After Hurricane Harvey dropped several feet of rain on the ground in Houston, Texas, all Houstonians face a rocky road to recovery. But, as the rainwater subsides, discrimination could erect several barriers between transgender people and the help they need, according to advocates who spoke to INTO.
Though exact numbers in Houston are unknown, Texas has the second-highest number of trans residents in the United States, second only to California. And, according to Lou Weaver, transgender program coordinator at Equality Texas, Houston was already a fraught space for trans people before the storm devastated the area and its surrounding suburbs. Weaver said that the “trans community has been highlighted in a horrible way” the past few years.
“Targets have been painted on people’s backs,” Weaver said. “That has led to increased scrutiny of the trans and nonbinary community and who we are.”
According to Robin Mack, a board member of Houston’s Transgender Foundation of America, the problems that trans people face stem from state-sanctioned stigma. Aside from surviving Hurricane Harvey, the state’s trans residents have also been through a turbulent few legislative years. In 2015, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance failed to pass, paving the way for unapologetic discrimination against transgender people. Only two years after HERO, Texas governor Greg Abbott called a 30-day special legislative session directly aimed at enacting a “bathroom bill” like North Carolina’s HB2 to limit transgender people’s ability to choose which restroom is appropriate for themselves.
“We’re in a time where it’s not safe to be a trans person,” Mack told INTO in a phone interview. “We’re questioning if it’s safe as a trans person to go to the bathroom. Is it safe to be a trans person who is out and visible? Not really.”
That fear of being trans in public leads to a question about how long hospitality may last in Houston’s shelter system. Houston’s George R Brown Convention Center has already gone beyond maxed out: the space is holding 11,000 people, double its estimated capacity.
According to Weaver, widespread discrimination at homeless shelters means many transgender people may forego seeking them out, even if they have the financial means (a car, gas money, etc.) to access them. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 55% of transgender people report harassment or discrimination at homeless shelters.
Weaver and Mack both said they had not heard any instances yet of trans people being denied shelter. But, Weaver said, that doesn’t mean some people aren’t staying away from shelters altogether.
“Trans people are so used to being denied services or access to a shelter,” he said.
For those who were homeless or who were housing insecure, documents that accurately reflected their gender may be lost in the waters. Without up-to-date documentation, which is extremely hard to get in Texas, recovery is a tough road.
“Houston’s water is going to drain and a lot of people are not going to have homes to come back to,” Mack said. “How do you find a welcoming landlord? How do you find resources?”
Sociologists already know that natural disasters push people into poverty. Unfortunately, for transgender people, poverty and homelessness are already common. After Harvey, transphobia could prove truly deadly if it hinders trans Houstonians from resuming life again.
“It’s going to be an even harder environment now that everything is flooded,” Mack said. “Who knows what the havoc is underneath all this water? We don’t know until it dries out.”