What’s Best for Kids in Tennessee?

There are more than 443,000 children in the foster care system across the country and about 1,300 of those children live in Tennessee. For some of these children, foster homes are needed until they can return to their families. For others, adoption is the long-term goal.  And yet, there is a constant shortage of qualified families who step forward to welcome a foster or adoptive child in their homes.

Yet, lawmakers in Tennessee are currently considering legislation that would overlook the best interest of these children and instead allow state-contracted agencies to discriminate in choosing which families for placement. This legislation would harm the most vulnerable children in the state by limiting the families who could provide loving homes to them, simply because of who they are. Check out the Tennessee Equality Project for more information and ways to take action.

An ad, re-released and updated for 2019, from MAP, the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), entitled “Kids Pay the Price,” vividly depicts the kinds of harms children can face when agencies and workers are allowed to prioritize their individual beliefs over the best interests of children. In the ad, a social worker is depicted saying she would rather keep a child in foster care than allow her to be adopted by a qualified gay or lesbian couple; a child placement worker says that her agency has strict beliefs, and if parents are Jewish, she shouldn’t have to place kids in those homes; and a placement worker says he shouldn’t have to place children in homes that don’t share his belief in “spare the rod, spoil the child.”

Tennessee isn’t alone in considering this type of action. Recent events have reached a crisis point, with an increasing number of states and even the federal government permitting taxpayer-funded discrimination at the expense of vulnerable children who need safe and loving homes.

Most recently:

  • In January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services granted an exemption to the state of South Carolina to allow it to contract with agencies that refuse to consider families who do not meet a religious litmus test set by the agency. This waiver was precipitated by an agency that had turned away Jewish and Catholic perspective parents because they didn’t meet the agency’s Evangelical Christian standard.
  • Last year, three states passed legislation allowing agencies to discriminate.
  • A line item in the 2020 budget proposed by the Trump Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services states that the agency will allow child welfare programs to discriminate based on religious beliefs, following the issuance of the waiver to South Carolina’s Miracle Hill Ministries.

There is good news, however. Last month, the State of Michigan, in response to a lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of a lesbian couple turned away by state-contracted agencies, agreed to enforce nondiscrimination provisions in state child welfare contracts and to not permit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, race, and other characteristics. This brings the number of states that permit taxpayer-funded discrimination to eight (though two more states, Michigan and Alabama, permit discrimination by agencies that do not receive state contracts).

As Christine James-Brown, CEO and President of CWLA, explains at the end of the ad, “We have laws governing child services agencies for a reason,” James-Brown says in the ad. “When states allow adoption decisions to be based on a worker’s individual beliefs, rather than the best interests of children, it’s children who pay the price.”

 

Voices of Rural LGBT America: A Queer Latina Living in Rural Michigan

Stefani has lived in rural areas in both Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and the heavily-rural Upper Peninsula. From a young age, Stefani struggled with physical symptoms that doctors struggled to diagnose. In her rural town outside of Traverse City, the physicians she went to in search of support dismissed these symptoms as related to her weight or potential anxiety.

“When the doctors are uncomfortable with your body and who you are, they speak from that place of discomfort rather than medical knowledge,” she said.

In light of such invalidating and ineffective medical care, Stefani coped with her symptoms for years until moving to the Upper Peninsula for college. When she sought medical help again, the student center doctors believed her, but referred her to specialists outside the university system. Stefani recalls, “the specialists couldn’t get over the fact that I was queer, let alone fat, let alone Latina. All of which prevented them from seeing me as a serious patient with serious symptoms.” Again, the doctors attributed her symptoms to her weight, or dismissed them as anxiety attacks. One doctor even told her, “women have these attacks.”

Eventually, Stefani’s mom, who had extensive experience navigating the medical system after working as a medical interpreter for migrant workers, drove over eight hours to go with her daughter to the doctor.

“Just having her as a validator of my experiences was so important. If I wouldn’t have had that back up, I don’t think I ever would’ve gotten my diagnosis. But I had the privilege of her experiences, and her ability to make that trip for me. I really believe I would’ve had a different experience in a non-rural environment because I could’ve gone to a different doctor who believed me. …It’s just like any rural place: we don’t have enough access to health care outside of the big cities.”

Even in the largest city in the region, Stefani points out, “there are extremely few specialists, so you’re stuck with them unless you can afford to travel. And, even when you find an accepting doctor, they may have never knowingly treated an LGBT patient. So, you end up having to educate your own doctor about how they need to treat you.”

While Stefani’s experiences in rural settings include these stories of discrimination and poor treatment, she says she ultimately loves living in rural Michigan. LGBT people living in rural communities have many positive experiences and reasons for living where they live–whether because it’s where they grew up or their families live; because they seek a closer connection to nature; or because they moved there for a job opportunity. Stefani moved to the Upper Peninsula for college and chose to stay there because she loved it.

“What I like definitely outweighs the negative experiences that I’ve had. This is my ninth year here and I wouldn’t still be living in a rural environment if it didn’t call to me. My parents live in Detroit and I could easily move there if I wanted. My work as an activist is most needed in this place. I can find really enriching opportunities to help people who don’t have access to any formalized resources. The rural LGBT community that gets built is so strong and so resilient and really willing to come together and be supportive in ways I haven’t found as much in big cities. Here, they really show up for you.”

Where We Call Home: LGBT People in Rural America, the latest report from MAP, released in partnership with the Equality Federation, the National Black Justice Coalition, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, seeks to raise the visibility of LGBT people living in rural America. And while the report documents key challenges facing LGBT people, including lack of vital legal protections and meaningful political representation, it also showcases the joys and rewards of living in rural America for LGBT people and their families.

Voices of Rural LGBT America: One Dad’s Story of Looking for Work in Montana

Last week, MAP published a comprehensive look at the lives of LGBT people living in rural America. Released in partnership with the Equality Federation, the National Black Justice Coalition, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Where We Call Home: LGBT People in Rural America highlights both the joys and challenges of rural LGBT people in many areas of life.

Integral to understanding – and then advocating for – the lives of rural LGBT people is hearing their stories.

Bert lives with his husband, Dan, in Miles City, Montana, a town with a population of 8,483. Bert’s story highlights the extent to which employment options can be limited, particularly for LGBT people, in rural communities because of discrimination and the lack of employment protections.

After losing his job close to home, Bert applied to a job 70 miles away at St. Labre Indian School, a private Catholic high school serving children from neighboring Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations. As both a Catholic and a Blackfeet Native American, Bert felt this was a natural fit, and that he and Dan would figure out a way to make the long commute work. He excitedly accepted the well-paying job when the school offered it to him.

But when Bert looked for housing at the school, in case bad weather ever meant he needed to stay nearby rather than make the long drive home to his family, he mentioned his husband and children to the St. Labre employee showing him available housing. A few days later, Bert received a call from the school’s administrator, asking him to come speak with the entire school board.

“Are you a practicing homosexual?” the board asked Bert. “Why didn’t you mention this when we asked in your interview if you lived by Catholic values?” they asked. Bert explains what happened next: “I live my life by the morals and values I was taught in Catholic school, so of course I answered truthfully that I live by Catholic values. I didn’t think this was a problem.” The school rescinded the job offer, leaving Bert without a job to provide for his family.  Eventually he found another job, but for considerably less pay than what St. Labre had offered.

LGBT people in rural areas shouldn’t have to choose between living in communities where they have supportive family and friends and deep roots, and providing for themselves and their families.

Yet, because the United States lacks comprehensive, explicit federal protections for LGBT people at work, and because rural states are far less likely to have LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination laws in employment, housing, public accommodations and more, this is a choice that many LGBT people are forced to make, particularly because there may be fewer job opportunities and they may have to travel a farther distance to find work.

Ensuring that all people can live and thrive in the communities big and small requires action by lawmakers and advocacy and support on the part of businesses, communities, and allies. Learn more about LGBT people’s experiences in rural America in this new report from MAP and what can be done to advance equality across the country.

NEW REPORT: Where We Call Home: LGBT People in Rural America

Popular culture images of LGBT people suggest that most LGBT people live in cities or on the coasts. Yet 2.9 – 3.8 million LGBT people call rural America home.

Today, the Movement Advancement Project released a new report, Where We Call Home: LGBT People in Rural America, which examines the structural differences in rural life and their unique impact on LGBT people in rural areas, who are both more vulnerable to discrimination and less able to respond to its harmful effects. Among other challenges, rural LGBT people are less likely to have explicit nondiscrimination protections, are more likely to live in areas with religious exemption laws that may allow service providers to discriminate, and have fewer alternatives when facing discrimination, as detailed in a new report released today.

Click here to read the exclusive USA Today article about the report.

Although LGBT people in rural areas face many of the same challenges as their neighbors, they experience different consequences, and the many structural challenges of living in rural communities can often amplify LGBT people’s experiences of both acceptance and rejection. The report findings include that:

  • The interconnectedness of rural communities leads to ripple effectsacross many aspects of life. For example, if a person is excluded from their faith community for being gay, they may have a difficult time at work or finding a job, because their church members may also be their coworkers or potential employers. Conversely, if a rural church community or employer takes a supportive stand for local LGBT residents, that support can also ripple outward to other areas of life.
  • When LGBT people (and particularly LGBT people of color) in rural areas do face discrimination, they may have no or fewer alternatives to find a restaurant, doctor, job, home, faith community, and more. And, more service providers in rural areas are religiously-affiliated and are covered under religious exemption laws that may allow them to discriminate, even when providing public services.
  • LGBT people in rural areas are more vulnerable to discrimination. Rural areas are more likely to lack explicit nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people and more likely to have laws allowing religious service providers to turn LGBT people away.

Click here to view infographics pulled from Where We Call Home: LGBT People in Rural America

LGBT people live in rural areas for the same reasons as other people, such as love of family, the strength of tight-knit rural communities, and connection to the land. However, the social and political landscape of rural America means that rural LGBT people are more vulnerable to discrimination. This is why nondiscrimination laws are vital, so that rural LGBT people don’t have to choose between basic protections and the place they call home.

The report is released in partnership with the Equality Federation, the National Black Justice Coalition, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

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