It’s Still a Crime to be a Trans Woman in the U.S.

It's Still a Crime to be a Trans Woman in the U.S.
A new HUD rule gives homeless shelters the right to turn away transgender people from single-sex facilities. And in New York, an anti-loitering statute has come to be known as the “Walking While Trans” ban. (Ted Eytan / Flickr)

Two recent legal battles prove the sheer danger and frankly illegality of being a trans woman—and a trans woman of color, in particular—in the U.S.

HUD Rolls Back Protections for Homeless Transgender People

The first, a recently proposed Housing and Urban Development rule, would allow federally funded homeless shelters to use someone’s physical characteristics to determine whether they should be placed in a men’s or women’s shelter. “Physical features” could include “factors such as height, the presence (but not the absence) of facial hair, the presence of an Adam’s apple, and other physical characteristics,” to quote the actual rule, obtained by Vox.

This law targets trans women (as well as “masculine-looking” cis women, for that matter) by enforcing a transphobic standard of conventional femininity as a barrier to housing.

In doing so, the rule additionally creates an unsafe environment for trans women—already at higher risk of being mistreated in shelters: A recent study found 70 percent of trans people who had stayed in a shelter reported experiencing some kind of mistreatment, “including being harassed, sexually or physically assaulted, or kicked out because of being transgender.”

And enforcing this limitation in the middle of a pandemic introduces obstacles for access to refuge during a period when housing insecurity is at an all-time high for groups who already experience discrimination in receiving necessary goods and services under usual conditions.

“This new rule would be particularly dangerous for the Black and brown transgender women who face extraordinarily high rates of unemployment and homelessness at any time, and particularly in this economic crisis,” LaLa Zannell, an advocate for transgender rights at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

Continuing the Trump administration’s trend of rolling back protections for LGBTQ people in the U.S., the law reverses an Obama-era rule requiring shelters to house trans people according to their gender identity. This trend was most recently exemplified by Trump’s June HHS rule which dismantled healthcare protections for LGBTQ people—cruelly announced on the anniversary of the Orlando nightclub shooting.

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Repealing New York’s “Walking While Trans” Law

In New York, people are fighting back against more anti-trans legislation: Local activists are currently leading a push to repeal the state’s so-called “walking while trans” law, meant to discourage sex workers.

Sometimes referred to as “stop-and-frisk for trans women,” the anti-loitering statute—enacted in 1976—was ostensibly designed to target sex workers, but has historically been used to criminalize trans women for existing in public spaces.

It's Still a Crime to be a Trans Woman in the U.S.
(Daniel Lobo / Flickr)

This law joins a host of other anti-loitering statutes in New York used primarily to target women of color: In one Brooklyn court, the Red Umbrella Project found that 94 percent of defendants facing loitering for the purposes of prostitution charges were Black.

A bill to repeal the law is currently working its way through the New York state legislature. But despite support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and increased momentum in the wake of the summer’s protests against police brutality, it’s currently lacking several key supporters to move it to the floor for a vote. 

We’ve recently seen a public outpouring of support for trans women and trans women of color in particular, who face disproportionate rates of violence, often at the hands of police. And while this support is incredible and necessary, it must be mirrored by concrete political action. Trans women need to be held up and supported by lawmakers too, in the face of these very real threats to their safety and wellbeing. 


Oliver Haug is a social media editor and podcast producer with Ms. magazine. They are also a freelance journalist, focusing on LGBTQ+ issues and sexual politics. Their writing has previously appeared in Bitch Magazine, VICE,, the New York Times' newsletter "The Edit," and elsewhere. You can read more of their work at, and follow them on Twitter @cohaug.