Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson got into a testy exchange Wednesday with a Democratic lawmaker who pressed him on the department’s position on access to homeless shelters for transgender people, with the lawmaker appearing to accuse the secretary of enabling discrimination at facilities.
The dust-up came during a House Appropriations Committee hearing in which Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois asked Carson about a rule proposed by HUD last year that would allow federally funded homeless shelters that have single-sex facilities or areas separated by sex – like bathrooms and sleeping quarters – to establish policy that could result in transgender people being barred or mistreated.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Quigley argued Carson was saying “that if someone doesn’t like someone else in that shelter, for whatever reasons, that you can allow discrimination against those people.”
“No, what I’m saying is we have to take everybody’s feelings into consideration. You can’t just select a group and say that their feelings trump everyone else’s groups,” the secretary replied.
The proposed policy change, introduced last May, has drawn criticism from transgender advocates and Democrats.
Carson came under fire from transgender advocacy groups and his Democratic predecessor after the proposed rule, which has not yet gone into effect, was announced. The proposal came a day after he told Congress he is “not currently anticipating” changes to the Equal Access Rule, an Obama-era rule that required shelters to provide lodging regardless of gender identity.
At the time, Carson told Congress that his “responsibility is to make sure everybody is treated fairly.”
He also argued that HUD guidance on the rule, which was removed from the department’s website in 2017, was not necessary because the 2012 and 2016 iterations of the Equal Access Rules “adequately provide for fairness for all communities.”
The department has not responded to CNN’s request for comment on the status of the proposed rule.
Carson told Quigley during Wednesday’s hearing that he wants “everybody to be taken care of,” and later asked the congressman, who he said was “passionate” about the issue, to provide a “solution.”
“Not as passionate as the people on the street,” Quigley shot back. “The law says you can’t discriminate. That’s my solution.”
Homelessness has long been an issue among transgender people in the US. One in five transgender individuals have experienced homelessness during their lifetime, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality, an advocacy group that surveyed the community in 2010 and 2015.
According to the 2015 survey, the most recent one available, 6% of respondents who were homeless said they were denied access to a shelter in the preceding year, with 74% of those people saying they believed it was because of their gender identity or expression.
“The Equal Access Rule has been really important to ensuring” transgender people experiencing homelessness can use shelters, said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, deputy executive director for policy and action for the National Center for Transgender Equality.
“With Carson’s department trying to cut (the rule), it puts people in this incredibly vulnerable position,” he said.
Last year, Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton of Virginia said during a hearing that she wanted to give Carson a chance to apologize for comments made during a meeting in September with HUD staff in which he expressed concern about “big, hairy men” attempting to enter women’s homeless shelters. The comments, reported by The Washington Post, were interpreted by three people present as an attack on transgender people, the paper said.
“First of all, I didn’t describe transgender women that way,” Carson said during the hearing. He claimed that he “was relating a story that a women’s group told me about big, hairy men – who are not transgender women, by the way – coming into your facility and having to be accepted because of the rules that were in place.”
Wexton introduced legislation last year that would block the proposed rule change.
CNN’s Veronica Stracqualursi and Katie Lobosco contributed to this report.