From public accommodations to housing dissuasion, transgender rights are threatened in Mass
One morning in May 2015, Michael Krupa and his two children woke up at 1 am to the sound of glass shattering. According to the police report Krupa filed, he then hurried down the stairs of his apartment building on Channing Street in Dorchester to see his neighbor, Ramon Lewis, holding a bat, smashing in Krupa’s car windows.
Krupa’s account states that Lewis had approached him earlier to move Krupa’s car from their shared parking space, even though Lewis did not have a car. Krupa promised to move his car in the morning, but Lewis wanted it to happen now. Krupa refused. Lewis retaliated.
“He was yelling things like ‘faggot’ and ‘dyke,’ so I knew this wasn’t about the parking space. It was because I was transgender,” Krupa recalls in an interview.
Krupa says he called the police and when the authorities arrived, an officer asked Krupa what he thought Lewis’s motive was. Krupa told the officer that he believed the harassment was because he had recently come out as transgender and begun transitioning; he also included this in his police report.
“When I told him that I was transgender, he laughed at me,” Krupa says about the officer.
Lewis was placed under arrest and Krupa reported the incident to the housing management. In response, Krupa says the landlord told him that he needed to make an effort to live peaceably with his fellow residents.
“They kept telling me that I needed to get along with him better,” Krupa says. “This man threatened my life, and I had to walk past his apartment every day. His wife took his children out to the bus stop for school the same time I took mine. I couldn’t get away from him.”
Over the next few months, Krupa experienced what he described as “almost daily incidents of harassment.” One time, he said, Lewis told Krupa that he wasn’t a real man. Other times Lewis pounded on Krupa’s door at early hours in the morning, yelling at him to move his car. When Krupa tried to report this, he said, the silence from the housing management continued.
“I would call the office and they wouldn’t answer, so I would have to go down there in person,” Krupa recalls. “The woman at the desk in front began recognizing me and sighing whenever I walked in. I went in two or three times every week.”
Unlike many other states, in Massachusetts it is illegal for property management companies to discriminate based on gender identity. Transgender and gender nonconforming people fall under protected class status, meaning they are protected from discrimination by law.
However, a recent study done by the Suffolk University Housing Clinic shows that the illegality of discrimination does always not prevent it from happening and thriving, even in the Commonwealth.
Housing discrimination can take many forms, like ignoring complaints about resident-on-resident harassment specifically relating to gender identity or simply not getting an apartment because of gender identity or not being offered certain amenities or discounts because of gender identity.
This kind of housing discrimination against transgender and gender nonconforming people goes widely unreported, partially because people don’t realize they are being discriminated against, explains Jamie Langowski, a clinical fellow at Suffolk University Law School and co-manager of Suffolk’s Housing Discrimination Testing Program.
Langowski says that many transgender renters only find out about the discriminatory behavior after they’ve already committed and moved into an apartment. It’s usually a subtler kind of discrimination—discrimination with a smile, she calls it—and it doesn’t just apply to renters.
Mary Jones [Ed. note: Name has been changed to protect the identity of the participant involved in the study, as she may be involved in further research], a transgender woman, called a number for a listing for a one-bedroom apartment to set up an appointment for a housing application interview. When the person on the other line heard her deep voice paired with her feminine name, they told her they would give her a call back. They never called.
Housing discrimination against transgender and gender nonconforming people in Boston is not always obvious, Langowski explains.
“Many people don’t realize they are being discriminated against until they have moved into an apartment,” she says.
Jones’ experience was part of a study released in 2017, in which the Suffolk housing clinic found that transgender and gender nonconforming people were discriminated against 61 percent of the time, though most of it was labelled as “discrimination with a smile.” Only one out of the 33 people left the interview thinking that they were discriminated against, Langowski explains.
“If you talked to our testers, they would say that it was just like every other housing interview,” she adds.
The HDTP was created in 2012 as a partnership with the HUD after Mass passed a law making it illegal to discriminate against protected classes of people when it came to housing, including gender identity. Langowski and her team had been struggling to quantify the level of housing discrimination based on gender identity ever since.
“We knew that discrimination is happening, but there wasn’t empirical evidence. Filing a case can be intimidating, so a lot of stuff goes unreported,” Langowski says. “But there were a lot of self-reporting surveys that showed discrimination.”
Organizations like the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC), an advocacy group run by and for transgender and gender nonconforming people, receive several calls a month about possible discrimination. The HDTP decided to do its own testing to try to further examine the discrimination. Its study involved a series of tests; the housing clinic matched 33 transgender or gender nonconforming people with cisgender people similar in every other way so as to eliminate other potential discrimination factors.
The study is the most comprehensive of its kind in Boston so far, according to Langowski. Each test was done in person, with the transgender or nonconforming person mentioning their gender identity during the interview with the landlord/management of randomized studio and one-bedroom apartments.
The study, which is going to be published in Volume 29.2 of the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism later this year, got a lot of press attention. It hasn’t caused a shift in the amount of discrimination, but that’s not really the point, Langowski explains. She and her team give presentations to housing organizations to teach them about the laws in place that make discrimination based on gender identity illegal; mostly, they simply want people to know what this kind of discrimination looks like.
“Housing discrimination in general gets reported less often. People don’t know a lot of times,” Langowski says. “Housing is one thing that people absolutely need.
“Where you live matters.”
The issues with housing for transgender or gender nonconforming people also extends to the homeless population of Massachusetts.
Back in 2013, the GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders filed a formal complaint seeking monetary damages on behalf of a transgender woman who was allegedly forced into a storage closet with no bed rather than being allowed to sleep in the women’s dormitory.
The woman, who goes by Jane Doe in the official report, said the room was “unkempt and dirty,” and without air conditioning.
At the time, gender identity was not protected in public accommodations, including shelters. However, the transgender public accommodations bill (sometimes referred to as the “bathroom bill”) was signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker on July 8, 2016, and went into effect on Oct 1, 2016.
The law makes it illegal to discriminate in the usage of public accommodations based on gender identity. Immediately after the law was put into effect, an activist committee called Keep MA Safe filed a ballot question, with 34,231 certified signatures, to attempt to repeal it.
Massachusetts voters will decide whether or not to repeal this bill on Nov 6.
Keep MA Safe states that it believes everyone should be able to walk through a park or ride public transportation (other examples of “public accommodations” that are protected under this law), but leaders of the group have expressed concern that the law is too broad and should exclude protection for sexual predators and sex offenders.
Because organizations often rely on self-identification to verify someone’s status as a transgender person, members of Keep MA Safe are concerned that predators will take advantage of the law to victimize people, according Yvette Ollada, campaign spokesperson for Keep MA Safe.
“We aren’t concerned that transgender people are dangerous. We are concerned about people that have a criminal history and are perpetrators of crimes,” Ollada says.
Instead, the group is advocating for “private public spaces,” like single-room restrooms and dressing rooms. They want to go back to the drawing board in order to create safe spaces for everyone, transgender people included, explains Ollada.
Ollada noted that people in homeless shelters in particular are at risk because people are more vulnerable when they are sleeping in public spaces.
Mason Dunn, the executive director of the MTPC, believes that this could mean a change in access to shelters for transgender and gender nonconforming peoples. The MTPC is fighting to uphold the protections this law grants.
“Our job is to provide leadership and strategy in ending gender identity discrimination,” Dunn says.
Michael Krupa fixed his car windows, only to have Lewis allegedly smash them a few months later.
Eventually, Krupa got a restraining order against Lewis, but he didn’t take his housing management company to court. According to documents, the court ordered Lewis to stay away from Krupa and his children.
Krupa asked Greater Boston Management for a new apartment. He was using vouchers because of PTSD caused by childhood trauma, so the company was responsible for finding him a new place to live. He says it refused at first, saying he had no case.
After a year, Greater Boston Management, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment, finally assigned Krupa a new apartment in East Boston. When he moved, he dropped the harassment case and the criminal charges against Lewis.
Krupa likes his new neighborhood and feels like it’s a safe place for him and his sons, one of whom is currently transitioning as well.
“My neighbors saw my scars from my surgeries pretty early on, and they have treated me really well,” Krupa says.
These sorts of discrimination stories in the transgender and gender nonconforming community are fairly common, explained Mason Dunn. Dunn and the MTPC receive several calls a month about both outright and subtle housing discrimination. He believes that people are at least more aware of what’s going on since the Suffolk University Law School study was released. He is also trying to make people aware of the potential repeal of public accommodations protections in November.
Ollada stated that Keep MA Safe hopes that November will bring a repeal so that the bill can go back to the drawing board and create protections against potential sexual predators in public spaces—to keep everyone safe.
In August 2018, Dunn and Ev Evnen of MaeBright Group, an LGBTQ policy, training, and consulting firm, led a hike across Mass to campaign against the possible repeal and advocate for transgender rights to public spaces, including parks and homeless shelters, among other places. It’s one of many efforts challenging what they see as a discriminatory referendum.
“Transgender people are often at the intersection of oppression,” Dunn says. “But we have full confidence that in November, the majority of Massachusetts voters will stand up for transgender rights as human rights.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more reporting like this, you can contribute at givetobinj.org.