Shelters

Key Points

> If the Equality Act is passed, the novel practice of housing men claiming female identity with women will become federal law. 

> President Biden’s executive order directing federal agencies to review sex discrimination policies suggests housing males claiming female identity in women’s shelters could be appropriate and lawful. 

> A lawsuit was filed in 2018 by nine women who were sheltered at Poverello House in California alleging sexual harassment by a man claiming female identity.

> A Maine women’s shelter volunteer describes multiple cases sexual harassment of women by men claiming female identity. The women’s complaints were not recorded and they were chided for “transphobia.”

> The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993) calls on states to take “all appropriate measures” to promote the “safety and physical and psychological rehabilitation” of women who have been subjected to male violence.

> The Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights (2019) defines these measures to include “provision of single-sex services and physical spaces.” Sex is defined by the United Nations as the “physical and biological characteristics that distinguish males from females” (Gender Equality Glossary, UN Women.)

Women's Advocates shelter, St Paul, Minnesota

The battered women’s movement, as it was called then, emerged during the second wave of the feminist movement, although some shelters were not originally organized by feminists. Interestingly, women in Al-Anon, concerned about women who had been subjected to alcohol-related violence, organized some of the earliest shelters. The first of these, Haven House, was opened in Pasadena, California in 1964. 

Movement leader Susan Schechter describes the origins of Haven House:

 

Outraged that beaten women were sleeping in cars with their children, Al-Anon women rented a large house in Pasadena. Although the shelter was specifically for victims of alcohol-related violence, many battered women simply arrived, asking for and receiving help. Between 1964 and 1972, using peer support and self-help, Haven House sheltered over 1000 women and children, surviving on a shoe-string budget and the determination of grassroots women who believed in “women helping women” (Schechter, p200).

Some women were motivated to open shelters to help other women like themselves who had been subjected to, and escaped, male violence. In Boston in 1976, Chris Womendez and Cherie Jimenez turned their five-room apartment into Transition House, supporting themselves, two children, and the shelter on their welfare checks and small donations (Schechter, p200).

Other shelters emerged from women’s centers and feminist groups. One of the most influential of these, Women’s Advocates in St Paul, Minnesota, began as a legal assistance hotline, helping women who wanted to divorce their husbands and change their names. Through that work they learned that woman battering was a primary motivation for women to leave their husbands, and so they organized a shelter in 1972. (Dennison, p30).

Though women organized shelters for different reasons, there are two major commonalities among them. First, they operated these shelters on shoestring budgets, often renting old houses, and when they ran out of space, sheltering women and their children in their own homes. Second, they believed that women knew best how to help themselves. They developed their own programs and practices for enabling women to understand and recover from male violence, and to become independent. In so doing, they developed a political analysis and feminist consciousness. As one of the Women’s Advocates said, “I didn’t call myself a feminist when we started. It sort of snuck up and embraced me as I lived it” (Schechter, p207)

 

In the early 1980s, in Duluth, Minnesota, Ellen Pence, Michael Paymar, and Coral McDonald met extensively with battered women’s groups and ultimately devised the Power and Control Wheel, and the Domestic Abuse Intervention project, based on the work and insights of these groups. These innovations have been adopted throughout the US and internationally.

As feminists and other women’s advocates became successful in getting woman battering recognized as a social problem, they gradually lost control of the shelter movement. When government and other funding became available, it was directed to established institutions rather than grassroots efforts (Schechter, p213). Perhaps most crucially, women lost the power to claim shelters as woman-only spaces.

It is unclear when men claiming female identity were first allowed access to women’s shelters, but in 2016 President Barack Obama added a section to the Equal Access Rule to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in Housing and Urban Development (HUD) insured and assisted housing and shelters.

“Shelters” here refers to both domestic violence and homeless shelters. For many women, they serve similar purposes. Many homeless women are escaping male violence. One study found that more than 80% of homeless women with children report domestic violence. (Aratani, Y. (2009).

 

Shelters often have communal sleeping and bathing facilities in order to serve a larger number of individuals than separate accommodation would allow. This puts women who are sheltered with men claiming female identity at risk of voyeurism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. 

One example is Poverello House in California, where nine women sued in 2018 alleging sexual harassment by a man housed with them who identified as a woman. The women allege that the man made lewd comments about their bodies in communal dressing areas outside showers, and that he spied on them through cracks in shower and toilet stalls.

The extent of these problems is unknown. An anonymous volunteer at a Maine homeless shelter for women recently published an article in Feminist Current describing the behavior of men claiming female identity at the shelter:

One man leered at women and trailed them through the shelter, his shorts manifesting the tangible proof of his interest, such that women stopped wearing pajamas outside the bed area in order to avoid attracting his roving eye. Another man would wait in the bathroom to be alone with a woman and then proposition her, on the off chance that she might be willing to give him a blowjob…

In another case, women complained that a man was watching pornography on his cell phone and visibly masturbating in the the bed area at night.

On at least three occasions, men staying at the women’s shelter threatened to kill women with guns. Once, a man enraged at female staff for insisting that he adhere to shelter rules, stormed into the kitchen during dinner, grabbed a tray of food, and began hurling handfuls of scalloped potatoes around the room while yelling that we were all “bitches” and “cunts.”

The volunteer reported that complaints by the women at the shelter are not recorded, the men are not confronted, and those making the complaints are often chided for “transphobia.”

In 2020, HUD proposed a rule change that would allow biological sex to be considered in decisions for admittance to a shelter. The rule change retained the requirement to provide anyone turned away with a referral to another shelter. During the comment period, the US chapter of the Women’s Human Rights Campaign (WHRC USA) alerted their members and submitted a public comment in support of the rule change.

The National Women’s Law Center, however, opposed the rule change, writing that the proposal was “rooted in harmful stereotypes about transgender persons, particularly transgender women.”

Homeless women and women recovering from male violence require safety, privacy, and dignity. The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993) calls on states to take all “appropriate measures” to promote the “safety and physical and psychological rehabilitation” of women who have been subjected to male violence. The Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights (2019) defines these measures to include “provision of single-sex services and physical spaces.” Sex is defined by the United Nations as the “physical and biological characteristics that distinguish males from females” (Gender Equality Glossary, UN Women.)

If the Equality Act is passed, this novel practice of admitting men who claim female identity to women’s shelters, thereby putting women at risk of sexual harassment, assault, and violence, will become federal law. President Biden’s recent executive order directing federal agencies to review sex discrimination policies suggests that housing males claiming female identity in women’s shelters could be appropriate and lawful. It’s time to let our public officials and legislators know that it is unconscionable to house men, however they identify, in women’s shelters.

Sources:

Aratani, Y. (2009). Homeless Children and Youth, Causes and Consequences. National Center for Children in Poverty.

Dennison, Amanda Jo. 2015. Women’s Advocates: Grassroots Organizing in St Paul, Minnesota. Dissertation. 

 Schechter, Susan. 2005. “Women and Male Violence: The Visions and Struggles of the Battered Women’s Movement.” Violence Against Women: Classic Papers.