People searching for housing have new government backing aimed at preventing discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

A ruling made this month by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gives the city of Winston-Salem authority to investigate complaints from people who say they have been discriminated against during their housing search because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are among those who would be protected under the new rule.

The city agency that handles complaints about discrimination related to housing searches has not received any complaints based on sexual orientation or gender identity, said Wanda Allen-Abraha, the director of the city's Human Relations Department. But that could change with the new ruling.

"I think it has the potential to be a big problem because there will, inevitably, be those who will not want to provide equal access to those who are nonconforming to traditional gender expectations," Allen-Abraha said in an email. "It could become a major emerging area as people become more comfortable with being frank about their orientation."

The new ruling applies to recipients of HUD funds and to FHA-backed mortgage lenders.

Such recipients include banks, public-housing complexes and homeless shelters, among other entities. They are required to provide equal access to HUD-funded or HUD-insured properties, programs and services regardless of actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status, Allen-Abraha said.

"Basically, they are prohibited from asking a person questions based on these areas in order to determine program or service eligibility," she said.

Gender is one of the seven protected classes under the federal Fair Housing Act, and the city already has a fair-housing ordinance similar to the federal Fair Housing Act. The new HUD ruling does not change either the Fair Housing Act or the city's fair-housing ordinance. But the gender class usually applies to cases of sexual harassment, not sexual orientation or gender identity.

The new HUD rule gives the city authority to refer cases originating from same-sex couples, for example, to HUD for investigation. The rule also affects how HUD-funded programs are monitored. If a violation is found, it would be treated as a HUD-program violation, not a violation of the Fair Housing Act.

Housing discrimination has been a problem nationwide for LGBT people, according to a study released last year by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, an advocacy group based in Washington, and the National Center for Transgender Equality, also based in Washington.

About 6,500 respondents were included in the study. About 1 out of 5 reported having been refused a home or apartment, and about 1 out of 10 reported being evicted because of their gender identity or expression, according to the study.

Younger people are sometimes the most adversely affected, according to Meribeth Robinson, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Winston-Salem who is doing a documentary about homeless youths. Homeless LGBT youths, sometimes kicked out of their homes because of their sexuality or gender identity, have few housing resources, she said.

They are referred to as "throw-away" youths.

"This is one of the scariest parts of being homeless is where are they going to sleep and are they going to be safe," Robinson said. "When you have kids saying they're throw-away kids, well, this (ruling) says to them, 'We're not throw-away anymore.' "

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