LOWE: Shelters reach out to transgender women

By LEZLIE LOWE

Between 1,700 and 2,000. More than the entire population of Middleton, N.S.

That’s how many Nova Scotia women and their children flee their homes every year to enter one of the 13 shelters from Yarmouth to Sydney supported by the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia.

And more and more of those women every year are transgender.

“The reality is that they are extraordinarily afraid,” says Pamela Harrison, the association’s provincial co-ordinator

It’s a cinch that women entering shelters are scared. They’re the victims of intimate partner abuse, anything from spouses who cut women off from their friends and family, take over their banking and follow them every time they leave the house, to men who punch, kick, bite and rape.

But transgender women often feel an added element of worry about how well they’ll be accepted inside shelters.

Association shelters only accept women and their children — no men. Most clients are in heterosexual relationships, where Harrison says 85 to 90 per cent of the time the male is the abuser.

But association shelters aren’t the picture of tradition you might imagine.

The organization doesn’t keep stats on client sexual orientation, but it’s been welcoming women in same-sex relationships for decades.

Their women-only rule encompasses all women — cisgender (whose gender matches the equipment they were born with) and transgender.

“That is, someone born with the sexual organs of a man who believes her true gender is female and who is living as a woman, or who has had surgery,” Harrison explains.

The association has had policies to support transgender women for seven or eight years.

All this is a comforting picture of openness.

But shelters are often only as accepting as the communities they exist in, because their makeup mirrors the outside world. Clients represent the spectrum of social and economic class, background, education, culture and race.

“You have that whole continuum” Harrison says. “Those women’s views of what’s different is something we have to address and anticipate.

“That’s where we’re really worried transgender women could be discriminated against. People in shelters will often react out of fear.”

Staff across the association’s shelters take courses to learn the best ways to support the panoply of women who make up their rotating communities. But that doesn’t necessarily mean anticipating a client’s every need.

“The staff may say, ‘I might not know all the right things to do for you, so if I miss something, just tell me. I may make mistakes, just correct me. I will do my very best to honour where you are in your life,’” Harrison says.

That may be something as simple as providing a private bathroom for transgender clients who need to shave facial hair. It may mean addressing discrimination.

Harrison says staff often tell clients, “if anyone treats you differently let us know and we will address it.”

But there’s a great unknown in serving transgender women.

That shelter attendance number — 1,700 to 2,000 — only represents a portion of the association’s clients.

Many, many more receive services — referrals, counselling and safety planning — by phone and never give their names or reveal their situations.

Some of those anonymous women may be transgender. Likewise, some shelter residents may be transgender and never self-identify. Some residents may be going stealth. No one may ever have a clue they’re transgender.

Ultimately, whether women are transgender or cisgender, in same- or opposite-sex relationships, stealth or out is irrelevant.

“We have always worked with women in a holistic way,” Harrison says. “Women come in and we hear them and we believe them. We work with whatever they present to us.”

 

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