Tammy grew up in small rural towns. Her family moved to Dalton, Georgia, when she was 13. “Atlanta is just too big for me. Too many people,” she said.
When she came out as a lesbian several years ago, Tammy stayed near her family, which includes five children, four girls and a boy, from her two marriages. She found, however, that many of the women in the small gay community in her area used drugs. She fell in with them and wound up being arrested and put on probation. She got sober and stayed out of trouble for six years, developed a committed relationship with a woman, and worked at a convenience store. While working there, she befriended a customer, Paul2, in whom she confided her sexual orientation.
One night last summer, Tammy and her partner had an argument that upset Tammy. She called Paul to talk. He asked her to meet him, and he took her to a remote area and raped her. She was devastated. She went to the hospital and reported the rape to the sheriff’s office. But the detective she spoke with “was fine with me until I told her I was gay, and then she got an attitude and became a totally different person.”
Tammy asked for a different detective to work with on the rape case, but was refused. Paul was not arrested and immediately began to pressure her to drop the charges against him. She was afraid of Paul; he would follow her around town and was beginning to threaten not only her, but also her children. She had to change jobs because of his constant presence and began working at a factory. Finally, feeling that the police were doing nothing on the case, she gave in to the pressure and dropped the charges against Paul. Victims of domestic violence and sexual assault often drop charges against their abusers and rarely do they face criminal repercussions for their decision. However, the deputy arrested Tammy for filing a false police report about the rape. Even though the charge was a misdemeanor, it was a probation violation, and Tammy served 93 days in jail on a six-month sentence. While she was incarcerated, the Department of Family and Children Services took away her three youngest daughters – ten-year-old twins and a 15-year-old – and put them in foster care. She pled guilty to the charge of filing a false police report so that she could get out of jail as quickly as possible and work towards reuniting with her children.
When she got out of jail, Tammy went back to her job at the factory only to find that Paul had begun working there as well. He began to stalk her again, following her and threatening her. Finally she went to the local domestic violence (DV) shelter to see if she could get a Temporary Protective Order (TPO) to keep him away. The DV office helped her a petition for a TPO and referred her to a lawyer at Georgia Legal Services Program (GLSP). But after Tammy went to court for the hearing on the protective order, she was fired for missing too much time from work. She believes her supervisor refused to intervene for her because Tammy is gay.
Georgia Legal Services Program’s LGBTQ Committee
Tammy’s experience is all too common for low income individuals living in rural areas of Georgia. GLSP is a large statewide non-profit law firm, created with the purpose of serving low-income marginalized people living in the 154 counties in Georgia outside the five-county metropolitan Atlanta area. The majority of our clients live in small towns and rural areas throughout the state. Similar to other Legal Services Corporation (LSC) funded legal aid programs throughout the country, our mission is to provide access to justice and avenues out of poverty for low-income clients. As likely victims of crime and discrimination, low income LGBTQ people living in rural Georgia are a natural fit for our services.
Recognizing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people as an underserved minority, a group of LGBTQ and allied lawyers and staff at GLSP formed an internal committee focusing on creating a culturally competent environment within GLSP, as well as developing methods for reaching out to low income LGBTQ individuals in the rural parts of the state. The LGBTQ committee formulated the following as its mission statement:
The Committee works on two fronts: 1) to develop outreach methods to ensure that lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) applicants can access legal services and feel secure in reaching out to GLSP for quality legal assistance and representation; and 2) to develop and use legal theories ensuring equal justice for LGBTQ clients.3
Historically, GLSP has focused on ensuring openness and cultural competency in our interactions with, representation of, and advocacy for racial minorities, women, the elderly, individuals with disabilities, and individuals who are limited English proficient (LEP). Though GLSP’s staff has always assumed its own openness to LGBTQ clients, we had not had any specific training or outreach programs in place for several years. After new medications reduced the need for HIV/AIDS-related legal services, GLSP has not targeted this population for service. Subsequently, the state of Georgia has become more LGBTQ unfriendly, with a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and a state government now dominated by socially conservative Republican lawmakers.
The goals of the LGBTQ committee are therefore multifaceted. During the past several months, our organization has implemented a three-pronged approach to reaching the LGBTQ community in Georgia. First, we researched the social, economic, and political landscape for low-income LGBTQ individuals living in rural Georgia. Second, we are creating a culturally competent atmosphere at GLSP by surveying our staff and providing trainings to each of our ten regional offices, as well as involving staff in targeted outreach. Finally, we are employing innovative methods to increase our targeted outreach to these communities, which will hopefully increase the number of LGBTQ clients we serve. This article explores these multifaceted goals and our process for creating effective outreach, advocacy, and representation methods to the low-income LGBTQ community in rural Georgia.
LGBTQ Individuals Living in Rural Georgia
The 2010 Census asked respondents to identify themselves if they were in same-sex relationships. Those data indicated there are at least 30,000 LGBT households (willing to report themselves on a census form) in Georgia across all of the state’s 159 counties.4 Of those households, 28 percent identified as rearing children. In October 2012, Gallup released survey results from its study of 120,000 U.S. adults and their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.5 The survey reported that 35% of those who identify as LGBT report incomes of less than $24,000 a year, significantly higher than the 24% for the population in general. In Georgia, that means that approximately 10,500 LGBT households live below the Federal Poverty Level. According to the Gallup survey, even though Southerners self-report being LGBT slightly less often than in other parts of the country – 3.2% vs. 3.8% — gay families in the South are more likely to be poor and members of minorities than their non-LGBT counterparts.6 And LGBT households with female members are just as likely to be rearing children as in the general population.
The results of the Gallup survey corroborate other studies with data on rural LGBTQ populations. The Williams Institute issued a study showing that children with gay and lesbian parents live in poverty at rates twice that of children with heterosexual parents.7 Regarding geographic location, same-sex couples in rural areas are more likely to live in poverty than different-sex married couples in rural areas. The condition of poverty is more pervasive for both African Americans and Latino/Latina same-sex couples in rural areas than for heterosexual couples in the same race and/or ethnic group.8
The Gallup survey and the Williams Institute study mirror much of the client population of Georgia Legal Services Program: In order to qualify for representation with Georgia Legal Services Program, our clients must have incomes below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level. In 2012, 75% of our clients were women.9 With respect to race and ethnicity, 44.4% of our clients in 2012 identified as African American, while 9.3 % identified as Hispanic, and .4% identified as Asian.
Given the demographics of our client base and the statistics gleaned from the Gallup Survey and Williams Institute, there is a significant likelihood that many of our existing clients are low-income LGBT individuals, even when they do not disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity to us. The LGBT Committee of GLSP recently surveyed all of its staff, which includes attorneys, paralegals, support and intake staff. Respondents identified having represented LGBTQ clients in 30 counties in rural Georgia. Interestingly, quite a few respondents said they had never had an LGBTQ client of which they were aware. Regardless, both the Gallup Survey and Williams Institute Study demonstrate that LGBT individuals in rural Georgia are likely to be low income, of color, and women with children, hence mirroring the demographics of our client population.
Legal and Policy Barriers for LGBTQ Individuals in Rural Georgia
Outside the Atlanta metropolitan area, LGBTQ individuals and families have few allies and are often faced with reactions from public officials ranging from blank lack of recognition to active discrimination. State policy and statutes are largely silent on LGBTQ issues, other than the overt ban on same-sex marriage. There are no state statutes or policies protecting LGBTQ people from harassment or discrimination, and limited programs recognizing the unique problems of the LGTBQ population in any training offered to state social workers or law enforcement agencies outside metro Atlanta.
Currently, the State of Georgia has not enacted anti-hate crime laws or laws that protect against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.10 Further, in the wake of pervasive school bullying against LGBTQ youth in the United States, Georgia has failed to legislate any sort of protections for school children.11 While there are no explicit protections under state law, Georgia Equality reports that “38% of public school students in Georgia are now covered with [school-based] anti-bullying policies that include gender identity and 54% of students are covered with policies that include sexual orientation.”12 Georgia’s statewide anti-bullying statute, which does not include explicit protections for LGBTQ students, can and should be leveraged to address cases of bullying.
Further, Georgia is a “right-to-work” state where employees can be fired for almost any reason, including their sexual orientation. The lack of legal protections for the LGBTQ population in Georgia makes the population vulnerable to harassment, discrimination, and violence in both the public and private sphere. This vulnerability is further compounded by the increased likelihood of poverty for the LGBTQ population.
To better serve the LGBTQ communities in rural Georgia, GLSP sought additional information on LGBTQ individuals in rural Georgia. In a Bible-belt state, finding facts about gay life outside the cities is a difficult pursuit. However, anecdotal information can be gleaned from occasional newspaper articles such as those that appeared last summer when Valdosta City Mayor John Gayle refused to sign a proclamation recognizing South Georgia Pride Day. 13 LGBT advocates and allies tried to explain that the proclamation focused on anti-bullying and anti-hate, not same-sex marriage, but Gayle was adamant in his refusal.14 Even though Pride still took place in Valdosta, the organization has started a Change.Org online petition to get the mayor to sign the proclamation. 15
Other accounts of the public, political, and legal non-acceptance of the LGBTQ population in Georgia are even more troubling. Several instances reported in a Williams Institute memorandum from 2009 offer examples of institutionalized discrimination that goes largely unremarked in Georgia:
A Georgia Division of Family and Child Services (DFCS) employee reported that some of her co-workers complained about working with her because she was a lesbian. Her supervisors subjected her to a four-hour interrogation and told her not to tell anybody what happened during the interview. Two weeks later, she was suspended for “alleged misconduct.”16
A public school bus driver in McDonough, Georgia, was fired after a co-worker found and distributed a personal ad he had posted six years earlier on a gay dating Web site. When he asked for a reason for the firing, school officials told him it was “in the best interests of the school system” and that he already “knew the answer.”17
In addition, the legal issues raised in the LGBT Committee survey run the gamut of civil legal issues. Domestic violence, access to benefits, child custody, employment and housing were issues most often encountered. With respect to access to domestic violence protection here in Georgia, our committee also recently surveyed domestic violence advocates and shelters across the state about their policies with respect to LGBTQ victims of domestic violence. While the data is still being gathered and analyzed, one response was particularly enlightening.
Amy Weaver is the Executive Director of Hospitality House for Women in Rome, Georgia.18 In the last twelve months her organization has served approximately 574 victims of domestic violence. Of those victims, fifteen were believed to be LGBTQ and five openly identified as LGBTQ. In many instances, her organization was able to serve and assist LGBTQ survivors, but in instances where her organization did not provide services, it was mostly due to the victims’ own fear of applying for protective orders. The largest barrier for LGBTQ victims is “fear of the repercussions of admitting their LGBT status” to service providers, she said. There is no doubt that low income LGBT individuals avoid accessing other legal, social, and health services due to the pervasive fear that agencies will not serve them or will discriminate against them due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Creating a Culturally Competent Environment for LGBTQ Clients at GLSP
Part of the work of GLSP’s LGBT Committee is to help potential clients overcome their fear of reaching out to our program for legal assistance and representation. GLSP must establish a reputation of being open and culturally competent to all potential clients no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity. In our survey of staff and attorneys, many reported that they were unaware of any clients identifying themselves within the LGBT spectrum. Further our survey indicated that many attorneys and staff were not aware of resources available to the LGBTQ community.
To initiate our work internally, GLSP staff attorney Cole Thaler made a presentation to GLSP managers about the importance of developing cultural competency and effective services for LGBTQ clients. The presentation included similar data to that of the Gallup Survey and the Williams Institute study showing the disproportionate percentage of LGBTQ people who are low income. Thaler also discussed the variety of reasons why LGBTQ people might be low income but reluctant to seek the aid of a legal services organization, including fear of coming
out to family and friends and the fear of homophobic or transphobic responses from legal services.
In August 2012, we invited the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), in conjunction with California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), to provide an outreach and organizational assessment training to the LGBT Committee. On recommendation from our trainers, the LGBT committee polled our staff and domestic violence shelters to glean an understanding of where our organization stood on outreach, advocacy and representation of LGBT individuals.
After receiving the NCLR/CRLA training, the LGBT Committee created its own training to be rolled out in each of the ten GLSP offices throughout Georgia. Our first training was held on April 5, 2013, in GLSP’s Gainesville Office. Led by staff attorneys Shelly Anand and Cole Thaler, the April 5, 2013, training included a review and explanation of terminology relevant to the LGBT community, including definitions of various sexual orientations, and an explanation of the transitioning process for female to male (F to M) and male to female (M to F) individuals. Next we provided client examples of legal issues our clients may face due to their LGBT status. Our examples included a transwoman who cannot get Medicaid to cover her prostate exam and a gay Latino man who was fired from his job due to his sexual orientation. In reviewing these examples, we asked lawyers and staff to practice the intake process for an individual who called in with each of these issues. How would an advocate uncover the root cause of the problem? What are ways of framing necessary questions that are culturally sensitive and welcoming?
Every day hundreds of individuals throughout the state of Georgia call GLSP for legal assistance. Our intake staff must first ensure that these individuals are financially eligible for our services and that we are currently taking the type of case for which they seek legal assistance. Our intake process involves detailed questions including the individual’s income, debts, household composition, race, gender, veteran status, immigration status, disability, and whether or not the individual is victim of domestic violence. With respect to asking these questions of members within the LGBT community, there are ways we can avoid heteronormative or gendernormative assumptions. For instance, instead of assuming that a woman has a husband or romantic partner that is male, intake staff can ask questions such as: “do you have a romantic partner or spouse?” With respect to gender identity, instead of assuming the gender of our applicants, we can ask, “How do you identify your gender?” No doubt some of our applicants will be unfamiliar with the wording of this question, but the systemic practice of this line of questioning indicates that we do not make assumptions of one’s orientation or gender identity.
Finally we engaged our trainees in a brainstorming session on how we can conduct more effective outreach to the low income LGBT community to ensure that these potential clients view our program as a resource and are confident that we are an LGBT friendly organization. Ideas generated included getting involved with the various Pride events that occur throughout the state of Georgia, reaching out to various LGBT organizations within our counties such as PFLAG, putting rainbow stickers in our offices, in our email signatures, on our website, and on our business cards, and including photographs of same sex couples and families on various legal brochures that we distribute in communities.
GLSP has already begun the process of ensuring that outreach to the LGBT community is a priority. Our Elder Action Team, the statewide body of GLSP attorneys doing work under Title III of the Older Americans Act, recently attended training about reaching out to elder LGBTQ clients. Further, GLSP included LGBTQ families as a focus in a successful grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for funds to represent minority victims in domestic violence situations. As stated in the grant proposal, “GLBTQ survivors of partner abuse in rural areas face additional challenges. Homophobia and transphobia can serve to further isolate survivors from sources of assistance. Fear of being ‘outed’ by abusers and potentially losing their jobs, housing, or relationships may keep survivors silent. Survivors may be afraid to ask for help because they fear telling family members and faith leaders they are in a same-sex relationship.”19
All of these steps, we believe, will begin the slow but necessary process of bringing potential LGBT clients to our doorstep so that we can effectively advocate for their rights and help alleviate the barriers that keep them in a perpetual state of poverty.
USING EXISTING TOOLS TO SERVE THE LOW- INCOME LGBTQ POPULATION
A major focus of GLSP’s work is not only individual client service and representation, but also impact litigation and services, specifically taking on cases, and in some instances litigation, to create the most positive change possible in low-income marginalized communities. Clearly there are state and federal laws and policies in place that discriminate against LGBTQ populations, especially the low-income and isolated members of this marginalized population. GLSP and other advocacy organizations must work to change those laws and policies. In the interim, we can utilize tools developed from serving other marginalized groups to help LGBTQ clients gain the personal, social, and economic security and stability they seek.
A. The 1993-2006 GLSP HIV/AIDS Legal Project
Starting in 1993 and concluding in 2006, GLSP provided services to a regular flow of LGBTQ clients during its HIV/AIDS Legal Project. During that time, GLSP made successful outreach into the LGBTQ rural population by partnering with HIV/AIDS clinics funded under the federal Ryan White Program, which provides resources to help cities, states and local organizations working with low-income people with HIV/AIDS. Individuals with HIV/AIDS came to health clinics, and our attorneys were made available at these clinics to help clients with the myriad legal problems that arose both because of the disease and because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Throughout the duration of the HIV/AIDS Legal Project, it became clear that many LGBTQ people would overcome their fear and the stigma of disease to come to the clinics because they understood that, by doing so, they could find critically needed help. By placing GLSP attorneys at the HIV/AIDS health clinics, the organization sent the message that LGBTQ people were welcomed by GLSP. And many of the individuals who came seeking medical help also took the helping hand offered by GLSP.
GLSP can now use the lessons learned during those years to help LGBTQ with tools available under current law.
For example, an Advance Directive for Health Care (ADHC, similar to a Durable Power of Attorney) can overcome some obvious obstacles LGBT families face, such as a partner being able to visit his/her partner in the hospital, deal with doctors regarding treatment, and make end-of-life decisions. Attorney Robert Bush in our Savannah office has published an article in Gay Savannah, the largest LGBTQ media presence in the region, about LGBT couples using ADHCs to enable same sex families to make these decisions, and he presented a workshop in conjunction with Gay Savannah entitled “Cementing LGBT Relationships.” Attendees of the workshop were able to educate themselves about the protections afforded by the ADHCs and they were able to execute their ADHC on site. Attendees were asked to provide the names of senior LGBT individuals in the area who could attend a subsequent workshop, “Cementing LGBT Relationships at 60+,” which targets the particularly isolated elder LGBT population. The contacts made through the initial workshop has further allowed GLSP to host similar events for this population at other venues in the area including the Agape Empowerment Church. Subsequent articles and seminars will focus on other issues affecting the LGBTQ community and seek to reach elder LGBTQ individuals through a widening web of contacts.
GLSP attorney Cole Thaler points out that transgender people in Georgia can seek name changes to align their legal names with their gender identity. “While name change petitions are relatively simple to file without attorneys,” said Thaler, “transgender people sometimes find themselves in front of hostile or confused judges and need a lawyer’s help to make the name change process proceed smoothly.” Georgia law also permits transgender people to change the gender designations on their birth certificates and driver’s licenses to match their identity, provided they can produce the requisite medical documentation.
Another tool lawyers and advocates can use to help LGBTQ individuals in states with anti-gay laws and policies is to recognize when agencies are violating federal policies, which are often more LGBTQ-friendly. For instance, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently passed regulations prohibiting discrimination against same sex and unmarried couples in public housing. Unfortunately, the Northwest Georgia Housing Authority (NWGHA) was late in implementing the regulations, as is probably true of other local housing authorities around Georgia as well as the country. Regardless, the NWGHA had to announce a change to its policy to comply with HUD regulations, and we will ensure they are aware that they may face legal action if regulations are not followed. We can also push HUD to enforce its regulations by sanctioning local and federal authorities for non-compliance.
B. GLSP’s Elderly and Disabled Public Benefits Hotline
GLSP created a hotline for the elderly and people with disabilities to assist in navigating Georgia’s complex public benefits bureaucracy. More than 879 individuals and families have received help from GLSP paralegals in getting more than $704,500 in public benefits. Elderly people and people with disabilities learned of the hotline through senior centers, health clinics, community organizations and city government partnerships. Funded by a $90,000 grant from the National Council on Aging, the project was the brainchild of two GLSP advocates who recognized the need to assist clients in creating comprehensive packages of benefits that would provide income stability with healthcare, help with utility costs, and food on the table.
Based on the successful model that the hotline provides, could a similar hotline be set up for LGBTQ individuals and families to identify solutions for the legal and policy issues they face? Being able to call a hotline addresses the fear of coming to a law office to ask for help. Similarly, webinars on legal tools available to LGBTQ people, followed up by online forums where questions can be addressed and legal forms transmitted, could be another way of allowing LGBT individuals to seek help without the risk of personal exposure.
C. Domestic Violence Trainings for Judges, Law Enforcement, and Social Workers.
Over the past 20 years GLSP lawyers and paralegals have trained hundreds of judges, law enforcement officers, and social workers on effectively and respectfully working with domestic violence victims and situations. GLSP partnered with battered women’s shelters all over the state in providing these trainings. Initially, law enforcement officers at such trainings often voiced cynicism about the scope of domestic violence in their community, rarely made arrests of perpetrators and often blamed the victim. Some judges had similar attitudes. However, after years of experience training officials dealing with DV cases, GLSP lawyers now find that police departments make the trainings mandatory, the attendees are much more respectful and sincere about trying to help victims, and judges are more consistent about granting 12 Month Temporary Protective Orders (TPOs) to victims and imposing stronger sanctions against perpetrators. Vicky Kimbrell, GLSP Family Violence Project Director, recently trained at the TILP – Transition Into Law Practice and Mentoring Program on Domestic Violence law for the 300+ newly admitted Georgia lawyers. She was able to give the new lawyers insight on the barriers that domestic violence victims face in leaving violent homes from deadly gun violence, threats to harm children, to the economic realities of breaking free. She also included for the first time information on LGBT survivors who face those traditional barriers, plus a whole new set of distinct issues from threats about “outing” to threats to take custody from parents who may not have legally recognized rights to children.
Under the DOJ grant, we are planning for future trainings to include sections on LGBTQ family violence issues. Separate trainings on dealing with LGBTQ people in crisis could also be offered if resources could be identified, i.e. grants and volunteers. As Tammy’s story illustrates, law enforcement officers and the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) workers outside the metropolitan areas of Georgia are in need of sensitivity training.
D. Creating Meaningful Partnerships within our Communities
In all these efforts, GLSP has been able to reach and serve targeted populations with the help of trusted partners already operating in the communities we sought to serve: the Ryan White clinics, senior centers, health clinics and NCOA, battered women’s shelters and domestic violence awareness advocates.
We are already identifying partners working with rural LGBTQ populations in Georgia and organizations willing to refer clients to GLSP for help with legal issues. In some areas of the state, notably Savannah where there is a relatively large LGBTQ population, GLSP’s regional offices are already listed in LGBTQ publications and directories as being an LGBTQ-friendly resource. We plan to make sure each regional office is publicized as being available and welcoming to LGBTQ clients.
Additionally, GLSP is partnering with United-4-Safety, a collaboration of agencies and experts in Georgia working to reduce the incidence of intimate partner violence within the LGBTQ community by improving understanding of domestic violence protections and other resources available, as well as training and resource development. While United-4-Safety works mainly in the metro Atlanta area, its members want to work with GLSP in our efforts to serve LGBTQ clients in rural areas, as well.
CONCLUSIONS AND QUESTIONS
There is little hope of immediate changes to the policies and laws in Georgia that present particular challenges to LGBTQ people. However, with the help of lawyers and other policy specialists, there are many avenues open to help LGBTQ individuals and families achieve security, stability, and a path out of poverty. One central challenge is convincing LGBTQ people that coming forward and asking for help is worth the risk. That challenge can be mitigated somewhat by using technology to allow LGBTQ people access to our help privately through hotlines, websites, and webinars. We can also reach LGBTQ people in Georgia with the help of trusted partners already operating in rural communities. Established platforms can be leveraged to train judges, law enforcement officials, social workers and others who come in contact with LGBTQ people in crisis to help them understand how to deal sensitively with this population.
Despite lessons learned over the years about how to reach and help marginalized populations in Georgia, some questions remain about how best to provide GLSP’s services to LGBTQ individuals and families. One difficulty is how to identify LGBTQ clients. We are exploring whether to ask clients at intake whether they identify as LGBTQ as part of our regular screening. Having this information would be helpful in analyzing the client’s problems and identifying targeted solutions. However, we are concerned that non-LGBTQ clients could be put off by such a question and that LGBTQ clients could be frightened by it. Those discussions continue. Meanwhile we are working to publicly demonstrate that GLSP is LGBTQ-accepting and friendly so that people will be more willing to identify themselves to us.
And, of course, the highest bar to leap is that of getting the necessary resources to offer help to the LGBTQ clients. Nationally, legal service organizations for low-income people are laying off lawyers and limiting cases because of drastically reduced budgets; funding for the LSC has been drastically cut. GLSP has laid off about 10 percent of its staff in the past three years and is facing yet another year of budget cutting in 2013.
That said, among the lessons learned over the years by GLSP is that, while funding may go up and down, our services are a vital necessity to marginalized populations in Georgia – including LGBTQ people — and we will keep finding ways to serve them.