At the Margins: Poor LGBT People Face Increased Legal Aid Needs

A new survey of low-income LGBT New Yorkers exposes the need for better legal services.

(Photo: Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images)

Jan 19, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Today’s most pressing social justice issues are often tackled one at a time. One organization might focus on economic justice while another directs its energy on racial discrimination, and another serves LGBT youth. Yet the reality is that the vast majority of these issues are deeply intertwined. In an effort to better aid clients at one of those intersections, Legal Services NYC recently conducted a first-of-its-kind survey among low-income LGBT New Yorkers.

The results were published Tuesday in a report called Poverty Is an LGBT Issue, which encompasses the responses of more than 300 low-income LGBT community members who filled out a needs assessment. The report’s authors found that being both poor and LGBT posed specific challenges and amplified the respondents’ needs for legal services to battle discrimination, find housing, secure benefits, and protect their safety.

“We really wanted to give voice to low-income LGBT people themselves,” said Adam Heintz, director of pro bono services at Legal Services NYC. “We were aware of the many different civil legal needs they were facing, but we didn’t know enough.”

Fifty percent of the people who took the survey indicated that they had experienced physical violence in the past year, with little hope or access to legal recourse. While the results didn’t surprise Heintz and his coauthors, the information did serve as a powerful reminder that legal services organizations need to go out of their way to support low-income LGBT clients and make it known that their offices are a safe space.

“It’s our responsibility as service providers to let people know that we’re welcoming and excited to be working on these issues,” said Cathy Bowman, LGBT and HIV unit director of South Brooklyn Legal Services. “The systems that a lot of us walk through without thinking about them can be extraordinarily oppressive for [low-income LGBT] people.”

Numerous respondents said that they avoid certain places and public encounters for fear they won’t be LGBT-friendly. Another respondent explained that “I portray myself as straight to evade persecution and harassment.” Bowman, who has worked in HIV-specific legal services since 1994, told TakePart that transgender and visibly gender nonconforming clients were the most hesitant to seek help because of discrimination.

“If you don’t believe you have LGBT clients, you’re doing something wrong,” Heintz told TakePart, speaking of colleagues in the broader legal services community. “You do have LGBT clients, but they don’t feel safe enough to tell you.”

Homelessness, dangerous living conditions, harassment by landlords, and prohibitive housing costs were also found to disproportionately impact low-income LGBT New Yorkers. Numerous respondents indicated enduring discrimination from shelters that refused to house them because of their same-sex partner.

Both Heintz and Bowman expressed hope that the current climate may be ripe for drawing attention to this often overlooked issue. The fight for same-sex marriage largely dominated resources and attention for years leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision in favor last year, pushing aside some other concerns impacting LGBT groups in the meantime.

“The LGBT community has understandably been focused on those issues of formal legal inequality,” Heintz told TakePart. “We respect those efforts, but now is a time for us to reflect on where we stand as a community, what’s next, and who’s really suffering from homophobia and transphobia. We feel really strongly that low-income people are bearing the brunt of that.”