The Trans Housing Initiative St. Louis Is Building an Empowered Trans Future

THISTL STL is striving to make emergency housing more inclusive. | Reuben Hemmer

THISTL STL is striving to make emergency housing more inclusive. | Reuben Hemmer

Beatriz Gonzalez knows firsthand the difficulty in securing housing as a trans person in Missouri. When he needed to seek emergency shelter with his children, Alternatives to Living in Violent Environments, a.k.a. ALIVE, supported Gonzalez with space in a motel while he made a multitude of calls to 211, the hotline for getting help with community services. 

Gonzalez was repeatedly told there wasn’t space available in local shelters. Finally, when a spot did open up, Gonzalez was ultimately turned away due to his gender identity. Eventually, he was able to find a different space in a shelter in Illinois thanks to ALIVE, and he subsequently secured Section 8 housing after almost two years of struggling to access services. The Equal Housing Opportunity Council is filing multiple lawsuits on Gonzalez’ behalf, and Gonzalez shared his story at the organization’s 2023 conference.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, one in five transgender people in the U.S. have experienced discrimination when looking for a home, and more than one in 10 have been evicted due to their gender identity. As a result of these factors and experiences like family rejection, employment discrimination, and violence, one in five transgender people in the U.S. have also been unhoused. An estimated 20 to 40 percent of the more than 1.6 million unhoused U.S. youth are LGBTQIA-identified. 

The NCTE states that “social service and homeless shelters that work with this population often fail to culturally and appropriately serve transgender homeless people, including denying them shelter based on their gender identity; inappropriately housing them in a gendered space they do not identify with; and failing to address co-occurring issues facing transgender homeless adults and youth.”

This is why advocates founded the Trans Housing Initiative St. Louis in 2021, “a trans-led organization committed to tackling systemic injustices in housing that transgender people face in the St. Louis region,” according to the website. Beth Gombos, a co-founder and board member of the organization commonly called THISTL, also spoke on the same panel as Gonzalez. They echoed Gonzalez’ description of the gaps in resources, and the ways in which existing institutions frequently cause harm to transgender people. Experiences like Gonzalez’ are the reason why the organization has its particular values of “housing first” and “solidarity across movements.” 

In their previous work at the Trans Queer Flat (a living option for trans adults in St. Louis from 2016 to 2020), Gombos found that, although legal anti-discrimination protections technically exist, “the reality is that most of the time people went into shelters and had negative experiences … we had folks that would be willing to forgo their trans identity to seek shelter, just to be outed by shelter staff and targeted by other folks in the shelter. It got to the point where most of the people in our community knew that they would rather receive a tent than go into a shelter…”

Gombos has continued working to make housing available to more trans St. Louisans. THISTL, aims to connect trans folks with a network of resources. Its vision is “to build equitable access to shelter, housing, and home-ownership for transgender and gender-expansive humans,” as well as end homelessness and housing instability for transgender and gender expansive adults. The organization pursues this vision through advocacy, education, providing trainings to shelter and housing organizations, documenting housing disparities and facilitating safe and affordable housing to low-income transgender and gender-expansive people.

Beth Gombos of the Trans Housing Initiative St. Louis | COURTESY PHOTO

Beth Gombos of the Trans Housing Initiative St. Louis | COURTESY PHOTO

Gombos explains that the organization’s founders have been steeped in advocacy work for a long time and bring a wealth of knowledge and connections to this relatively new initiative. “[Board member] Maxi [Glamour] as well as several of our other board members — and hopefully also our future employees — are people who have been doing specifically LGBT, specifically transgender and gender-nonconforming advocacy work for long enough that we have [an] understanding of some of the systems in place that trans people need access to most,” Gombos says. “We are aware of the most common issues and problems that happen in our community, and we founded THISTL simply to be that hub of information and access to resources for housing when it comes to the transgender community.” 

Gombos has now been working in community development for over 15 years, including past work with the Metro Trans Umbrella Group. They are also handy with tools and have created their own housing solution by living in a tiny house.

THISTL board member Maxi Glamour describes their work with the organization as being motivated by love: “I love my city, and I love my community. I’m making sure that the community is able to love itself and be protected and have [its] needs met.” Glamour is also the creator of THISTL’s logo,a purple thistle flower with both luxurious petals and spiky thorns. Glamour has many talents, as both an internationally known multidisciplinary artist and community organizer based in St. Louis. They use their platform to discuss sociopolitical issues, with trans-housing justice being “the most significant intersection of alleviating oppression of wealth inequality and transphobia.”

In addition to Gombos and Glamour, the organization currently includes two other board members and (thanks to an influx of grant funding) has recently hired an Interim Executive Director, Jess Underwood. They are also seeking to hire a program manager. Both Gombos and Glamour are trans individuals with lived experience of housing insecurity, and they believe that future staff members will successfully further THISTL’s vision if they have a personal connection to the work as well. Glamour emphasizes the importance of a deep awareness of intersectionality, and Gombos agrees that they need staff members who do not just fight for trans folks but also fight for racial equality and disability justice. 

THISTL’s founders have discovered that the work is a personally rewarding use of energy. Housing inequity and anti-trans discrimination are ubiquitous and distressing issues, which makes celebrating trans joy and community-building work all the more vital. Gombos says that “people need to know that there is still joy in our community, and that we are still able to thrive in spite of the things that we have to face every single day.” 

Indeed, THISTL’s founding board members have already accomplished a lot. Since starting, THISTL has provided thousands of dollars in rental assistance to trans and queer individuals, launched a trans financial literacy workshop, and collected nearly 100 survey responses to gather data about transgender and gender nonconforming housing experiences here in St. Louis. THISTL has also developed partnerships with other organizations — including the Equal Housing Opportunity Council, the Civil Rights Enforcement Agency, and the St. Louis Queer+ Support Helpline — that recognize that housing insecurity is an urgent issue for the trans community (especially folks holding multiple marginalized identities) in the St. Louis metro area. 

THISTL Logo that Maxi Glamour designed.

Glamour says: “I think a lot of times [trans folks] feel alone … But there are people out there. Some of them are getting government funding to help us. And if no one knows about that, then how are they going to get the resources that are there for them?”

When asked what makes THISTL such a crucial addition to St. Louis’ landscape of nonprofits and service providers, Glamour explains that “all the trans organizations don’t focus on housing, and all the housing organizations don’t focus on trans issues.”

THISTL’s own survey data reveals the need for further intervention in St. Louis. The organization received responses from 93 respondents in the metro area who are trans and have faced housing instability, revealing that: 19 percent of respondents had applied for Section 8 housing assistance, but only 4 percent have received it; 30 percent of respondents that said they have had difficulty finding temporary emergency shelter for the night because of their gender identity and/or sexual orientation in St Louis city; and 32 percent of respondents that said they experienced difficulty finding rental housing because of perceived gender identity and/or sexual orientation. One of THISTL’s Instagram posts also cites a statistic from the Center for American Progress that “21 percent of housing shelters refuse to serve transgender women.” 

The St. Louis Queer+ Support Helpline, a community-based organization that provides peer support and resource referrals for LGBTQIA+ callers, has also calculated that about 14 percent of its total call volume comes from callers who identify as trans or gender expansive and are experiencing housing issues.

In addition to overall access issues, trans individuals attempting to rent or buy a home may face barriers specific to their social transition. For example, Gombos says that transgender individuals who legally change their name face the extra hurdle of landlords and mortgage brokers being suspicious of fraud. “When their background check is run, another name could come up, and the name could be so different that landlords and mortgage brokers would deny them based on a fear of identity theft … And so what we’ve done in some situations was to get secondary and sometimes tertiary background checks from multiple agencies, so that [they] can see that this person has done everything that they’re legally required to do to change their name.” Gombos notes that this difficulty represents a double standard: “That doesn’t happen when people get divorced and just change their last name, you know.”

THISTL believes in a future without such barriers. Their organizational values include safe, affordable, and stable housing for everyone, without anyone having to “prove their worthiness.” They also promote “radical love and acceptance for ourselves and others.” 

In addition to supporting individuals with housing and shelter issues, THISTL takes a multi-pronged approach to combat the root causes of housing insecurity for trans folks. One of those root causes is wealth inequality; according to a 2019 study by the Williams Institute, 42.5 percent of transgender people ages 35-44 live in poverty vs. 15.2 percent of cisgender, straight men in the same age bracket. 

In April and May, THISTL held a six-week trans financial literacy class in collaboration with the City of St. Louis Treasurer’s Office. A cohort of 10 participants received $600 honorariums to learn skills related to financial stability and to build connections with guest speakers working in housing, banking, finance, civil rights and mutual aid. 

THISTL prioritized program applicants who have experienced racism and/or gender discrimination while seeking housing. Glamour says that THISTL hopes to offer the course again as soon as possible, perhaps even later this year. They also note that this skillset is necessary to combat systemic injustices in the long run: “You have to understand the structures of capitalism (and how it is used against us) and give people the tools so that they can survive in it — so that they can deconstruct it … Many of the participants have critiqued social stratification based on wealth and inequality.” 

Maxi Glamour works with THISTL. | COURTESY PHOTO

Maxi Glamour works with THISTL. | COURTESY PHOTO

THISTL’s strong sense of solidarity is more deeply needed than ever in light of anti-trans legislation and rulings in Missouri in 2023. Gombos calls for “more solidarity across movements and more folks showing up to protests that maybe don’t directly impact them; they impact somebody else who is also being targeted by these same people in government and in institutions. Yeah, I think that that’s gonna look more like LGBT folks recognizing the intersectionality of the struggles … There’s never really going to be any fizzle-down time. We’re all going to be working at it together all the time.” Gombos also says that THISTL will do its utmost to meet the needs of trans Missourians during this especially volatile period, even if that means helping people relocate to Illinois. 

Glamour and Gombos both acknowledge that justice and liberation are processes, not end points. Glamour says: “I don’t think actual liberation is possible … We will never fully reach salvation. But I think that we can constantly be going towards it.”

Gombos advocates for key steps to alleviate harm and make housing processes easier in the short-term, including making solutions like tiny houses more accessible through revised zoning laws and housing codes. They emphasize that changes in housing systems will benefit everyone: “The truth is that it’s going to impact you or someone that you know or love.”

That reality feeds the communal and reciprocal nature of THISTL’s ethos. Glamour says: “It’s not always altruistic to do communal work, because you’re living in the community that you’re trying to make a better place … and at the end of the day, I feel like I could die happy, knowing that I made just some small butterfly-wing amount of change in the world, growing old in a place that I helped make better.”

Community members who are interested in supporting THISTL, volunteering, sharing resources, making connections, donating, or learning more can visit THISTL’s website at or email [email protected]


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