Protecting the Vulnerable Remains a Priority

5 June 2017 , Posted in: Featured

The following article ran in Maine Voices in the Maine Sunday Telegram on 6/4/17.

The Maine Justice Foundation aims to help protect those who face additional barriers, even within systems to help them. BY ARNIE MACDONALD, SPECIAL TO THE TELEGRAM

The motto “Equal Justice for All” engraved on our Supreme Court building is fundamental to America’s exceptional success. The faith that anyone can get a fair hearing when important rights or principles are at stake, or even to enforce a contract, is at the heart of our collective optimism and entrepreneurial spirit. That faith begins to crumble when individuals and groups do not have the same access to justice.

The Maine Justice Foundation’s mission is to ensure that the most vulnerable among us, those living in poverty and including youth, elders, transgender people, veterans and those with disabilities, have access to justice and quality legal representation.

From protection from domestic violence cases to foreclosures, fraud, child custody and fundamental rights, many Mainers have no idea they have no constitutional right to legal representation in civil disputes. While these kinds of situations can be devastating for anyone, they’re particularly tragic for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people living in poverty.

Rates of poverty and homelessness are much higher for LGBT people. Studies have found that being both poor and LGBT poses specific challenges and amplifies needs for legal services to battle discrimination, find housing, secure benefits and protect their safety.

Growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, I was pretty ignorant of LGBT issues until my sister and a cousin came out to me in the early ’80s. I learned more as I followed and admired both my sister’s activism during the AIDS epidemic and the way she carried that energy and integrity into her career as a small-business owner. Twenty-five years ago, about the time that my wife and I were married, Amy met Fran, who became her partner and (finally) wife, and they have been loving and even magical role models for us and our children. We have seen discrimination against Amy and Fran, and we are happy that they have achieved happiness and stability, but not everyone is so fortunate.

Young LGBT people are especially vulnerable. Those who are rejected by their families face homelessness, loss of health care and other essentials. Even when families accept them and provide a loving home, at-risk youth find a world that is discriminatory – and worse. LGBT youth and the children of LGBT parents experience harassment and discrimination regularly in institutions like schools and welfare programs.

While Maine has made progress on issues of gay and lesbian equality, transgender equality remains behind. The challenges related to adequate health care, personal identification and individual safety remain significant concerns for transgender people.

Aging LGBT individuals and couples also face significant barriers. They are concerned about social and geographic isolation, declining health, the risks of financial fraud and elder abuse, the complexities of the health care system and the availability of services to help them stay safe in their homes and communities. These concerns are compounded by the fears that their sexual orientation will affect the personal care and other services they need, both at home and in an assisted-living or nursing home setting. These fears are not groundless.

The mission of the LGBT Justice Fund is to provide legal assistance so that low-income and vulnerable LGBT Mainers can always get access to justice – if they have a custody dispute, if they face eviction, if they lose a job to discrimination or if they are trying to navigate our complex health care system.

Opponents of LGBT justice have been empowered by the recent political climate. They’re determined to roll back the clock on LGBT rights, and they’ve heavily invested in legal networks and institutions to fight their battles.

At the same time, most of the funding sources for our legal service providers have shrunk dramatically in the past 10 years, and President Trump sought to eliminate Legal Services Corp. funding from the federal budget entirely.

All of this underscores the need to create a permanent fund. The dedicated people providing civil legal aid don’t have enough resources to help everyone who needs it. They are forced to turn away many deserving people looking for aid. LGBT youth and elders are among the most vulnerable. That’s one reason the work of the LGBT Justice Fund is so important.

While some of the founders of this fund are LGBT, much of our support is from family, friends, and professional colleagues who admire the good work, commitment and integrity of our loved ones and colleagues. A lot has been accomplished, but there is much to do. Please join me in this movement for LGBT Justice by clicking here.