A couple from West Virginia were left reeling following an encounter with a landlord whose “hurtful decision” to deny them an apartment was, they allege, based on the fact that they were same-sex partners, something which remains an all too common occurrence.
“I think it’s discrimination,” Rayetta Darby said.
Darby is gay. She and her partner, Erika Johnson, have been together for two years. They were looking forward to sharing an apartment together when they hit an unexpected roadblock with their potential landlord.
“I said, ‘Is it the gay thing?’ and I got a response that, ‘Yeah, I guess I have a problem with that,’ ” Darby said.
We talked to the landlord in question, and he adamantly denied that claim. He said the reason he didn’t rent to Darby and Johnson had nothing to do with them being gay. But, while investigating that issue, we learned that West Virginia has no law preventing a landlord from turning down a potential tenant simply because he or she is gay.
In fact, 30 states have no such law, including Ohio and Kentucky.
Whether or not this itself is a case of discrimination, something which may still be settled by the courts, it serves to shine a light on this serious issue.
The federal Fair Housing Act currently lists seven classes that are protected from discrimination. These are race, color, national origin, religion, gender, disability and family status. Sexuality and perceived or actual gender identity are not listed and therefore, as the news article above states, in the absence of explicit ordinances or legislation passed on a state level, it is legal to discriminate against gay, lesbian and transgender applicants, although there are now indirect ways in which this discrimination is being challenged, some of which will be looked at below.
In particular, transgender individuals still face the threat of discrimination, even in states where lesbian, gay and bisexual people are already protected. Currently, only four states explicitly protect transgender people in the home buying and rental sector. These are California, Minnesota, New Mexico and Rhode Island. Other states have, however, interpreted their current anti-discrimination laws to prevent bias against applicants based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, but this can be problematic.
For instance, in January, a transgender couple in Massachusetts won a housing discrimination case, but their victory takes a sidelong glance at the work that still needs to be done in preventing this kind of discrimination. The Bay Windows online newspaper reports (emphasis mine):
Samantha J. Cornell, a transgender woman, and her spouse Andrea V. Boisseau, who was born with an intersex condition, were awarded $6,000 in damages and attorney’s fees, even though the defendants did not admit any wrongdoing in the spring 2008 incident.
Cornell and Boisseau began the search for a new apartment after their landlord lost his building in foreclosure. They found a rental property in Oxford, MA, and viewed the apartment with a real estate agent. The agent then called them a few days later to inform the couple that the apartment had been rented to a “straight, single male.”
A subsequent investigation conducted by the Worcester Fair Housing Project at the Legal Assistance Corporation of Central Massachusetts (LACCM) found evidence that suggested the couple had been illegally discriminated against on the basis of their gender identity, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, and disability. These claims were included in the lawsuit brought against the landlords and real estate agent. Cornell and Boisseau also became homeless for a significant period of time after being refused the rental property.
“Advocates are working to amend the state’s anti-discrimination laws to explicitly add gender identity and expression as a protected category, but people should realize that the existing law’s prohibition of sex and disability discrimination may offer protection for transgender individuals,” Jane L. Edmonstone, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said.
Without express protections, transgender, transexual and intersex people must often cite discrimination on the basis of their transgender status being a disability and that their “gender identity disorder” qualifies them for protection under the disability status. However, relying on this to prevent discrimination perpetuates the stigma surrounding gender identity issues and is imperfect at best.
Similarly, in the absence of state protections for sexual orientation, housing discrimination claims must often be pursued based on the sex of the applicants, which, again, can be problematic.
Even in federally assisted housing, there are currently no express protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, something which the group Fair Housing For All are working hard to rectify. Fair Housing For All calls on President Obama to take the lead based on similar action taken by President Kennedy in 1962 when he expanded discrimination provisions to include race, color, creed, or national origin by means of an Executive Order. From the Fair Housing For All initiative:
We urge President Obama to issue an Executive Order extending the principle of equal opportunity in federally assisted housing to the LBGT community; we ask other organizations to join with us in demanding this down payment on basic fairness; and we ask localities to pass resolutions of support.
Such action would at least set the tone for further steps on amending the federal Fair Housing Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity which is vital to ensure that a benchmark is created to help prevent housing discrimination throughout the United States so that LGBTs no longer fall foul of the varying degrees of state protection, or lack thereof, which can lead to confusion, heartache or, in extreme cases, homelessness and financial hardship.
Until that time, the best way to prevent running into these kinds of problems is to know which states protect LGBTs in the housing sector, and to be aware of exactly what those protections and rights that are afforded by them entail. Here are some articles from across the Web that may help keep you informed:
- Which states/districts/principalities have home buyer protections for LGBTs?
- Renter’s Rights Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination
- The current situation on federal housing and sexual orientation discrimination.
- What existing laws/rights can help LGBT home buyers?
Also of Interest: