What if a community made up less than half a percent of the American population but accounted for up to five percent of the homeless youth population? This is the reality facing transgender youth.
Recognizing this trend, many providers around the country have taken the important step of updating their non-discrimination policies to reflect the presence of transgender youth within their target populations. This policy adjustment, which aligns with our own recommendations here at the Alliance, must be matched by a shift in practice due to these youth’s unique challenges and needs. For example, if a youth self-identifies as transgender, should he or she be housed by anatomical gender or gender identity? Which bathrooms are most appropriately used? Should this analysis change based on whether the youth has already started the formal transition process through hormone therapy or other means?
First and foremost, providers must ensure a safe environment where youth feel secure in divulging their gender identity, and this means more than a non-discrimination policy. An atmosphere of inclusiveness must be fostered; staff and volunteers should receive training about issues pertaining to gender identity and expression, and the values of inclusiveness should be conveyed and enforced throughout the organization.
Under this framework, practices can be implemented that respect the gender identity of transgender youth while ensuring their safety. Shelter and housing options should be based on the youth’s gender identity and an individualized assessment. Transgender youth should not be isolated from other youth, even with seemingly good intentions; this can enhance feelings of depression and lead to further stigmatization. Working with individual transgender youth to arrange safe accommodation is the most appropriate means of minimizing discomfort and potential harm.
Even issues pertaining to bathroom and shower usage are not insurmountable. The Child Welfare League of America, Inc.’s ‘Best Practice Guide’ recommends a number of practices:
- Installing privacy doors or other barriers on bathroom stalls and showers that also permit reasonable staff supervision.
- Making single-use bathroom and shower facilities available to transgender youth.
- Permitting transgender youth to use the bathroom and shower facilities before or after the other youth on the unit.
- Facilities should make similar accommodations to ensure that transgender youth have sufficient privacy when dressing and undressing.