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Lambda Legal: Making LGBTQ+ history for 50 years

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Tyron Garner (left) and John Geddes Lawrence (right) celebrate their Supreme Court win in the landmark Lawrence v. Texas case in Houston, 2003 — Photo by Erich Schlegel / AP
Tyron Garner (left) and John Geddes Lawrence (right) celebrate their Supreme Court win in the landmark Lawrence v. Texas case in Houston, 2003 — Photo by Erich Schlegel / AP

For the last 50 years, one organization has been essential in protecting LGBTQ+ rights and pushing for national change. In 1973, Lambda Legal opened its doors in New York City to fight for change through the courts of the United States.

"If you look at the history of our movement, many, if not most, of the [advances] we've achieved have come through litigation, not legislation," said CEO Kevin Jennings. "Lambda Legal has been at the forefront of that litigation. So, the history of Lambda is incredibly impressive."

Fighting from the beginning
The organization has been fighting from its very conception. When it first applied for charity status, New York rejected Lambda Legal's application.

"The state of New York ruled that our work was neither benevolent nor charitable, and there was no need for our organization," Jennings said. "So, we were our first client."

Lambda Legal sued the state and won.

That case was just the beginning. The organization has fought many historic battles for the LGBTQ+ community since. In 1983, it won the country's first lawsuit regarding the rights of HIV-positive patients. Just two years after AIDS was first reported in the US, it teamed up with the attorney general's office in The People vs. 12 West Tenant Corporation when an AIDS physician was nearly evicted from his clinic for treating HIV-positive patients.

Standing with HIV-positive people
Lambda Legal is still fighting for the rights of HIV-positive people today. "Now, the problem is that discrimination continues, and the two biggest perpetrators of this discrimination are the US military and the police," Jennings said.

Currently, the organization is fighting a legal battle with West Point Preparatory Academy after it revoked the admission of a student upon learning that he had tested positive for HIV. "It turns out our military has an antiquated policy that bans enlistment by people who are HIV positive," Jennings said. Lambda Legal is hoping to get those policies struck down.

The organization is also fighting the Nashville Police Department, in which another client was terminated due to their HIV status.

Photo courtesy of Lambda Legal  

Stepping up efforts
Lambda Legal's defense team includes just 30 attorneys. However, with active cases in many states currently, the team would be nowhere without the countless hours of work donated by pro bono attorneys and firms across the country.

"We've had wonderful support from law firms across the country, like Perkins Coie, from Seattle," Jennings said. "We're fairly small: we only have about 30 attorneys, and we're arguing over 80 lawsuits in over 20 states. We could never do that with only 30 attorneys. We can only do that through the pro bono help we receive."

With a steep increase in legislative attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, Lambda Legal has stepped up its efforts to challenge as many unfair laws as possible.

"We adopted a strategic plan about three years ago, whose focus is to win new protections for the most vulnerable... while defending our community from attacks," Jennings explained. "Among some of the most vulnerable groups are Trans people, LGBTQ+ youth, LGBTQ+ seniors, and people living with HIV. And the attacks speak for themselves. There have been nearly 600 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced into 47 state legislatures this year, and in over 20 states, they're now law."

"We have our work cut out for us, and ... one of our top priorities right now is to use the courts to stop the imposition of laws that cause enormous harm to our community, especially to our Trans and Nonbinary members," he continued. "As I mentioned, those laws have passed now in over 20 states. We are actively litigating in over 20 states right now, trying to stop them. We expect this will go to the Supreme Court, and it's both a terrifying and exciting time, simultaneously."

"The freedom to be who you want"
While Washington is a fairly progressive state, Lambda Legal is working hard to fight discriminatory laws passed in neighboring areas. "Right now, we are trying to put out fires in places like Idaho and Montana, while people like Sen. Peterson are making Washington state a safe space for LGBTQ+ people," Jennings said. "The neighbors are going in the opposite direction, so we are primarily focused on places like Idaho and Montana more than Washington state at the moment."

The organization has scored some recent victories in the conservative parts of the Northwest. This month, it secured a preliminary injunction in Montana against a gender-affirming care ban.

"Lambda Legal has fought for freedom for 50 years," Jennings said. "First, it was the freedom to love who you wanted, then it was the freedom to marry who you wanted, and now it is the freedom to be who you want.

"We are fundamentally about freedom, and our opponents are fundamentally about telling other people how to live their lives and using the government as a tool to do so. I think that is very disturbing."

Essential to LGBTQ+ history
Lambda Legal has been an essential part of LGBTQ+ history. Along with the American Civil Liberties Union, it represented John Geddes Lawrence Jr., a man arrested in Texas under anti-Gay sodomy laws in 2003. It successfully argued against the law, which was struck down by the Supreme Court. The organization was also an influential co-counsel in the 2015 Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, which secured marriage equality.

While Jennings admits the organization has felt discouraged by the conservative-leaning court's ruling in recent cases, such as Dobbs v. Jackson, which overturned Roe v. Wade, he still has hope.

"Lambda Legal has had to fight hard from day one. I know we're in the middle of a very hard and very dark time in the country right now," Jennings said, "but you know what? Lambda Legal has been through hard and dark times before.

"We've been here for 50 years. We'll be here for another 50, and we'll do whatever it takes to continue to be here for LGBTQ+ people, and whatever it takes to be here for people with HIV. We're not stopping now."