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As Democrats call for his resignation, HUD Secretary Ben Carson defends his controversial comments about transgender people

“The federal government doesn’t need to be telling people who is a man or who is a woman,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said on Sept. 20. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson on Friday sent an agencywide email seeking to explain his controversial comments about transgender people during his recent visit to San Francisco.

Many Democrats called for Carson’s resignation after The Washington Post reported Thursday on the housing chief’s pattern of making dismissive remarks about transgender people, including expressing concern this week about “big, hairy men” trying to infiltrate women’s homeless shelters, lamenting that society no longer seemed to know the difference between men and women, and saying that no one group deserved “special rights.”

His remarks shocked and upset many of the roughly 50 HUD staffers who attended a Tuesday meeting in San Francisco and prompted at least one woman to walk out in protest, according to three people who were present.

Carson denied making “hateful statements toward the transgender population” and sought to clarify his intent in his note Friday evening to his staff, obtained by The Post:

"During a recent meeting with local staff in San Francisco, I made reference to the fact that I had heard from many women’s groups about the difficulty they were having with women’s shelters because sometimes men would claim to be women, and that HUD’s policy required the shelter to accept — without question — the word of whoever came in, regardless of what their manifested physical characteristics appeared to be. This made many of the women feel unsafe, and one of the groups described a situation to me in which ‘big hairy men’ would come in and have to be accepted into the women’s shelter even though it made the women in the facility very uncomfortable. My point was that we have to permit policies that take into consideration the rights of everybody, including those women — many of which have suffered at the hands of male domestic abusers — who believe there are men who might hurt them.”

Carson said that while he believes “all people are valuable,” it is the government’s responsibility to “make sure that all people are treated fairly and equally.”

He went on to say:

“Our society is in danger when we pick one issue (such as gender identity) and say it does not matter how it impacts others because this one issue should override every other common-sense consideration. I think we have to look out for everyone, and we need to use our intellectual capabilities to find common good rather than attempting to always stir up controversy through identity politics.”

Carson wrote that he normally does not “respond to media stories” but that “when blatant mischaracterizations of what I have said are circulated in an irresponsible way, I feel it is important to set the record straight.”

A HUD official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters said Carson decided to write the email once he learned from the Post report that “folks were upset.”

“He wanted to address the issue head-on with staff the best way he could,” the official said.

But Carson’s attempt to explain himself did not appear to appease staffers who were angered by his remarks.

“Suggesting the department should adopt a policy that prioritizes someone’s discomfort over another person’s right to shelter validates bigoted ideas about transgender women and the frankly ludicrous idea that ‘big, hairy men’ pretend to be women in order to harm cisgender women,” said one HUD staffer who heard his comments in San Francisco.

Another HUD staffer who did not previously speak with The Post said Carson’s email “just made it worse” and “put salt in the wound, because this description of transgender people is offensive.”

Agency staffers spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.

Several Democrats had called for Carson’s removal immediately following the Post report, which, in addition to his comments in San Francisco, also documented a history of dismissive remarks about transgender people. While running for president, Carson referred to transgender people as “abnormal” and said they should not be in the military.

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

Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) called Carson’s comments “sickening” on Twitter. “Ben Carson shouldn’t even be given the chance to resign,” Kennedy wrote. “He should be fired tonight.”

Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) said that Carson’s “bigotry is putting lives in danger. He needs to resign.”

As HUD secretary, Carson has weakened Obama-era protections for transgender people, saying he believes in equal rights, not “special rights.”

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.

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.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 1 in 3 transgender people have experienced homelessness — including 1 in 8 in the past year — putting them at risk of physical and sexual violence and being forced into sex work.

A second HUD employee in San Francisco who was offended by Carson’s original comments said his email came across as “defensive.”

“Some remorse for the impact of his words would have been appreciated,” the person said. “While he says he’s consulted women in shelters, I would have liked him to take this opportunity to recognize that he has much to learn about housing issues facing the trans community, as we all do.”

HUD spokeswoman Caroline Vanvick on Friday released a statement saying that Carson would “continue to make sure everyone is guaranteed equal rights — not given extra rights. He does not believe any one group deserves to be treated better or worse than any other group. It’s a sad state of affairs when staff tasked with serving the public would attempt to twist his words in order to politically grandstand.”

Carson continued to defend his position Friday during an appearance on Fox New’s Tucker Carlson Tonight by claiming he’s being “persecuted” for “sticking to Biblical principles.”

During the interview, Carson did not appear to understand what it means to be transgender — that a person’s gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.

“If someone decides to change his or her gender, does that mean that that person’s gender automatically changes?” Carlson asked Carson, a retired neurosurgeon. “In order words, if I say I’m a woman, am I?”

“Obviously it doesn’t,” Carson responded. “You know, if I wake up tomorrow and I feel like I’m Chinese, it doesn’t necessarily make me Chinese.”