[taken from this week's weekly dig]
TRANS AND HOMELESS
Homeless transsexuals seek shelter; get the shaft
You’re 34 years old. You have a job, a home and a fiancé. You’ve just had your fourth anniversary. He likes to knit. The two of you run a radio show together. But life isn’t all beer and skittles, of course. Your fiancé, who was born a woman, is now a gay man. This is a problem, because you’re a lesbian—a lesbian who started off as a man. So then there’s your own expensive, frustrating, excruciatingly slow process of becoming a woman. After years of being a man’s man—a Marine Corps veteran and a security professional—it isn’t easy.
There are the child support payments for your ex-wife, who is raising your 7-year-old son.
There’s the two-hour commute to your job, which is the only one you could find after the gay country club you’d been slinging burgers at decided they didn’t like you, and hired someone to take over most of your hours.
You fight a lot. Something’s got to give. Eventually, it does. You have a stormy breakup with your fiancé. You don’t have your own car, so you lose your job. You can’t go back home, so you go to the Pine Street Inn, where the women’s dorm turns you away. In the men’s dorm, you sleep in an enormous room full of cots with dozens of men, some of whom are drinking in their beds or smoking crack in the corners, some of whom want to have sex with you. You sleep lightly.
In a few months, you have gone from being a taxpaying citizen with a phone number, an address and an impressive resume, to being an invisible person whose legs people step over in the street.
Welcome to Andrea Dawn Verville’s life.
While female-to-male transsexuals who’ve undergone hormone therapy and breast reduction can often pass invisibly through society as men, their male-to-female counterparts are usually not so lucky. Even with hormones and surgery, their bone structure, height, facial hair and voice inflection give them away.
In going female full-time, as Verville did a couple of years ago, transwomen pit themselves against massive societal obstacles. Unable to find jobs, many turn to prostitution, become homeless, or both. They are frequent, obvious targets for violence. A 2003 study from the University of California found that 12 percent of homeless transwomen had been sexually assaulted in the past year.
Because of the danger transwomen face in men’s homeless shelters, the Boston Public Health Commission—which operates the Woods Mullen and Long Island shelters—has called for transgendered homeless people to be housed with the gender they identify with, not the one they were born with; a 2002 city ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression also affords some protection. (Verville keeps a copy of the ordinance in her purse in case of emergency, like a passport.)
But despite official sanctions, some Boston shelters treat “pre-operative” transsexuality as a mere act of dress code rebellion, and policies are sometimes subject to individual staff members’ shifting attitudes.
The Pine Street Inn, one of the city’s largest shelters, places transwomen in the men’s dorm, and expects them to dress as men. The New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans places transgendered people with the gender they identify as, but only accepts veterans. Rosie’s Place, the country’s oldest women’s shelter, accepts transwomen with open arms, but Rosie’s has few beds, and clients can only stay for 21 days at a time.
A loose network of “girls” keeps each other informed about which shelters are safe, which staff members are respectful and where they can expect to be asked for anatomical proof of their womanhood.
Natural-born woman and occasional Pine Street Inn resident Patricia Seward, 64, claims that the staff sometimes check the showers to make sure the guests have the proper equipment.
“You’re in the shower and they pull the curtain. They can say it’s an accident, they didn’t mean to do it, but I was offended,” she said.
Transwoman Monique Coll, 30, has been shuttling back and forth for months between various city shelters and the apartment of a boyfriend who hits her.
“I woke up in the hospital one day not knowing what had happened. I went to the police. They looked at me and said, ‘Aren’t you a man, too? You look like one—fight like one,’” she said. “The main reason I go back to him is this shelter bullshit. I think I can put up with the abuse of him better than the shelter.”
Kip Tiernan, 79, who founded Rosie’s Place in 1974, believes women’s shelters should accept transwomen, but says it’s not an ideal solution.
“I wish we could offer them more,” she said. “But I have mixed feelings about it, because most of the women here have been trashed by men. “
I used to see Verville occasionally at parties, or pickup games of street hockey with friends in Roslindale. When she became homeless just over a month ago, she vanished.
I followed her trail through the Pine Street Inn and Rosie’s Place to the Night Center on Bowker Street. She was sitting on the sidewalk with her friend Brian, doing what homeless people spend much of their the time doing: waiting in line for a place to sleep.
Since the two met at the Pine Street Inn, Brian has been looking out for Verville. He keeps an eye on her bags; he watches her back while she sleeps. While the two were staying at the Pine Street Inn, he gave her his lottery-assigned bed one night so that she would not have to go to the Long Island Shelter—where, fellow transwomen had warned her, policies were inconsistent and rape was a very real possibility.
“He instantly took up a guardian angel position, and I was in no position to say no,” she said. “In a way, to be a woman on the street, you either sell out to one person or you sell out to all of them. In a limited way I guess you could say that I’m prostituting myself.”
The Night Center, where Verville and her friend would sleep that night, houses about 40 people. Men and women all sleep together on the floor of a large room. All night long, bright fluorescent lights shine down on them, so that staff can watch them. Checkout time is 4:30am.
Despite the Night Center’s discomforts, she said, it’s still better than the men’s dorm at the Pine Street Inn.
“I felt like a bloody tampon in a pool of sharks,” she said ruefully. “I got more hits than Amazon.com.”
Verville hoped to return to Rosie’s Place, where she had already completed one stay. She said she’d recently contacted GLAAD, the Gay/Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, to ask for help pursuing action against the Pine Street Inn over their transgender policy.
“We’re not asking for money, we’re not asking that you roll out the red carpet and throw rose petals at our feet. I wanted to get them trained,” she said. “You get untrained rogue staff members imposing their morals and ideals on how a system should be run.”
At the same time, Verville said, she can understand why transwomen are not always welcome in women-only shelters.
“A lot of homeless women come from domestic violence, sexual assault. As a genetic woman I would probably have some issues with having a penis in the women’s dorm,” she said.
If she decided to, Verville could dress like a man, bind the breasts she took hormones for two years to grow, lower her ambiguously modulated voice to its original baritone register, and pass as a man. But she won’t, or can’t.
“I’ve thought about it,” she said. “I’ve worked very hard to be where I am, and if this is all it takes for me to turn tail and sell out, it wasn’t real in the first place.”