USDA Plans Outreach Campaign, Rule Change Aimed At Rural LGBT Americans

    The USDA, working with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, is launching a campaign to address the needs and concerns of LGBT communities in rural areas. "This is part of the American dream and we are making sure that the LGBT community is covered in that American dream," a USDA senior official says of his office's work.

    The federal government is teaming up with an LGBT organization in coming months to launch an unprecedented outreach to LGBT people outside of the nation's urban centers — even as it works on finalizing a rule to ban anti-transgender discrimination in its programs.

    The United States Department of Agriculture, in conjunction with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, is launching the new campaign targeting LGBT Americans living in rural areas Wednesday.

    "You never know what could come out of this," Joe Leonard Jr., assistant secretary for civil rights at the USDA, told BuzzFeed. "In addition to getting out information on our programs, there could be things in the next farm bill that comes out of these listening sessions because heretofore we just didn't know."

    The campaign, or Rural Pride, will center around daylong summits hosted by the USDA, NCLR, and local LGBT advocacy partners based in rural communities across the country — the first of which will be held June 6 in Greensboro, N.C., in partnership with the LGBTQ Law Center at North Carolina A&T State University. Advocates and the USDA aim to "elevate" the needs of rural area LGBT people, who face numerous obstacles due to a lack of visibility, and to make them aware of USDA programs, according to Maya Rupert, policy director at NCLR.

    USDA programs — such as rural housing loans, community facility grants, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, youth programs, and community partnerships — can "strengthen the daily lives of LGBT rural community members," the USDA's description of the upcoming summit notes.

    "In the long run, it's a win-win for the country," Leonard said. "What we're endeavoring to pursue is courting the LGBT community and letting them know about all the different things that USDA does. We're building on the program side, but what I know is that we're going to end up getting better employees, we're going to end up having better farmers, provide better homes to people who heretofore had to go through a bank and didn't know they could go to USDA."

    Rural LGBT communities are often victimized based on the combination of their LGBT identities and other factors like socioeconomic status, race, and lack of rights under the law like marriage equality and nondiscrimination protections, according to Rupert. Members of the transgender community — particularly transgender people of color — are particularly vulnerable and experience higher rates of poverty, homelessness, and unemployment than cisgender, or non-transgender, people, she said. On top of that, findings from the 2010 U.S. census show that same-sex couples raising children are more common in the South than anywhere else.

    "What we want to do is dismantle some of these myths that the LGBT community doesn't live in rural areas, that they are wealthy, and then also talk about the policies that would impact these peoples' lives," Rupert said. "As we experience an unprecedented number of LGBT equality victories across the country, many people living in rural communities have not seen the full impact of these victories simply because of where they live. We wanted to give people the opportunity to talk to the USDA officials and advocates and say, 'These are the things we need.'"

    Additionally, the USDA has worked with NCLR to craft a nondiscrimination rule that would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity in programs facilitated by the USDA, such as its homeownership loan program, which assists low or moderate income rural people in purchasing or building a home. The rule would also apply to its Community Facility Program when it is approved. USDA officials say they are in the final phases of the plan with the White House. USDA already prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

    "Housing has always been an issue in communities of color and the LGBT community, so this is important," Leonard said. "This rule guarantees that if someone comes there who is transgender, you cannot discriminate against them in regard to that. Our single-family housing is a vertical elevator up. It's our safety net. This is the person who is trying to build equity, this is the person who is trying to move from multifamily housing to their own home."

    The timing on the rule, however, is less than clear, Ashlee Davis, the special assistant for civil rights at USDA, told BuzzFeed: "We don't know anything about timeline. We're hopeful, though, that it will happen soon. The first round of comments from the White House Office of Management and Budget were incredibly positive, so we feel very confident."

    The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced in 2012 it would ban discrimination in its housing programs based on sexual orientation or gender identity. "HUD has the authority over [housing in] urban areas, we cover rural areas," Leonard said. "So, if anything, instead of a blanket on a bed covering 25% of the bed, it covers the entire bed."

    The summits, for their part, will mark the first time the USDA has conducted outreach specifically for the LGBT community. Throughout the campaign, USDA and NCLR will take feedback from rural LGBT Americans across the country, which Rupert hopes will translate into new policies and programs or even a working group within the USDA that will specifically oversee LGBT rural issues. "We need somebody who knows about health, lending, housing, transportation, and faith communities to all come together and say this is what we need to do and where we need to go from here," she said.

    Both Rupert and Leonard anticipate the needs of LGBT Americans in some rural areas will be different from others, as marriage rights and nondiscrimination protections vary from state to state. Additional summits will be based on feedback during the campaign, as well as input from advocates in rural areas.

    "This is part of the American dream and we are making sure that the LGBT community is covered in that American dream and then we are going to very pointedly and directly make sure that other programs are known in the LGBT community," Leonard said. "This is probably the most important thing I'll ever do as assistant secretary for civil rights because it's never been done before."