Last week, Airbnb announced a sweeping new policy shift in an effort to address discrimination by hosts in its network of independently rented properties. In addition to creating a product team that will sniff out bias in hosts' renting patterns and establishing a system for expediently relocating customers whose hosts treat them with bias, Airbnb has now explicitly forbidden hosts from rejecting a potential renter because of her race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, or marital status.
The first few categories seem most salient: Airbnb's new policy came primarily in response to a great many people of color who reported difficulty finding hosts who'd rent to them on the platform, spurring the creation of competing sites with anti-racist aims, like Noirbnb and Innclusive.
But Airbnb has also drawn criticism from LGBTQ users who have been denied accommodations when they've come out to hosts in pre-rental chats. In 2015, an Airbnb host refused to rent to comedy writer Shadi Petosky after she revealed she was trans. "I have a 13-year-old boy. I don't want him to feel any discomforts in his own home," the host wrote. It took the company a year — and a viral tweet from Petosky — to respond to Petosky's complaint and remove the host from its system. Another host, in Austin, Texas, told a gay man looking for housing during this year's Pride celebrations that he wouldn't rent to LGBT people because "I do not support people who are against humanity." These hosts would be in direct violation of Airbnb's new policy, which promises to take enforcement measures "up to and including suspending the host."
Since a good portion of Airbnb hosts are renting out shared spaces or private rooms with shared living areas, rather than empty properties (in New York, it's nearly 45 percent), the issue of gender discrimination is complicated. Hosts may not want to share bathrooms or bedroom walls with strangers of another gender for reasons of perceived safety or general comfort. For this reason, Airbnb's new policy does allow hosts renting shared properties to refuse to rent to users of a different gender. If they're renting an entire house or unit, they can't discriminate by gender, and for good reason: They'll never even have to see their renter if they don't want to.
Though Airbnb doesn't use the word transgender anywhere in its policy, it specifically uses the term gender identity, implicitly acknowledging that gender is whatever an individual says it is; it is not the same as biological sex. In other words, hosts who are cisgender women can't refuse to rent their guest rooms to trans women, and cis men with a shared basement on the platform can't deny service to trans men. This is bound to cause a stir among the segment of the population that hyperventilates over what chromosomes might lie beneath the mystery person's feet in the next bathroom stall. Luckily, Airbnb has come down on the side of humanity and the most logical argument of any room rental platform: If a host is too scared to let a transgender person stay in his home, he probably shouldn't be letting any strangers in at all.
© 2016 Slate Group LLC