Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Proyecto Poderoso

Proyecto Poderoso, or Project Powerful, is a special initiative created by a partnership between California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) to address the particular legal issues of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in rural California, especially LGBT farm workers. I first heard of this project last year when I attended the 2008 Lavender Law Conference (the National LGBT Bar Association's annual conference). The attorney who was there presenting it, Lisa Cisneros, is the Project Coordinator and she knows firsthand what it's like to be gay in a rural community (rural, at least, in that it has a predominantly agricultural economy). She stated,

"Proyecto Poderoso is based in my hometown, Salinas, California. I came out as a teenager in Salinas, and I understand that one can feel isolated as an LGBT person in a small town... While the limelight of public attention and services shines on places like Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, and San Francisco, I am familiar with living in a mostly ignored place, Salinas.”

According to the CRLA website, Proyecto Poderoso was created as a response to the increasing visibility of LGBT people in rural areas. CRLA and NCLR cite a Williams Institute study revealing that about 136,000 self-identified LGB people(the study did not include transgendered people) live in the counties served by CRLA. Of course, keep in mind that there are a number of problems with collecting data on LGB people, the most obvious of which are that (1) many people are often reluctant to divulge identifying with a minority sexual orientation and (2) that sexual orientation is also difficult to break down into definitive categories. Because of these problems, the number of self-identified LGB people in a particular area might be significantly lower than the actual number of LGB people.

In any case, poor LGBT people of color in rural areas may be one of the most vulnerable populations as they face not only class and poverty barriers, but race and sexual orientation/gender identity barriers as well. And as rural communities are supposedly homogeneous bastions of intolerance for difference, a concern for this population makes sense, as does the corresponding provision of LGBT-specific legal services. Proyecto Poderoso's program overview asserts that a third of the rural LGBT community members struggle with poverty and suffer from higher rates of unemployment, disability, and psychological stress than their heterosexual peers.

Go here for some more interesting comparative statistical analysis done by the Williams Institute, a national think tank at UCLA School of Law working to advance sexual orientation law and public policy.

To address the particular legal issues of low-income LGBT people in rural counties, Proyecto Poderoso advances a three pronged approach: 1) providing community education about LGBT rights, 2) training other legal advocates in the area of LGBT rights, and 3) providing direct legal services. Proyecto Poderoso also strives to identify and cultivate potential LGBT leaders in rural areas. While prongs #2 and #3 seem like nothing special or unique and are pretty standard practice for legal aid organizations, I particularly like the strategy of providing community education and cultivating local leaders in small communities.

On March 27, 2009, Proyecto Poderoso was featured on National Public Radio's "California Report." Here is the story's blurb from the California Report website:

"Many California farmworkers are so desperate to keep their jobs that they rarely complain when there's a problem at work. When those farmworkers are gay, lesbian or transgender, they may face harassment or even earn less pay because of their sexual orientation. Now, a new project is helping them learn about their rights under California law. "

Click here to listen to the audio clip and click here to see the accompanying photo slideshow. The piece profiles LGBT discrimination in rural counties, Proyecto Poderoso, and features the employment discrimination case of a transgendered farmworker named Sandra. Before transitioning, Sandra had previously worked as a foreman named Juan on an asparagus packing line for eight years. She was eventually promoted to the position of supervisor on the night shift, but after she began taking hormones, she was met with hostility at work. She was frequently verbally harassed for being transgender, and her boyfriend (also an employee at the packing house) was violently attacked by another supervisor. After the attack, Sandra was demoted and received a pay cut. Proyecto Poderoso filed an employment discrimination claim based on sexual orientation on Sandra's behalf and Sandra and the packing company eventually entered a settlement agreement.

I'm glad that non-profits and legal aid organizations are considering the particular needs of specific target populations – in this case, rural LGBT people. Proyecto Poderoso is a recognition that LGBT people in rural communities have unique needs and require unique services. LGBT people in rural counties do not face the same issues or have the same vulnerabilities as do LGBT people in urban areas. That's not to say that their needs are radically different; employment discrimination obviously affects LGBT people in urban areas too. But I think the delivery of services does need to take geographical circumstances into account. I guess in the "should there be a legal distinction between urban and rural areas or should these areas be dealt with in the same manner" debate, though I realize the difficulties and complications of doing so, I'm inclined to favor the side that takes location-specific factors (such as urban vs. rural) into account, and I applaud NCLR and CRLA for doing so. I wish other programs like Medi-Cal, CalWORKS, and Food Stamps would do so as well.

What struck me most about Proyecto Poderoso, however, was not just that there was a program out there offering such specific services for such a needy population, but that its creation was a purported reaction to the "increasing visibility" of LGBT people in rural areas. Where is this increased visibility coming from? I don't know that I necessarily agree that LGBT people in rural areas are increasingly visible. I think LGBT issues generally have become more familiar to people in the last few years, but, at least in my mind, rural LGBT people hadn't been receiving specific attention. The only two things I can think of are movies: Boys Don't Cry (and Hilary Swank's subsequent Academy Award win for her role) and Brokeback Mountain, which were released in 1999 and 2005, respectively (Proyecto Poderoso was created in 2007). Those two films are the only major media items I can think of specifcally regarding LGBT people in small communities, but both admittedly were highly publicized and won a lot of awards. Maybe those two films were enough.

The "increased visibility" that supposedly spurred Proyecto Poderoso made me curious about the division of LGBT people between rural and urban areas, so I looked up this statistic on the Human Rights Campaign website by state. It seems to make sense that LGBT people in isolated rural areas would move to more urban areas where homophobia is (supposedly) less prevalent and where they can receive more appropriate services such as healthcare. I was pretty shocked to find that almost across the national board, the percentage of LGB households living in rural areas (versus urban areas) increased and, in many cases, increased in a dramatic fashion.

Between 1990 and 2000, of the 49 states (there was no data for Iowa), only 9 states showed a decrease in the percentage of all LGB households that reside in rural areas. Again, these statistics are constrained by the same problems noted above, but the numbers were pretty surprising nonetheless. Three states showed no change in its rural-urban division of LGB households, and the remaining 37 states showed an increase. For example, in 1990, only 5% of Utah's LGB households resided in rural areas (while the other 95% resided in urban areas). By 2000, however, 19% of Utah's LGB households resided in rural areas. The next biggest increases, in terms of percent change, included:

1. Nebraska - 11% in 1990, to 38% in 2000
2. Oklahoma - 11% in 1990, to 33% in 2000

24 states showed a 50% or greater increase in their percentages of LGB households residing rural areas vs. urban areas!

So I don't know about increased visibility, but it does seem that the urban-rural division of the LGBT population is getting less stark and I'm curious as to why. Are rural areas becoming less dangerous for LGBT people? Is access to appropriate services improving? Are gay people moving into rural areas?? Or are fewer gay people leaving rural areas? Maybe nothing has really changed, and the numbers just reflect greater comfort among the gay community with coming out.

1 comment:

dean pappas said...

Please let us know the authors of these blogs.
Dean Pappas