Discrepancies Between Legal and Lived Equality: Representing Your LGBTQ+ Clients with Cultural Humility
By Equality Ohio’s Legal Clinic and CHROMA Consulting,
with edits by Cleveland Staff Attorney, Kate Mozynski
As we move through June, a month marked by Pride events celebrating the LGBTQ+ community, it is essential to recognize the significance of this occasion beyond its rainbow-filled festivities. For legal professionals, Pride serves as a moment of reflection on the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ+ individuals within the legal system. In an era where LGBTQ+ issues dominate media headlines and spark heated political debates, it becomes paramount for us in the legal profession to remember that our LGBTQ+ clients are human beings, first and foremost.
LGBTQ+ individuals seeking legal assistance often present with diverse and intricate legal needs, necessitating specialized knowledge and cultural understanding. However, it is important to acknowledge that allyship and partnership with the LGBTQ+ community is an ongoing journey, and there are numerous incremental steps that legal professionals can take to better serve LGBTQ+ individuals. We will delve into the impact of legal disparities faced by the LGBTQ+ community and explore how legal professionals can enhance their representation and provision of services through the lens of cultural humility.
Understanding Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Expression
Before delving into the discrepancies, it is crucial to understand the basics of sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression and ensure that we, as legal practitioners, have a common understanding of this language and how to respectfully serve the LGBTQ+ community.
Sexual orientation refers to a person’s attraction, while gender identity pertains to an individual’s inherent sense of self. Gender expression, on the other hand, describes how someone outwardly presents themselves. It is important to note that gender expression does not necessarily indicate one’s gender identity or sexual orientation, especially because many transgender individuals may not feel comfortable or safe openly expressing their transgender identity as they move about the world.
Discrepancies Between Legal and Lived Equality
While achieving legal victories and ensuring equal legal protection for LGBTQ+ individuals are vital steps in safeguarding their rights, it is essential to acknowledge that legal equality alone does not guarantee lived equality. Lived equality refers to the actual experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals in their communities and everyday lives, which may not align with their legal rights and protections.
In many parts of the country, including where we are based in Ohio, the law instead provides a patchwork of protections, as there is no statewide, inclusive nondiscrimination protection that fully encompasses employment, housing, and protection in public accommodations. This situation is mirrored in many parts of the country and leads to many discrepancies in the lived realities of LGBTQ+ clients, including:
- Patchwork Nondiscrimination Protections: While laws may exist in some local Ohio municipalities, nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ individuals can be fragmented, varying from city to city, town to town, state to state. This patchwork nature can leave individuals vulnerable in certain areas and limit their access to broader equal treatment. In practice, this means that a client may have comprehensive housing protections in one city but lose many of those protections when they drive to their house in the suburbs.
- Inadequate Recognition of Relationships: LGBTQ+ individuals in committed relationships may face challenges when it comes to the recognition of their relationships in legal contexts. For example, the duration of a legal marriage might not reflect the entirety of a long-term relationship, leading to difficulties in various legal matters such as divorce proceedings. Many LGBTQ+ individuals also reside in jurisdictions where the law does not accurately reflect LBGTQ+ families and fails to recognize the parental rights of married same-sex parents.
- Intersectional Identities: Intersectionality plays a significant role in the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ individuals. Factors such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and disability intersect with sexual orientation and gender identity, resulting in compounded discrimination and systemic barriers that pose access to justice concerns for some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Representing or Providing Services for LGBTQ+ Clients with Cultural Humility
To effectively represent LGBTQ+ clients, legal professionals must approach their work with cultural humility, which involves recognizing and valuing clients’ diverse backgrounds, identities, and experiences. It is an ongoing journey. Here are some essential considerations for professionals providing services or representation for LGBTQ+ clients:
- Trauma-Informed Care: Many LGBTQ+ individuals have experienced trauma or face unique vulnerabilities because they are LGBTQ+. Professionals should inquire sensitively about clients’ backgrounds and identities to gain a comprehensive understanding of the obstacles they have faced or are currently facing. Incorporating trauma-informed approaches throughout your legal practice operations is crucial.
- Social Determinants of Health: Lawyers should be aware of the social determinants of health that disproportionately impact LGBTQ+ individuals. Mental health, employment, housing, and access to public services can significantly affect clients’ wellbeing. In short, as legal practitioners, we can often help a client understand when a life problem becomes a legal one. Having a comprehensive understanding of how these factors impact LGBTQ+ clients help legal professionals better understand or advocate effectively for their clients’ rights and needs.
- Addressing Disparities: Lawyers must proactively address disparities and discrimination faced by LGBTQ+ individuals in various settings. This includes advocating for inclusive policies, challenging discriminatory practices, and promoting equal treatment and access to services both in the court system and within legal communities.
Creating an Inclusive Legal Practice
Through CHROMA, Equality Ohio works with professionals to create LGBTQ+ affirmative policies and procedures. To create an inclusive legal practice, legal professionals can take the following simple steps to improve LGBTQ+ cultural humility:
- Language and Communication: Use affirming language and respect individuals’ chosen pronouns. Introduce yourself with your own pronouns and politely ask for others’ pronouns instead of assuming. Avoid excessive apologies when making a pronoun mistake. Apologize, move on, and work to prevent the mistake from occurring again. Provide spaces for clients to indicate their preferred names, pronouns, and communication preferences.
- Auditing Materials: Review and update website content, marketing materials, and intake systems to ensure inclusivity. Be conscious of where the firm is advertising and the appearances of individuals used in marketing materials. Do these materials represent diverse and LGBTQ+ people?
- Office Environment: Establish gender-neutral bathrooms and incorporate inclusive symbols and materials in common areas, such as LGBTQ+-inclusive reading materials and pride flags. Support employees through inclusive health insurance coverage, nondiscrimination policies, and interventions to address negative comments or discriminatory behavior.
While legal equality is an essential step forward, there are still discrepancies between legal and lived equality for LGBTQ+ people. Attorneys and legal advocates alike play a crucial role in providing legal services to LGBTQ+ clients through a lens of cultural humility. Understanding the unique challenges LGBTQ+ individuals encounter and advocating for their rights is a crucial step in closing the access to justice gap that the LGBTQ+ community faces. By creating inclusive practices and addressing disparities, legal individuals can contribute to a more equitable and just society for all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Equality Ohio Legal Clinic provides free support to LGBTQ+ Ohioans within 300% of the poverty line who are experiencing legal hardship related to their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. Our legal experts offer professional CLE and public trainings that cover a range of current topics relevant to LGBTQ+ Ohioans. We also offer a robust Attorney Referral Network where law students and practicing attorneys can engage, learn, discuss important cases and updates to law, network, and more.
CHROMA Consulting experts help your business or organization cultivate a professional environment where equality thrives. We offer regular policy reviews and cultural competency training tailored to your organization’s needs.
Kate Mozynski, Esq. (they/them) is an Equality Ohio Legal Clinic attorney. Kate is a graduate of Case Western Reserve University School of Law. Prior to joining the Equality Ohio team, Kate’s practice included international human rights law, immigration law, international criminal law, and inmate civil rights litigation. Kate is passionate about working with members of the LGBTQ+ community and extending legal representation.