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Joe Surkiewicz: Justice for an underserved community

At the FreeState Legal Project, Maryland’s newest civil legal aid program for low-income people, the goal is straightforward: to help lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgendered people lead healthier, happier lives that are free of discrimination.

“We think this is the future of the LBGT civil rights movement,” said Aaron Merki, FreeState’s executive director. “We’re trying to make recent judicial and legislative victories accessible to low-income LBGT people.”

In spite of those wins, much needs to be done.

“The battle is not over,” Merki said. “Much of the work comes after, not before, a judicial or legislative win. It’s like when the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education or after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. That’s when the second stage of the work began — making those victories relevant to the lives of minority citizens in America by enforcing their newly achieved rights. For the LBGT community, there’s a lot of work to do.”

Created in 2007, FreeState started serving clients in 2011. Over the last year, the nonprofit has grown from one lawyer (Merki) to four, and it is about to add a fifth lawyer to the team.

“We are Maryland’s first — and one of the first in the country — advocacy organizations for low-income LBGT individuals,” said Merki, who took a break from commercial litigation practice at Venable LLP to head FreeState. “We estimate that there are about 250,000 LBGT residents in Maryland, although no one tracks them and our estimates are conservative. Of those, maybe 70,000 qualify for FreeState’s services under Maryland Legal Services Corporation guidelines.”

The program’s goal is to build a comprehensive advocacy organization that combines direct legal services with education and outreach. In the mix of services are a pro bono panel; education and training initiatives for lawyers, teachers, and judges; and government advocacy and education.

FreeState, which recently moved into new offices in Baltimore’s midtown Mount Vernon neighborhood, serves a client base whose needs were largely unmet by other nonprofit legal services providers.

“LBGT people often have complex legal needs in the areas of housing, employment and public accommodations discrimination,” Merki said. “They also struggle with school bullying, immigration asylum issues, complex family law cases, small estate planning problems, and name and gender changes.

“We meet the unique needs of low-income LBGT people, and not, say, a gay person with a credit card problem,” Merki explained. “We’re about to hire a full-time social worker. We also have outreach workers to hook up people with mental health and other necessary services, many of which can be provided by Chase Brexton Health Care.”

Recently, FreeState partnered with Chase Brexton to create one of the first LBGT legal-medical partnerships in the U.S. “There is a growing trend for legal and medical shops to team up to better help their clients,” Merki said. “But this is the first LBGT-focused partnership that we are aware of. We refer clients back and forth, and we educate one another.”

Some examples: If someone comes to the legal clinic and they have a health need, FreeState refers them to Chase Brexton. And if a patient visits their doctor and they’re hungry and don’t have a job because of a legal issue, they’re referred to FreeState.

“It’s a way to look at the person holistically,” Merki said.

FreeState also advocates for policy issues that affect its clients. “We’re involved with the Maryland Coalition for Transgender Equality, which is working on anti-discrimination legislation to protect people in housing, employment and public accommodations,” Merki said. “It’s led by Equality Maryland.”

In the area of outreach and education, FreeState teamed with the Homeless Persons Representation Project and other service providers on the Transgender Action Group. Its twice-monthly outreach to transgender sex workers in Baltimore consists of street outreach from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.

“We try to get clients to come back to our legal clinic and provide legal services for expungement and name changes, which are their biggest barriers to employment,” Merki said. “We also provide referrals for health and other services.

“It’s not a group of people that gets a lot of sympathy or attention,” Merki added. “This is the first sustained project, that we are aware of, specifically focused on reaching this population. It’s been going on for a little over a year.”

Other efforts underway include a new curricula and information for school personnel and students for reaching out to LBGT students. And, new this year, is a free tax preparation service for the LBGT community.

“We teamed up with the CASH Campaign and Chase Brexton to provide tax preparation services to low-income LBGT people,” Merki said. “Low-income people often need this kind of help. Also, there are now married same-sex couples, so we want to make this tax service available to our client base. It’s available every Thursday through April, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.”

Another recent development is a transgender youth website that offers legal information on things like how to change your name and whether transgender teens need to register for Selective Service. “It’s a resource for youth and their families who are transitioning into life as the gender that they have always identified as,” Merki said.

Overall, LBGT people are faring better, he noted, pointing to recent legal and legislative victories such as marriage equality.

“Without a doubt, conditions are improving for us,” Merki said. “But it really depends on what community you’re talking about. The LGBT community is big and diverse. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people, in many communities, still face the same discrimination that they would have faced a decade or two ago. And transgender people everywhere still face discrimination on a routine basis.

“As we achieve legal victories, the number of people who need our help will only increase, because now LGBT people have rights and valid legal claims to assert against those who violate their rights,” he added.

Lawyers interested in volunteering for FreeState’s pro bono program can call (410) 625-LBGT (5428). Volunteers who agree to take a case are provided training and mentoring.

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is [email protected]