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Congratulations to Lambda Legal
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 05/07/13
Last updated on: 05/07/13
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Congratulations to Lambda Legal, the largest glbtq legal advocacy group in the United States, on its 40th anniversary. In recognition of Lambda's four decades of fighting for the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans, as well as people with HIV/AIDS, President Barack Obama has extended his personal congratulations in a video in which he says, "Lambda Legal has been consistently in the forefront of ongoing efforts to fight discrimination, support young people and their families, and protect the safety and dignity of all. . . . Congratulations on your 40th anniversary."

The organization has its origins in the early post-Stonewall period. As the gay rights movement was gaining momentum, several lawyers, including William Thom, decided to form a legal organization to assist gay men and lesbians. The group's first court battle was for its own right to exist. A panel of New York judges unanimously rejected their application as a nonprofit organization, finding in 1972 that their mission was "neither benevolent nor charitable" as required by law.

Thom persevered, however, and won a reversal in the New York Court of Appeals. The organization was formally incorporated in 1973 and received federal tax-exempt status the following year.

The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund was initially housed in a spare room in the New York apartment of a supporter. With funds and personnel both scarce, the organization's early work consisted mainly of filing amicus curiae briefs in cases involving the civil rights of glbtq people.

In its early years Lambda Legal successfully assisted clients fighting discrimination in cases of wrongful dismissal from employment, parental visitation rights, custody of foster children, and the recognition of gay and lesbian student organizations, among other issues.

Under the leadership of Tim Sweeney, who became Lambda Legal's executive director in 1981, the organization became truly national.

In the 1980s Lambda Legal worked on such issues as unfair employment practices and took the lead in challenging the military policy of giving dishonorable discharges to gay and lesbian service members. During the AIDS epidemic, people with HIV/AIDS turned to Lambda Legal when they were denied medical treatment or insurance coverage, were dismissed from their jobs, or evicted from their homes. Lambda Legal's efforts led to a 1983 ruling that disability laws prohibit discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS.

Lambda Legal also fought sodomy laws and solicitation statutes. After a devastating loss in the U. S. Supreme Court in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), Lambda Legal began targeting sodomy laws in state rather than federal courts, and succeeded in striking down laws in Kentucky, Tennessee, Montana, and, perhaps most satisfyingly, even in Georgia, where Bowers v. Hardwick had originated.

In 1992, Kevin Cathcart, who had been Executive Director of Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, joined Lambda Legal as Executive Director. He quickly earned a reputation as a leading strategist of the movement to achieve equal rights for glbtq people, as well as people with HIV.

He has presided over a period of great growth, both in the size of the organization and in the scope of its work.

Under Cathcart's direction, Lambda Legal was the lead counsel in two of the most significant cases in the history of the gay rights movement: Romer v. Evans (1996) and Lawrence v. Texas (2003).

In Romer, the Supreme Court invalidated a constitutional amendment passed by referendum in Colorado that impermissibly classified "homosexuals not to further a proper legislative end but to make them unequal to everyone else." In Lawrence, Lambda Legal represented two men who were arrested in Houston while having consensual sex at home. The case culminated in the Supreme Court of the United States not only striking down all remaining sodomy laws as unconstitutional, but also recognizing the dignity "as free persons" of homosexual citizens.

Lambda Legal has also pioneered in using state and federal courts to achieve marriage equality, to fight bullying, and to protect student rights.

From its distinctly modest beginnings, with a few dedicated volunteer lawyers working out of a spare room, Lambda Legal has grown to become the largest glbtq legal advocacy organization in the United States, and one of the most effective.

The following video highlights some of Lambda Legal's most important cases.

In the video below, President Obama congratulates Lambda Legal on its 40th anniversary of advocacy.

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