Stefan Johnson, director of Lambda Legal’s Los Angeles-based Legal Help Desk, is someone you want on the end of the line in times of need. Johnson has been staffing the call-in center for 21 years because he cares.
“When I graduated from law school, I went into the District Attorney’s office in Portland and Multnomah County, Oregon, and I did trial level work prosecuting misdemeanors and felonies. I did about a hundred trials,” Johnson tells the Los Angeles Blade.
But being a prosecutor lost its luster since “the environment that was not conducive to coming out as a gay man.” In 1998, Johnson volunteered for Lambda Legal in LA, starting on the Help Desk as a paralegal. He was brought on officially as the Help Desk attorney around 2004 and subsequently became the Help Desk director.
“I just wanted a different way to be a lawyer and to make a meaningful difference. And this fell into my lap,” Johnson said. “I’ve been here ever since.”
Now Lambda’s Legal Help Desk is staffed by four attorneys who handle different regions of the country.
“To be perfectly blunt, we cannot directly assist most of the calls because no LGBTQ litigation organization is set up to directly represent everyone,” he says. But they are instrumental in providing resources and helping them receive assistance.
“For instance, we had one caller from a Southern state whose child was gender nonconforming and the school did not want that child to wear earrings and we were able to give that mother some assistance in advocating for themselves and that made the school relent and they let the child wear earrings,” Johnson says.
The Lambda Legal Help Desk “is a safe and confidential space to empower the LGBTQ, HIV positive community members, and allies in self-advocacy and an understanding of their civil rights because we provide legal information, education, and to be sources in furtherance of Lambda Legal’s mission,” Johnson says. “We try to leave callers a little bit better often when they first called us. So, they will either be empowered to have tools in which to self- advocate, they’ll have education on what their civil rights are or they will have legal information on how to better equip themselves with getting legal assistance.”
Lambda Legal has a database network of 2,500 to 3,000 cooperating attorneys network, which is a database of attorneys around the country who serve as resources for Lambda Legal’s callers through Lambdalegal.org/help.
“I’m very proud of this: we are the only LGBT/HIV-positive legal organization where their Help Desk has this outreach function that does legal work for communities,” he says. “We’re the only one that is fully staffed by full time lawyers. I think that that’s an accomplishment that Lambda Legal should tout.”
Lambda Legal’s mission is divided into three categories: Sexual orientation, gender identity, and HIV status with calls under various sub-issues.
“If you’re talking about sexual orientation, the highest number of calls that we get now is for discrimination in the workplace,” he says. “And this is why it’s important that we pass the Equality Act, even though the Supreme court cases are now under review interpreting Title Seven as whether that they cover sexual orientation and gender identity. That’s still a persistent problem that we see in our calls.”
The third highest number of calls under the category of Sexual Orientation regards harassment and violence. “I don’t think that most people would think that that would be something that we see a lot of, that that is an issue within the LGBT community, but it is.”
In the category of gender identity, the most calls the Help Desk receives are regarding identity documents, “fFolks who want to change their birth certificate, their driver’s licenses, their passports. Now we’re even getting calls about people who want to change their marriage licenses because they have transitioned since they have married and now they want to have their marriage license reflect their new name.”
The second number of calls comes from trans prison inmates asking for assistance in getting hormone treatment or “surgery to reflect their true identity or for them to be classified as the gender for which they identify and housed accordingly. And that is just a problem within our system, within our country that needs to be addressed more.”
The Help Desk also gets a lot of calls regarding youth in schools, “particularly from trans youth whose gender identity is not being respected. They’re being forced to use restrooms that are not consistent with the gender identity. They’ve just being harassed and bullied at school because of their gender identity.”
The Help Desk also receives a number of calls regarding HIV discrimination or exposure of their status in the workplace, as well as from prisoners not receiving their HIV medication on time or at all.
“As of October 31st, we’ve gotten 4,595 calls,” Johnson says. “That’s 10 months. So it should be about 450 calls a month that we’ve gotten over 2019. That is a lot of a calls. And it’s only four of us doing it so we are quite busy.”
From the Help Desk site:
Is this an emergency?
If you are an LGBT person in crisis, please contact a crisis hotline. If you feel like you are in danger, please contact your local authorities.
GLBT National Hotline:
GLBT National Youth Talkline
GBLT National Senior Hotline:
Transgender, non-binary, and gender-questioning people
Photo: Stefan Johnson, Legal Help Desk Director (Photo courtesy Lambda Legal)