PORTLAND – Two women who stay at Florence House, a homeless shelter for women in Portland, have complained that two men who dress as women have also been staying there for the past few months — using the same common bathrooms, showers and sleeping facilities.

The women say it’s unsettling to share a space with people they consider men, although shelter officials say the two people identify as transgender and are therefore allowed to stay.

“I am supposed to be there as a woman with other women,” said one of the women, who did not want to be identified for fear of losing her spot at the shelter. She said one of the people in question has stared at her, making her uncomfortable.

The issue of how homeless shelters navigate accommodating their clients’ gender identity has surfaced in cases around the country, mainly when the shelters appear to run afoul of their state’s or city’s human rights ordinances.

In Washington, D.C., this spring, a transgender woman sued a shelter after she was denied a space based on her gender identity.

The advocacy group Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination on behalf of a transgender woman who was denied access to the women’s dormitory at a Boston shelter, according to the GLAD website.

Officials with the Preble Street nonprofit organization, which owns the Florence House, said transgender people may appear to be male but identify themselves as women when checking in at the shelter. They have rights and are allowed to use the facilities, said Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street.

“We don’t discriminate against anybody,” Swann said. “We accept people at the shelter as they present themselves.”

One of the two people the women complained about declined to comment about the issue Friday.

Swann said transgender people have on occasion come to Preble Street seeking shelter. The Florence House’s admission policies regarding transgender people are modeled after Maine’s anti-discrimination laws, which prohibit discrimination against transgender individuals.

“It’s been really gratifying to see that in our programs people who are transgender have been very much accepted,” Swann said.

Amy Sneirson, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission, said that Preble Street appeared to be following the correct procedures.

“It’s an evolving part of the law,” Sneirson said. “But a place of public accommodation has an obligation to not discriminate based on gender identification.”

But the women who complained said they believe that in at least one case, it was a ruse. They believe one of the people in question is a man who occasionally dresses as a woman to get into the shelter, perhaps for voyeuristic reasons. That person did not have any feminine mannerisms and often dresses in a T-shirt and jeans, sporting a 5 o’clock shadow of male facial hair, they said.

“If they’re really living as a woman, I think they have every right to be there,” said one of the women who complained. “But he wasn’t wearing makeup or wearing eyeliner or anything. Just a man wearing a skirt. It was just odd.”

She did not want to be identified because she had recently left an abusive relationship with a boyfriend.

Sneirson said there has to be some concrete reason to back up the belief that someone is not actually transgender when he or she claims to be.

“There has to be something more than just a belief that the person isn’t being genuine,” Sneirson said.

Sneirson said a person does not need to have undergone a surgical sex change or hormonal therapy to be considered transgender. For instance, a person who is biologically male but refers to himself as a woman is considered transgender.

One of the women said the shelter is supposed to be a safe haven for women, who in many cases are leaving domestic violence situations.

“If you’ve been abused for 10 years by your boyfriend, do you really want to see a guy in the bathroom with you?” she said. “What worries me is that it’s a way for them to gain access to a vulnerable group of women.”

Swann, however, said many transgender people themselves have nowhere else to turn.

“There are a pretty high percentage of people who are homeless because they are transgender or have sexual identity issues. Many times, they’ve been kicked out of the house by their parents, or maybe by their landlord. It’s a complicated issue,” Swann said.

One of the women said that on the first night she was at Florence House a few weeks ago, she heard a deep, booming voice, and was surprised to see a person she believed to be a man entering the women’s bathroom.

“I was brushing my teeth, and it was really startling to me,” she said.

Swann said all the bathroom and shower stalls at Florence House have individual locks, and if shelter officials find out about any inappropriate behavior, that person is removed, regardless of the person’s gender identity. 

Joe Lawlor can be reached at 791-6376 or at:

jlawlor@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @joelawlorph