Legal clinic for the 'ignored'

The Baltimore Sun

After coming to terms with her transgender status, Wendy Moretz spent more than a year representing herself in a custody battle over her son during a divorce.

Legal services would have helped her tremendously, the 37-year-old Baltimore County resident said.

"If I had the services back when I first transitioned and [had] known where to go to find a lawyer that would have been willing to really fight for me, that would have helped tremendously," Moretz said.

A group of Maryland lawyers and advocates is raising funds for the FreeState Law Project, an effort to start a law clinic that would provide direct legal services to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Marylanders.

The clinic would be the first in the state and one of a few in the nation, its organizers said.

"We found that there were very few pro bono legal services programs in the entire country," said Lisa Kershner, a Bethesda attorney who, with Baltimore attorney Nevett Steele, is heading the effort.

Kershner said national groups and clinics in Baltimore deal with particular issues, such as gay and lesbian policy issues or AIDS/HIV cases, but that the only broad-based direct legal services center she has come across is in Philadelphia.

The Maryland group hopes to collect $250,000 to enable its center to open in September. It has raised about $30,000 and is forming an advisory board to decide issues such as whether to incorporate as a nonprofit and whether the group would be based in its own space or partner with another organization.

The group is now operating out of the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, which serves as its fiscal agent.

Organizers say there is a need for a broad range of legal services tailored to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people because of the unique legal needs of people who can't legally marry.

"The law is different when applied to them, so that makes even routine types of legal problems or questions more complicated," Kershner said.

"There's a tremendous number of folks who have problems," Steele said. "Partners who are breaking up, and there is no law like there is with heterosexual partners."

Activists are preparing to fight for marriage rights for same-sex couples in the Maryland legislature. Last year, the state's highest court upheld a ban on same-sex marriage.

Steele said the group hopes to lobby lawmakers in support of same-sex marriage rights.

After meeting with advocacy groups, two issues that have emerged as the most pressing are legal services needed for homeless transgender people, men and women who identify as being of a gender different from the one they were born into.

"There's a large population in the city of homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth who have been sort of abandoned by their families, especially the transgender youth," said Aaron Merki, 24, a third-year student at the University of Maryland School of Law, one of the organizers of the project.

With homeless youths, issues include discrimination in the foster care system and schools, Merki said. Other groups in need of services include immigrants trying to join their partners in this country or trying to stay here with their partners, and those facing employment and housing discrimination, Kershner said.

Philadelphia-based Equality Advocates Pennsylvania opened in 1996. The nonprofit group, which serves the whole state, does legal work in addition to working on policy reform.

It received 600 to 700 calls for assistance last year, the majority dealing with employment and family issues, said Stacey Sobel, executive director of the group.

About 80 of those callers received free legal services. The remainder received lawyer referrals or other information, Sobel said.

Lizza Robb is among the hundreds who have received legal services from the group. The 32-year-old Philadelphia resident first used the clinic about five years ago when she and her partner wanted to have the same last name.

"We were faced with the prospect of paying a lot of money to get a name change," Robb said.

Later, they used the center for a donor contract and adoption of their child, and then for wills and a domestic partnership agreement.

"Really, without their services, we wouldn't have been able to do it," Robb said. "Clinics like that are really important. Before, I thought they would focus on higher-profile things. But in reality, one of the biggest impacts they have is just helping normal people get normal things that we should be getting anyway."

In addition to providing legal services, the Maryland project will attempt to quantify a sprawling population that often goes unnoticed, Merki said.

"These communities have been ignored for so long," he said. "We know they're here. So we really need to nail down who they are, where they are, what they're doing and what they need."

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