Standing Up to Discrimination with Courage
At a time when our client Lynn was rebuilding their life after a long battle with substance abuse and poverty, an encounter with racial and anti-transgender discrimination – at a nonprofit whose mission is precisely to provide support to people in need – could have dealt a blow to their progress.
Instead, Lynn is standing up to that discrimination to ensure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.
In 2016 Lynn, who is Puerto Rican and identifies as transgender, took the initiative to fight their addiction, with its roots in distress from discrimination experienced since childhood, and embark on the road to recovery.
Lynn sought the help of Tapestry Health, a community-based health services organization in Western Massachusetts that addresses public health needs, such as substance abuse. Through Tapestry Health’s Services, Opportunity, Awakening, Recovery (“SOAR”) program, which focused on trauma informed wrap around care for women and transgender people with a history of substance misuse and trauma, Lynn connected with Tapestry Health employee and former case manager, Emily.
As Lynn’s case manager, Emily connected Lynn to community resources to meet their needs and support Lynn’s journey to self-sufficiency. When Lynn expressed the need for clothing, Emily set-up an appointment for Lynn to visit the Give-Away Center, a distribution center open to the public that provides items like clothing, toiletries and household supplies to those in need, at no cost. Notably, the Give-Away Center is run by Springfield Rescue Mission, which characterizes itself as a Christian nonprofit whose mission is to help the less fortunate.
Because Lynn exclusively wears men’s clothing, they intended to shop only for men’s clothing items at the Give-Away Center. However, shortly after Lynn began shopping for clothing, an employee at the Give-Away Center loudly told Lynn that ‘only men were allowed in the men’s section’ and ‘only women were allowed in the women’s section.’ The employee went on to later say that because Lynn’s identification said female, they could not take any clothing from the men’s section.
“I was embarrassed,” Lynn says. “There were more than a handful of other people inside the Center. At that point, I just wanted to get away from there. I didn’t think I could do anything about it at that time.”
When volunteers at GLAD Answers, our legal information line, learned about Lynn’s experience at the Give-Away Center, Staff Attorney Allison Wright met with Lynn and Emily to discuss the encounter.
What they described to Wright was a breach of Massachusetts Public Accommodation Law, which prohibits discrimination by any place that is open to the public. When it was revealed that, in the past, some of Emily’s white and non-transgender female clients had been allowed to shop in both the men’s and women’s sections, it became clear that Lynn was denied access to the clothing in the men’s section at the Give-Away Center not only because of Lynn’s sex and gender identity, but also because of Lynn’s race and color.
Wright filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in January 2017. Springfield Rescue Mission moved to dismiss the case by arguing their religious character exempted them from coverage under the Massachusetts Public Accommodation Law. Wright has since submitted a rebuttal to Springfield Rescue Mission’s position statement and an opposition to Springfield Rescue Mission’s motion to dismiss the case.
The irony of Springfield Rescue Mission rejecting a person in need is not lost on Lynn. But it hasn’t chipped away at their determination.
“They are supposed to help, that’s their purpose. I just want the Give-Away Center to be educated on how to treat people fairly.”
This case marks a turning point in Lynn’s journey through resilience, which began in childhood.
“I identified as transgender as early as eight or nine years old,” says Lynn, now in their 40s. “I didn’t know what was going on and I would think, ‘Why me?’ I had trouble being accepted for being me, and didn’t have any support in those early years.”
When Lynn was just 11 years old, their hair started falling out. “My mom took me to our primary care physician. He told us my hair loss was due to high stress.”
Bullying in school, an unsupportive family and societal unacceptance were all contributing stressors. Eventually, the rejection by family and peers sent Lynn down a path of depression, substance use, poverty and attempts at suicide.
“I hated that feeling of thinking something was wrong with me,” Lynn says. “The verbal and emotional abuse was really overwhelming and I just wanted to cover it up with something. And yeah, there were times when I wanted to end things. I took a bunch of pills at one point and wound up in the emergency room.”
Although Lynn has a good relationship with their mother today, she has not always been accepting of Lynn’s identity as a transgender person.
“It’s been a long haul with my mom, but it’s good now,” Lynn says. “We have a good relationship. My dad – not so much. He didn’t accept my identity, and thought it was a bad thing. He just didn’t understand.”
Lynn’s long battle with poverty and substance abuse is one that is all too common among LGBTQ youth, particularly LGBTQ youth of color. Research has shown that LGBTQ youth may use substances at higher rates than their peers, an outcome linked to family rejection and discrimination related to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Additionally, a disproportionate number of LGBTQ youth who are homeless are youth of color.
A 2014 survey of human service providers serving the youth homeless population in the U.S. reported that 31 percent of their LGBTQ clients identify as African American and 14 percent identify as Latino/Hispanic.
“Dealing with my family dynamic over my identity – an identity they did not accept – it was a slippery slope. If my family had been more supportive, they could have helped me through it.”
Despite the challenges, Lynn remains resilient. And they hope to encourage others to stand up for who they are, too.
“You should feel comfortable as a person,” Lynn says, when asked what they would tell someone facing similar circumstances. “If you find yourself in the same situation, you don’t have to face it alone. Stand up for yourself. Don’t let anybody think they can treat you like that.”
GLAD is proud to be working with Lynn in standing up against the discrimination they faced at the Springfield Rescue Mission. “This case speaks to the intersection of anti-LGBTQ discrimination with racism,” says Wright. “LGBTQ people of color often experience discrimination because of their LGBTQ status and their racial or ethnic backgrounds. It is no surprise then that LGBTQ people of color are more likely to live in poverty, be victims of hate crimes, and disproportionately targeted and harmed by the criminal justice system.
“I am proud to represent Lynn,” Wright adds, “whose courage to act sends a powerful message to all places providing services to the public – that having a religious mission does not exempt them from a civil obligation to treat everyone fairly.”
“Even though I don’t know what the outcome will be, nobody deserves to go through what I did,” Lynn says. “I’m fighting against it with GLAD so it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”