Nine women have sued the Poverello House, one of the largest service providers for homeless people in the Fresno area, for allegedly allowing a transgender resident to sexually harass them during their stay at the nonprofit’s women’s shelter.
Poverello House attorney Cynthia Lawrence denied the allegations, saying no staff member knowingly allowed harassment to occur. She added that the nonprofit provides necessary community services and complies with federal and state laws, including those that require equal access to services for transgender individuals.
Peter Kapetan, the Fresno attorney representing the women, said the lawsuit has a chance to establish far-reaching case law on a variety of transgender issues, including whether shelters should use any sort of guidelines to determine who can stay where in gender-specific facilities.
“It’s a fascinating case because there’s a competing interest between women’s rights and LGBTQ rights,” Kapetan told The Bee in an interview.
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The lawsuit says each of the women were staying at Naomi’s House, which is part of the Poverello House’s main campus in downtown Fresno, in November 2017. They were homeless at the time.
An individual identified in the lawsuit as a transgender woman and described as “a male who identifies as female” was also staying at Naomi’s House. That person is not named in court documents and is referred to by initials.
Women staying at the shelter must shower each day, the lawsuit says. Although they shower separately in individual stalls, the women must dress and undress in a common area and place their possessions in crates before and after each shower.
It was during these moments, the lawsuit says, when the transgender woman began making lewd comments to the women, specifically saying things about their breasts and other body features as the group was nude. Some of the women also caught her looking at them through cracks in the shower stalls and while they used the restroom.
The lawsuit claims the alleged harasser showed some of the women nude pictures and videos, including media that showed the transgender woman masturbating.
Kapetan said his clients told Poverello House staff about the harassment, but were told they had to be more accepting of the transgender community.
Poverello House response
Lawrence, the attorney for Poverello House, said privacy and HIPAA laws do not allow the nonprofit to comment on some of the specifics laid out in the lawsuit, but it does deny that its staff failed to act.
“The Poverello House does not ignore any complaints or concerns made by its clients,” Lawrence said.
She added: “The plaintiff’s description of shower protocol is incomplete and therefore inaccurate.”
Kapetan stressed the case was, at its core, a clear sexual harassment case that he would have taken on regardless of the gender, sexual orientation or race of the alleged perpetrator.
“As a landlord, and (Poverello) is considered a landlord in this case, you have an obligation not to let your tenants be subjected to sexual harassment,” Kapetan said. “(The staff) didn’t take any corrective action. If she was born a woman, we’d file the same lawsuit.”
That the harasser is transgender, he added, does add a twist to the legal proceedings.
Kapetan said the Poverello House does not have any screening process to determine if a person is in fact transgender or is only looking to lie in order to gain access to members of the opposite sex. He said he plans to present evidence that the alleged harasser was lying about his gender identity to do exactly that.
According to Kapetan, the Poverello House told his clients it could not legally screen the perpetrator in any way. But he believes the nonprofit used the harasser’s transgender status as an excuse not to have to deal with the actual misconduct at hand.
“These women, when they complained, were chastised and told, ‘You have to respect his decision to identify as female,’” Kapetan said. “It’s this political thinking vs. common sense. They were so nervous about trampling transgender rights that they ironically trampled on women’s rights.”
In preparing the case, Kapetan said he spoke to transgender women who had stayed at the Poverello House without any problems. He said these women supported the lawsuit, as they were opposed to someone falsely claiming a gender identity solely to gain access to and victimize women.
Kapetan said the court could weigh in on this “cultural issue,” which he defined as: “Whether you should allow pre-op transgender women to shower with other females.”
“This is not an anti-transgender lawsuit at all,” Kapetan said. “We’re just figuring out what we need to do with these types of issues.”
Transgender community leader’s take
Zoyer Zendel, chair of the local transgender advocacy group Trans-E-Motion, said he supported sexual harassment claims being investigated and dealt with accordingly, but he worried about a court making any sort of sweeping decisions based off a single incident.
“It would be ridiculous to make any decision that affects the entire community,” Zendel said. “It’s along the same lines as if a Latino committed a rape, then we shouldn’t allow any Latinos to go here or do this.”
Zendel said he knew several transgender women who have stayed at the shelter without incident.
“If (the accused harasser) was a cisgender woman, would we be having this discussion?” Zendel said. “If the answer is no, then we are walking a fine line towards discrimination.”
The case could also affect homeless services within the city of Fresno, which does not have its own dedicated homeless shelter.
The Poverello House, which receives a mix of private funding and government grants, often operates on a stretched budget to try and meet the needs of a community in which thousands live below the poverty line. A lengthy court battle – the trial is currently set for 2020 – or a large settlement could hurt.
“Unfortunately, litigation such as this may impact the ability of my client to serve the community,” Lawrence said.