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Why Poverty Law Is LGBT Law

Getting Legal Aid to Serve Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People

By Theo Ciccarelli Cornetta men holding hands

One of the first cases to come through the doors of Indiana Legal Services’ LGBT Project was that of a grieving man being refused bereavement pay. It was May 2016, and same-sex marriage had been legalized across the country the prior summer, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges. A woman with a small but mighty voice called my office; she said that her son was being discriminated against and something had to be done. I asked her to have her son call me, and the story unfolded.

Aaron (not his real name) had lost his husband a few weeks earlier. Aaron had cared for his husband throughout his illness and was warmed by the right to have their relationship legally recognized before his partner passed away. Aaron worked a low-income job for a chain business. Knowing his job included bereavement pay for the loss of a spouse, Aaron asked for the allotted days off from work to organize the funeral and grieve with friends and family. He was told that his leave time was granted. Yet a week later his paycheck was over one hundred dollars short, and he was not going to be able to pay his rent.

Aaron told me that his location manager denied his bereavement pay because the store did not recognize same-sex marriages. While this man was grieving the loss of his husband, he faced the indignity of his employer rejecting his legally recognized relationship. On top of everything, he faced potential eviction from his home as a result.

Through quick intervention by Indiana Legal Services, Aaron was able to keep his residence and receive his bereavement pay. We contacted his landlord, who agreed to hold off on filing the eviction for a week. Then we contacted the local manager and regional general counsel for his employer and informed them that the business could not distinguish between legal marriages based on the partners’ sexes. Within days, Aaron received his bereavement pay and was able to pay rent. Yes, this case concerned family law, employment law, and housing law. But at its heart was LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) law.

Why Is This a Poverty or Violence Issue?

When Indiana Legal Services started an LGBT project, some asked, “Why is this a legal aid issue?” Many of the images established by the national LGBT movement have involved affluent individuals. For example, in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision United States v. Windsor, the federal government, the Court ruled, cannot refuse to recognize same-sex marriages that are valid in the state where the same-sex couples live. Denying federal recognition of state-sanctioned unions was held to be unconstitutional discrimination. Windsor led the way for Obergefell v. Hodges, which held that states must recognize same-sex marriages.

Edie Windsor, the plaintiff, was a wealthy woman grieving the death of her wife, and at issue in her appeal was a tax refund for $363,053. Without disregarding or delegitimizing the beautiful gift Edie Windsor and her appeal gave LGBT people, I note that her case encouraged a national image of LGBT people as affluent urban dwellers. But in reality LGBT people are disproportionately impoverished and live in both rural and urban areas.

The largest national study of transgender people found that transgender people are four times more likely to live in extreme poverty—meaning living off less than $10,000 a year—than the general population. LGBT youth face extremely high rates of homelessness. A national survey of homeless youth agencies found that providers estimated approximately 40 percent of homeless and at-risk youth were LGBT.

LGBT people as a whole face high rates of violence. Although statistics show LGB people experience roughly equivalent rates of intimate partner violence as heterosexual people, a 2014 study found that 31 percent of transgender people experience domestic violence in their lifetime, compared to 20 percent of cisgender (or nontransgender) people. Additionally, Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics show that LGBT people are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than any other minority group. These realities firmly put LGBT people and legal issues within the priorities of legal services.

What Are We Doing at Indiana Legal Services?

Indiana Legal Services launched an LGBT Project in May 2016 after a year of discussion and planning. The LGBT Project is one of the organization’s many specialized projects that serve the needs of particular client communities. These projects are the Senior Law Project, the Homeless Legal Project, the Immigrants and Language Rights Center, the Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic, the Consumer Law Center, the Housing Law Center, and the Military Assistance Project.

The LGBT Project is a statewide program focused on Indiana’s LGBT population and LGBT victims of crimes. Those who dreamed about how to serve LGBT people better in Indiana included Jon Laramore, executive director; Adam Mueller, director of advocacy; and me, Theo Ciccarelli Cornetta, director of the LGBT Project. At the time we knew that there was a significant problem. We knew LGBT people experienced higher rates of poverty, violence, and discrimination than the general population, and we knew we were not getting a proportional number of intakes on these issues. We set out to establish the LGBT Project with three objectives: (1) provide legal services, (2) conduct outreach, and (3) train and educate. The demand far exceeded our expectations.

Direct Legal Services

The LGBT Project comprises a medical-legal partnership, a victim-assistance project, and general legal services. The LGBT Project targets the circumstances that cause or perpetuate poverty and the effects of victimization. These circumstances include issues such as public benefits, employment, personal safety, and health care, as well as issues—such as discrimination and correcting identity documents—more particular to the LGBT community.

Medical-Legal Partnership

Through the medical-legal partnership, the LGBT Project works with a transgender health clinic called the Eskenazi Transgender Health and Wellness Program, which is associated with the largest public hospital in Indianapolis. Cases from the medical-legal partnership often involve the denial of health insurance benefits to transgender people, name and gender marker changes in identity documents, and employment or education issues.

Victim-Assistance Project

Using Victims of Crime Act funding, the LGBT Project works with survivors of crime. This work often takes on problems of family violence and hate violence. We have helped with issues ranging from protective orders to educational support for youth assaulted at school. Most significant, the LGBT project represented two transgender victims of violence in appealing an Indiana requirement that individuals publish in the newspaper their intent to change their name. The appeal additionally challenged a local court’s requirement that individuals publish in the newspaper their intent to change their gender marker. The challenge was successful and resulted in a published appellate opinion protecting the privacy rights of transgender individuals, allowing exemptions to the name change publication requirement, and clarifying that there is no legal requirement to publish gender marker changes. We have since seen this case protect survivors of domestic violence, trafficking, identity theft, and hate violence in changing their names for their safety.

General Legal Services

The LGBT Project through general legal services has worked with clients facing family-recognition issues, problems with public benefits, and expungements.

Between May 2016 and March 2018, the LGBT Project served over 300 people through advice, trial representation, and appellate litigation. We have represented clients across the state of Indiana, created partnerships with community organizations, and established our place as a leading resource for the LGBT community.


When we established the LGBT Project, we knew we faced an issue of trust from the LGBT community. For so long the legal system has lacked resources—such as family-related protection from violence—for LGBT people. We knew we had to build trust and show that attorneys and the legal system can be a positive resource for LGBT people. We achieved this buy-in through community collaboration. Our program began regularly doing outreach with other social service organizations, most often by meeting clients at those providers’ facilities. 

Training and Education

Our LGBT Project focuses on training and education. In the project’s first year, I traveled to each of our eight local offices and trained staff on working with LGBT people. Our programs were well received and gave our advocates additional resources for assisting clients.

How Can You Create Your Dream Project?

The lesson that can be learned from the LGBT Project is that a lot is possible through civil legal aid. With creativity, passion, and persistence, programs can rise and thrive. In three years we have grown from one part-time volunteer to three paid staff members. We have become a statewide resource, and we have advised and represented in over 300 cases.

If there is a project you would like to see happen or a population you would like to serve better, do not be afraid to get your hands dirty. Most pertinent, create a succinct definition of your project and network, and set goals. Network by finding people whose careers you admire, and meet with them. Find organizations you believe in, and invest by joining their board, volunteering, or meeting with their staff for collaboration ideas. Make friends with national resources, and go to conferences. Taking the initiative to lay a foundation for a project will itself prepare you to establish that project.

Define your project, and set goals. You should be able, in one or two sentences, to express the project or position you are proposing and the goals you wish to meet. By having a set definition and goals, you will open the doors for buy-in from your organization and funding sources.

Indiana Legal Services’ LGBT Project started as a pipe dream and has grown into a thriving project. We have brought light to the issues of poverty and violence in the LGBT community. We have helped resolve systematic legal issues through the courts. And we have helped LGBT people in Indiana secure stable and safe lives.

Author’s Note

The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Justice or the grant-making component.

Theo Ciccarelli Cornetta

Theo Ciccarelli Cornetta
Director, LGBT Project

Indiana Legal Services
151 N. Delaware St. Suite 1800
Indianapolis, IN 46204

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