By Thomas McGann
Lambda Legal is a civil rights organization that specializes in lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender (LBGT) rights, as well as those living with AIDS/HIV.
In 1971, Lambda Legal’s founder William J. Thom was sitting around a pool in the Fire Island Pines lamenting the frequent arrests of local gay men. Before being a liquor store owner, the recently deceased Jack Lichtenstein, a lawyer who often took his boat across the bay to bail out those arrested, suggested that an organization be formed to protect gay rights. Thom picked up the ball and submitted nonprofit incorporation papers to the New York courts. Lambda Legal became its own first client when the application was denied on the grounds that its proposed activities would be contrary to public policy, i.e. its mission was “neither benevolent nor charitable.”
Undaunted, Thom appealed to New York’s highest court and the court finally ruled in his favor, allowing it to become a non-profit organization. Lambda Legal considers its date of incorporation as 10/18/73, marking 45 years of hard fought battles for LBGT rights.
The three original leaders of Lambda Legal were Bill Thom, E. Carrington Boggan and Michael Lavery. In 1974, Nathalie Rockhill was the first woman elected to the board. She, among others, had founded the National Gay Task Force, the first national gay rights group in America. As a major figure in the post Stonewall days, her move to Lambda Legal was warmly welcomed and by the 1980s men and women were equally represented on the board of directors.
Since 1973, the few who volunteered their time has now expanded into a staff of more than 90 experts, gay and straight. Its national headquarters is in New York, with satellite offices in Atlanta, Georgia, Chicago, Illinois, Dallas, Texas, Los Angeles, California, and Washington, D.C. Its mission statement reads: “Lambda Legal is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and everyone living with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work.”
Besides winning its most important lawsuit, the right to its own existence, Lambda Legal has won several high profile cases that have forever changed the course of American history. Among the more significant cases are:
• Romer v. Evans – In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled by a vote of 6-3 that LBGT individuals have the same constitutionally protected rights as any other citizen.
• Brandon v. Richardson County – In one of its most highly publicized victories, Lambda Legal appealed the case of Brandon Teena, a transgender woman living as a man, who was brutally raped, and later killed. The sheriff’s department not only provided Teena no protection, but also notified the rapists that Teena had pressed charges against them. Their negligence resulted in his murder. After Teena’s mother sued and lost, Lambda Legal took up the case. They appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court, which found in their favor stating that the sheriff’s abuse of Teena during the rape investigation was “extreme and outrageous, beyond all possible bounds of decency, and is to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”
This case was the basis for the critically acclaimed movie “Boys Don’t Cry” for which Hillary Swank won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2000.
• Lawrence v. Texas – In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled, 6-3, that sodomy between consenting adults in private was constitutionally protected. At the time this new ruling was considered as the most important legal victory for LBGT rights.
• Obergefell v. Hodges – In 2015, Lambda Legal was co-counsel when the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, held that same sex marriages would be recognized as legal, overruling its own prior decision. In a previous precedent setting case, Varnum v. Brien, Lambda Legal won a unanimous decision making Iowa the first state to recognize marriage equality.
Lambda Legal has been involved in other historic cases but it considers the 2003 win striking down sodomy laws, and the 2015 marriage equality ruling as its two most important victories granting equal dignity to all LBGT individuals.
Lambda Legal is presently involved in numerous lawsuits. Among them are Karnoski v. Trump, attempting to lift the ban on transgender individuals in the military; Harrison v. Mattis, which challenges the military’s policy preventing enlistment, deployment, or commissioning as an officer any person living with HIV; and Marouf v. Azar concerning the denial of gay couples to serve as foster parents because they did not “mirror the Holy Family.”
Over the years, Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove have offered refuge in an unfriendly world unwilling to accept gay proclivities. After decades of struggle that resulted in victories as well as defeats, Fire Island still provides that safe haven while facing a future of new challenges, not the least of which are Supreme Court nominations.
Lambda Legal has been hosting fundraisers in the Pines for 40 years, the longest, continuous LBGT fundraiser in the country. Todd Sears who has hosted Lambda Legal in the Pines for years is doing so again this year on July 21. In 2015 Todd instituted the Pines 20 in an effort to raise $5,000 each from 20 individuals or couples. He now intends to call the group the Pines 78 in recognition of the year of Lambda Legal’s first fundraiser. He has been extremely successful, raising over $140,000 dollars last year alone.
Going forward Lambda Legal sees protecting the rights of immigrants, Muslims, people of color and the LBGT community as their biggest challenge and it does so not in fear but in solidarity with those communities.
The recent announced retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy from the Supreme Court adds to the importance of its efforts. Justice Kennedy was the swing vote in the 5-4 ruling legalizing same sex marriages. Here is his written opinion: “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
Equal dignity for the LBGT community is what Lambda Legal is all about.
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