The only organization in the state to offer direct legal services to LGBT people announced this week that it is transferring its legal branch to the local LGBT health clinic.
Equality Advocates Pennsylvania’s legal department will now become a program of LGBT health clinic the Mazzoni Center.
“We feel confident that this is absolutely the right move to make to ensure the best interests of LGBT Pennsylvanians,” said Equality Advocates executive director Lynn Zeitlin.
Since 1996, Equality Advocates has offered legal assistance and representation to LGBT individuals on a range of more than 30 issues, such as child custody and employment discrimination. The organization’s legal clinic, which is staffed by law students from throughout the region who serve as the first responders to LGBT individuals who call the agency’s legal hotline for assistance, is the only student-run entity of its kind in the country that focuses on LGBT issues.
Zeitlin said all of these services will continue in the same format, just under different auspices.
The agency, which has recently been undergoing a restructuring, was looking to fall in line with other statewide LGBT equality organizations — most of whom do not have a legal arm — and to focus its efforts on education and policy work, Zeitlin said.
The organization still wanted the local LGBT community to have high-quality legal services, Zeitlin said, which is why the group entered talks with Mazzoni Center about the feasibility of that agency taking over the program.
“We searched to make sure that we were connecting with an organization that could commit itself to continuing the same level of service we’ve been delivering to be sure that nobody is unable to find legal services who needs them,” Zeitlin said. “We found this in Mazzoni, and I’m very, very pleased.”
Mazzoni executive director Nurit Shein noted that it is not uncommon for LGBT health centers to also operate legal programs, as is the case at Boston’s Fenway Community Health and Chicago’s Howard Brown.
“We know well that the physical and emotional health of those in the LGBT community is so often impacted by external factors resulting from societal prejudices and pressures,” Shein said. “Thus it is essential to the health and vitality of our community that we incorporate legal, as well as health, safeguards in place for the most vulnerable in our society.”
Dave Rumsey, director of communications at Mazzoni Center, said many of the agency’s clients come to them with questions about legal issues, such as name changes and tenant-landlord disputes and the organization refers them to Equality Advocates for assistance. Rumsey said that Mazzoni’s operating its own legal department will “mesh well” with the services it already provides and its own mission.
“There was already this collegial relationship between the two organizations. There’s a lot of overlap with our clients and those of Equality Advocates, and I think we’re going to find even more affinity as we move forward,” Rumsey said. “And going along with what we do at Mazzoni Center and with our tagline, part of what gives you a sense of wellbeing is the piece of mind you get from feeling secure in your rights and confident that someone’s out there on your behalf, protecting you and making sure that you get your due legal standing.”
Equality Advocates’ legal department has one paid employee, its legal director Amara Chaudhry, who will now become a Mazzoni Center employee. There are also several law students from Temple University and University of Pennsylvania who volunteer at the clinic, as well as numerous pro-bono local lawyers who handle the cases, all of whom will now work out of the Mazzoni Center.
“We’re just going to bring the whole infrastructure that’s already in place there over here,” Rumsey said. “It will work exactly the same way that it worked over at Equality Advocates, just with a change of address. And of course we’ll provide all the administrative and office support that Equality Advocates had been providing.”
Rumsey said the two organizations were still tying up loose ends, but he expected the move to be complete in the next few months.
Zeitlin said Equality Advocates’ legal department occupied about half of the organization’s physical space. She was unsure at this time if the release of the department would lead to more hirings at the organization.
Equality Advocates’ latest move comes shortly after the agency announced a slate of new board members, along with the creation of its new legislative agency, Equality Pennsylvania.
As a 501 (c)(4), Equality Pennsylvania will have more political lobbying power than Equality Advocates, whose lobbying abilities are limited by its tax-exempt 501 (c)(3) status.
“Equality Advocates [Pennsylvania] will continue to function as an education and outreach organization. It will work on giving educational seminars, being present at Pride events and educating people in Pennsylvania on LGBT-rights issues,” Zeitlin said. “Both [Equality Advocates and Equality Pennsylvania] will do advocacy in a sense, as they’re both advocating for change, although one is through an educational format and the other is through actual legislative work.”
Zeitlin said she was confident that the transfer of the legal services to Mazzoni Center is a positive step for both organizations.
“This is being done to ensure that the legal services continue to be delivered to LGBT folks. Mazzoni has the resources and the infrastructure to support these legal services going forward.”
Rumsey said the Mazzoni Center is eager to take on the department and carry on the work started by Equality Advocates.
“We’re really looking forward to this. We’re very pleased to be able to continue to provide this service that Equality Advocates has been providing so well for so long.”