Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson expressed concern about “big, hairy men” trying to infiltrate women’s homeless shelters during an internal meeting, according to three people present who interpreted the remarks as an attack on transgender women.

While visiting HUD’s San Francisco office this week, Carson also lamented that society no longer seemed to know the difference between men and women, two of the agency staffers said.

Carson’s remarks visibly shocked and upset many of the roughly 50 HUD staffers who attended Tuesday’s meeting, and prompted at least one woman to walk out in protest, the staffers said.

Carson has a history of making dismissive comments about transgender people. While running for president, he referred to transgender people as “abnormal" and said they should not be in the military. As HUD Secretary, he weakened Obama-era protections for transgender people, saying he believes in equal rights, not “special rights.”

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In May, the agency introduced a proposal that would allow federally funded shelters to deny people admission on religious grounds or force transgender women to share bathrooms and sleeping quarters with men.

Carson has addressed the proposed change using different terms in public, most notably during Congressional hearings, when he has said his responsibility is to “make sure everybody is treated fairly. ”

But he has repeatedly mocked transgender people in internal meetings in Washington, according to a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations in which the person was involved.

"His overall tone is dismissive and joking about these people," the official said. "It's disrespectful of the people we are trying to serve."

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Asked to respond to the detailed accounts of Carson’s language in San Francisco and Washington, a HUD senior official released a statement that said: “The Secretary does not use derogatory language to refer to transgendered individuals. Any reporting to the contrary is false."

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The official, who did not want to be named because he was not present during the meetings, said Carson was referring to men who pretend to be women to gain access to battered women’s shelters -- and not singling out transgender women as “big, hairy men.”

Told of HUD’s response, employees who were at the meeting said that was not clear from Carson’s remarks.

Transgender advocates called HUD’s defense of Carson a common, damaging and insulting trope that had long been debunked.

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“It’s gravely insulting to have the specter of violence from cis gender men used to restrict the rights of transgender people who are ordinarily the victims of that violence,” said Gillian Branstetter, spokeswoman for the National Center for Transgender Equality.

“It’s a mythical notion that policies that are inclusive of transgender people somehow pose a threat," she said. "It’s frankly despicable that such a harmful notion would be used by someone charged with facilitating programs meant to help people in need, many of whom are transgender.”

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New legal protections for transgender people do not increase the number of crimes in restrooms, locker rooms, or dressing rooms, and reports of privacy and safety violations are “exceedingly rare,” according to a study published in the March 2019 issue of Sexuality Research and Social Policy.

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Carson appeared in San Francisco as part of a large scale effort by the Trump administration to address homelessness in California. Carson’s comments in San Francisco were unprompted, the staffers said, arriving during a rambling hour-long speech about HUD initiatives that they described as “stream of consciousness.”

All three HUD employees in San Francisco, contacted and interviewed separately by The Washington Post, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they said they feared retaliation. They said Carson prefaced his remarks about transgender people by saying he believed in fairness and equality, but not “special rights” for any class of people.

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Carson said that "transgender people should get the same rights as everyone else, but they don’t get to change things for everybody else,” according to one staffer who took notes during the meeting.

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Carson followed by recounting conversations with shelter operators and women’s groups who told him that homeless women would be traumatized if “big, hairy men” walk into shelters identifying as women, according to the HUD staffers. Carson told the group single-sex shelters should have the discretion to turn away transgender people.

“That was the first time any of us heard him use such derogatory language,” one San Francisco staffer said. “He’s more tactful when he’s talking before Congress, whereas this sounded like a slur to me.”

Another staffer said: “The sentiment conveyed was these were not women, and they should not be housed in single-sex shelters -- like we shouldn’t force people to accept transgender people in this context because it makes other people uncomfortable.”

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Carson’s talk became even more disturbing, two of the staffers said, when he started waxing nostalgic about the past when, in the words of one staffer, there were “just women and just men.” The HUD staffers said he sounded incredulous when he mentioned that people no longer know the difference between genders.

“His tone was kind of like ‘how crazy is that?’” another staffer said.

One woman drew applause from her colleagues when she stood up and refuted Carson’s statement that gender definitions have been static for thousands for years, the employees said. The woman asked Carson to reconsider his position. He politely thanked her for her comment and moved on.

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“It was pretty demoralizing and mortifying for many of us who work here and are about serving everybody,” a staffer said. “A lot of us have questioned the department’s rationale on its proposal to strip away the equal access rule. For him to come to San Francisco and say this, it was unbelievable. People were just shell-shocked."

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The employees said that Carson acknowledged that the transgender community does not regard him as a friend. Transgender advocates such as the National Center for Transgender Equality have accused Carson of initiating changes that seek to “erase transgender people from federal regulations and legal interpretations."

In early 2017, shortly after Carson took charge of the agency, the HUD website removed links to documents that guided emergency shelters on how best to comply with agency regulations and serve transgender people facing homelessness. It also withdrew proposals that would have required HUD-funded emergency shelters to post notices informing people of LGTBQ rights and protections.

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Carson told the House Financial Services Committee in May that those notices were unnecessary because the Equal Access Rule provisions already “adequately provide for fairness for all communities.” He said he wanted to allow for more “local jurisdictional control” over how to treat people.

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“If you want to do something different about the definition of gender, that is a congressional duty," Carson told members of Congress in response to a question about whether LGBTQ people should be protected under fair housing and other civil rights laws.

Carson also erroneously assured the committee that HUD had no plans to eliminate the 2012 Equal Access Rule, which barred federal housing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. A day later, HUD proposed its new rule allowing federally funded shelters to turn away transgender people on religious grounds.

One in three transgender people have experienced homelessness — including one in eight in the last year alone, putting them at risk of physical and sexual violence and being forced into sex work, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.

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In remarks during his Senate confirmation hearing in January 2017, Carson told Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) that he would enforce laws related to equal access to housing for gay, lesbian, and transgender people, but added: “What I have mentioned in the past is the fact that no one gets extra rights. Extra rights means, you get to redefine everything for everybody else.”

Before his time at HUD, Carson characterized the debate over transgender students accessing the bathrooms that match their identity as an “abnormal situation.” He also expressed his opposition to gay marriage.

“Boys who say, 'I feel like a girl today, I want to go into the girl’s lavatory -- that is such a bunch of garbage. If we continue to cater to that, where will it lead? Where will it lead us to be?” Carson said in an interview with the Eternal Word Television Network, a Catholic TV program, posted in 2016 while he was running for president. “I mean, it’s beyond ridiculous that you take the most abnormal situation and then you make everyone else conform to it ... when we start trying to impose the extra rights based on a few people who perhaps are abnormal, where does that lead?”

Carson has also expressed objections to transgender people in the military, saying while campaigning in Iowa in December 2015: “I do not appreciate using our military as a laboratory for social experimentation,” according to BuzzFeed News. “The last thing we need to be doing is saying, ‘What would it be like if we introduced several transgender people into this platoon?’ Give me a break. Deal with the transgender thing somewhere else.”