than 50 people, including three Austin council members, who gathered under the Homeless Memorial and Tree of Remembrance on the shore of Lady Bird Lake.
A ribbon for Gale was added to the tree, joining the 163 other ribbons for homeless people who’ve died on the streets of Austin this year.
"Jennifer’s death is teaching us a very important lesson," Robinson said in an e-mail Monday, Dec. 22. "Let us not miss the meaning of a very important issue that we need to address in our GLBT community of Dallas."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 26, 2008.