Lambda Legal marks 40th anniversary

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Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund has just celebrated its 40th year of fighting for LGBT civil rights. The organization’s mission, as stated on its website, is to “achieve full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work.” 

Lambda Legal is the largest and oldest organization of its kind in the United States, and in its honor, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has declared May 6, 2013 as Lambda Legal Day; his full proclamation can be seen here

Lambda Legal began as just a few volunteers, headquartered in a member’s apartment. Its first court battle was over its own right to exist, after its application to register with the New York Courts as a nonprofit organization was denied; due to an intensely homophobic social climate, a panel of judges called Lambda’s goals “neither benevolent nor charitable.”

Lambda Legal, with the aid of pro bono legal help, fought the ruling. It took two years, but after getting the decision overturned in New York’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals, an injunction was issued that allowed Lambda to be legally established in 1973.

Since then, Lambda Legal has stayed true to its roots, representing or advocating for plaintiffs at no charge to them; it relies solely on donations from supporters. One of its first cases after establishment was Gay Student Organization v. Bonner, in which they successfully fought the University of New Hampshire’s ban on an LGBT group’s school activities.

In the 1980s, Lambda Legal helped set a legal precedent establishing that discrimination on the basis of HIV status is illegal, and forced insurance companies to cover testing and treatments for HIV/AIDS. The organization also contributed to establishing HIV-positive peoples’ right to confidentiality regarding medical records and test results, as well as fighting homophobic policies in community groups, corporations, and the government.

Victories of the 1990s included the rights of students to establish Gay-Straight Alliances, making schools accountable for anti-LGBT violence and harassment, and continuing to break down homophobic policies in government and elsewhere.

Especially notable was the Romer v. Evans case, where Lambda Legal’s role was pivotal in convincing the U.S. Supreme Court to declare Colorado’s Amendment 2, which would have banned any governmental body in the state from enacting laws against homophobia-based discrimination, unconstitutional; the ruling established that LGBT people have the same right as other groups to seek protection from discrimination. 

In 2000, Lambda Legal helped bring the transgender community more visibility than ever before, when it successfully argued that a sheriff was indeed liable for his actions prior to the murder of a transgender man, Brandon Teena; the ruling also reinforced the notion that law enforcement is legally responsible for treating all victims of hate crimes fairly. 

The organization also had a part in the striking down of sodomy laws in multiple states, setting a precedent that contributed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas to overturn every such remaining law in the nation. The decision marked the complete decriminalization of consensual homosexual activity, which drastically changed the landscape of LGBT rights in the United States and thus made it arguably the most important legal victory the community has ever had.

Lambda Legal’s efforts have also been vital in the fight for marriage equality; in 2009, they contributed to  the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling that anything less than marriage equality is unconstitutional, which made Iowa the first Midwest state to legalize same-sex marriage.  As of this writing, the U.S. Supreme Court is for the first time in history hearing two cases about marriage equality in the same term,  and Lambda Legal is there to speak up for LGBT rights in both.

Lambda Legal could not respond to a request for comment, but Executive Director Kevin Cathcart said in an earlier statement, “To those who were part of this work 40 years ago”•happy anniversary to you, and thank you for your leadership and tenacity! To those who have joined this movement more recently “•the future is in our hands. We’re making the case for equality – and we’re not giving up until equality is achieved for all.” 

Also scheduled for May 6 is Lambda Legal’s hosting of the 27th Annual Liberty Awards National Dinner; the gala honors members of its Liberty Circle for their dedication and commitment towards achieving equality, as well as others who are making changes for the better within the LGBT community. 

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