Features | Left out in the cold

How Montreal shelters neglect trans* identities

It’s January 21 and I am standing outside the Old Brewery Mission. People are eagerly shuffling inside, hauling their stuffed bags in their arms and fumbling with their belongings. The temperature is expected to drop to -38 tonight and it seems like the shelter patrons’ irritated expressions are frozen to their faces.

There are approximately 20,000 homeless people living in Montreal, and shelters across the city hit their maximum capacity the week of January 21. The Old Brewery Mission is one of the shelters in Montreal that offers temporary overnight services. The shelter prides itself in its efforts for non-discriminatory admission to its services, which include a bed, a shower, a meal, and leisure activities. I called the reception of the Old Brewery Mission and inquired about the admission process for those who come in for a night of refuge from Montreal’s intolerable winter.

The Old Brewery Mission told me that the process is simple: first, there is a short interview to ensure the shelter is a right fit for the person’s needs and expectations, meaning they offer beds for homeless clients, but not on-site mental health services. After the interview, bags are checked for drugs, alcohol, needles, and weapons, and finally legal documentation is requested, which can be any sort of identification.

In times of overcapacity, the admission process becomes more selective. Administrators need to make executive decisions on who merits accessing their services. After speaking with the Old Brewery Mission, the specific qualifications for vulnerability were still unclear. Yet some of society’s most vulnerable are left out in the cold based on their trans* identity.

The documentation requested by shelter services states one of two genders, female or male. If a person’s physical appearance does not match the sex listed on their documentation, shelter administrators are more inclined to turn the person away. I sat down with Gabrielle Bouchard, a Peer Support and Advocacy coordinator at Centre 2110, an advocacy group that offers safer sex and trans* health services to Concordia University and the greater Montreal community. For Bouchard, the admission process at shelters hinges on fixed notions of gender identity.  “If you don’t look the part, then the questions are asked that are fundamentally discriminatory. Unless you have an F on your documentation, then you don’t have access to these services. That F is very difficult to get. First, if I want to have a sex reassignment surgery that will modify my body forever in a very significant way, I need a variety of authorization from different medical professionals to prove that I’m really trans*. All of this costs money. If you’re already homeless, then chances for you to get to that operation are very difficult.”

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 According to Action Santé Travesti(e)s et Transsexuel(les) du Québec (ASTT(e)Q), women’s shelters require trans* people to have undergone sex reassignment surgery in order to obtain a matching gender ID. This requirement aligns with Quebec law, which requires a psychological assessment and sexual reassignment surgery to change official documents.

In Montreal, to undergo sex reassignment surgery, one must first be referred by the Human Sexuality Unit at the Montreal General Hospital. People are then subject to a list of criteria.

Gender Reassignment Surgery Montreal (GRS), which boasts being “one of the best organizations in the world for transsexuality surgical services,” is covered under standard Quebec healthcare if the person can meet the criteria. Their criteria for a male to female operation has to meet the standards of the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association, Inc. Furthermore, one of the patient’s recommendations has to be made by a scientist who has followed the patient for at least six months, so as to ensure they are living according to their gender identity. According to GRS’s website, the other more specific requirements are as follows:

1. That is [for] hormonal sex reassignment recommended by a clinic behavioural scientist

2. Full-time living in the social role of the chosen gender [for] at least 12 months

3. Two letters are required for surgery: Two separate letters of recommendation from mental health professionals who work alone without colleagues experienced with gender identity disorder are required for surgery and – if the first letter is from a person with a master’s degree, the second letter should be from a psychiatrist or a clinical psychologist. Those who can be expected to adequately evaluate co-morbid psychiatric conditions.

The time and commitment to the operation is immense on multiple fronts. If one is able to obtain all of these referrals confirming their medicalized trans* identity, the Quebec government will cover the expense of the operation. Without this coverage, according to GRS Montreal, the operation would cost approximately $70,000, which is not included in regular healthcare costs.

For people with healthcare and the financial means of obtaining the proper documents, sex reassignment surgery is certainly a trying process, but possible. I spoke with the coordinatior of (ASTT(e)Q), Nora Butler Burke, who told me about the unfortunate problems facing lower-income trans* women. “In one case, a woman actually met all the criteria that most trans* women can meet, in terms of having surgery, but because she didn’t have the money to pay for her legal documents, she didn’t have a female sex on her legal ID and she was told she wouldn’t be welcomed.”

A survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force shows that the unemployment rate for trans* people is double the rate of the population as a whole. In addition to this, 15 per cent of those surveyed live on less than $10,000 a year. This number jumps to 34 per cent if the person is black and transgendered. Keeping this, and the four to six month wait time, in mind, the application for sex reassignment operation appears to be an exhausting process both personally and financially for those already in a vulnerable position.

Burke explained why this process is problematic, even after obtaining the operation. “There is a lack of access to proper mental health support and support for people transitioning. A lot around the process of sex reassignment is not ensured unless people are wealthier or privileged…It’s important to understand how this lack of access to healthcare has a direct effect on how people live their lives and the likelihood they will enter into different relationships. They might end up living with someone who is abused, more likely to be profiled by police. This process is directly related to class and economic status.”

In addition to this, in order to access certain services, the female or male dichotomy on one’s ID delegitimizes any gender that does not conform to male or female.

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Burke also questions why sex reassignment surgery is the determining factor of shelter admission rather than greater education on trans* integration. “Discrimination still takes place within the shelters even if accepted. Trans* women accepted still have a hard time because of different discriminatory attitudes. Shelters don’t often do work on educating and raising awareness on different people within the space and different issues such as abelism, racism, et cetera. We see shelters replicating those same barriers and exclusions that are directly out of state regulations, replicating a certain component of violence.”

Such is the case of one anonymous trans* man, Alex** who was recently interviewed on CKUT 90.3 FM’s show Transzister Radio as part of the Homelessness Marathon. CKUT annually participates in the  Homelessness Marathon, a nationally broadcast 14-hour radio event that opens a space for homeless people to share their thoughts, stories, and experience with the greater Montreal community.

The podcast has clear sound, but  Alex’s voice is scratchy and shaky. “Myself, I was homeless three times. One was due to a fire, and two to do with assaults. Those [assault] times, it was not good because I was invited to stay at a women’s shelter. I was there for the month of April. I was told I could stay…but I didn’t stay there because I was having nightmares about the place [where] I was sleeping. The nightmares were that the other people holding me down trying to kill me on the bed. I don’t think anyone was actually planning on doing that to me but that’s what the nightmares were and that’s why I chose to sleep on a little bench on the corner of Ste. Catherine instead.”

Throughout February, ASTT(e)Q has offered trans* sensitivity and advocacy training to shelter workers, as a means of solving this problem. They also offer to escort people to shelters in emergency situations.

Alex continues, “ASST(e)Q helped me find a place, they were really nice. …I called a temporary place for a month, but it was really expensive. It was $600 per month, with laundry and meals [included], but I was paying so much. ASST(e)Q was kind and helped with the deposit.”

“It made me feel better that someone was with me. The lady let me do most of the talking to explain that I was transsexual. It was nice having someone with me just in case something bad could have happened.”

Cases like Alex’s occur all too often, as those who do not fit into rigid gender roles are more likely to experience violence, in and out of the shelter. Burke elaborates on how “shelters have inherited a certain brand of feminism that is not able to understand trans* women as women, and that’s something important to talk about. Fighting essentialist idea of what is woman. Legislation is used to legitimize this logic.”

This process Burke describes is an mixture of transphobia and genderism. According to the Human Rights Office of Queen’s University, transphobia is the “fear, loathing, and discriminatory treatment of people whose gender identity or presentation does not match in a socially accepted way” and genderism in the sense of “the belief that there are, and should be, only two genders and that one’s gender is inevitably tied to biological sex.” Trans* people bear the brunt of such discrimination.

This discrimination works its way into the shelter, and Bouchard holds shelter workers somewhat complicit in genderist notions. “There is the idea in shelters that they have to protect other women there. That trans* people would make the other women feel uncomfortable. This is very close to the conservative argument where segregated bathrooms do not include trans* people and where they are neglected in the Charter of Rights and the Criminal Code. There is an intrinsic fear that trans* people will sexually assault others. They are characterized as predators and this is just ignorant.”

She emphasizes that this misconception is perpetuated by discriminatory policies. She calls for a shift in refocusing the discussion on awareness as a means of reducing this prejudice. “My personal opinion is that the idea that a trans* woman would be dangerous, or might make others uncomfortable, is something women’s shelters will just have to deal with. They’ll have to deal with it the same way they had to deal with sexuality, and the same way they had to deal with racism. There is no real ground for basing discrimination on these categories. If we work on educating the people who work at these shelters, and the people who attend, on trans* sensitivity, people will become more comfortable. I don’t expect this to happen easily or anytime soon, but it’s starting to happen.”

Burke offers a similar suggestion. “With the case of trans* men, they often lack visibility and awareness. The ideas of potential safety issues come about because of a lack of education among shelter workers.  Accepting trans* women to shelters isn’t enough. They are often reprimanded for ‘bad behaviour’ when often they face incidents that provoke them. It’s important that policy be put in place that really clarifies what access should look like.”

Fortunately, Federal Bill C-279 is currently going through the federal legislature to protect individuals of trans* experience under the Canadian Human Rights Act. It also aims to include gender identity and gender expression in Canada’s Criminal Code. Bill C-279 is a step in the right direction for trans* people, but the ways in which it will affect shelter life are difficult to speculate.

The case of trans* people being denied access to shelters in Montreal speaks to the intersecting discrimination trans* people face when simply in search for a warm meal. Demanding documentation that only allows the letter F or M excludes vulnerable members of society from their basic rights. A bed is better than a bench, awareness is better than ignorance, and with further understanding of trans* issues, we’ll sleep more soundly through the winter nights.


**Names have been changed.