Lambda Legal Defense

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The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund is a non-profit, tax-exempt, public interest law firm, dedicated to the protection of lesbian and gay rights. Its stated mission is to "achieve full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS through impact litigation, education, and public policy work." Lambda has participated, either as counsel or as amicus curiae (friend of the court), in some of the most important cases of the modern lesbian and gay civil rights movement. More recently it has represented transgender litigants as well. Headquartered in New York City since its incorporation in 1973, Lambda has established four regional offices and a national network of cooperating attorneys, making it the largest lesbian and gay legal organization in the country.

Formation of Lambda

In the early 1970s, William Thom, E. Carrington Boggan, and several other gay lawyers gathered informally in New York City to discuss the possibility of forming a public interest law firm whose purpose would be to further the cause of gay rights. New York State law at the time forbade the practice of law by a corporation or association unless the organization was "organized for benevolent or charitable purposes, or for the purpose of assisting persons without means in the pursuit of any civil remedy." Basing its charter and petition on that of the recently approved Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, Thom applied to the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court for approval.

Lambda's purposes, as stated in its application to the court, were to provide

without charge legal services in those situations which give rise to legal issues having a substantial effect on the legal rights of homosexuals; to promote the availability of legal services to homosexuals by encouraging and attracting homosexuals into the legal profession; to disseminate to homosexuals general information concerning their legal rights and obligations, and to render technical assistance to any legal services corporation or agency in regard to legal issues affecting homosexuals.

In 1972 the Appellate Division unanimously rejected the application, proclaiming that the stated purposes were "neither benevolent nor charitable." The New York Court of Appeals, New York State's highest court, reversed the lower court. On 18 October 1973, the lower court approved Thom's application and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund was officially incorporated and authorized to practice law. In July 1974 the Internal Revenue Service granted Lambda tax-exempt status under Section 501 (c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Code, making it the first gay rights organization to gain tax-exempt charitable status from the federal government.

Lambda's Early Days

In the early days, Lambda was short on staff and money and thus not in a position to offer direct representation to aggrieved lesbians and gay men. Its primary activity was to file appellate briefs as amicus curiae in cases dealing with lesbian and gay issues, particularly in those cases in which positive arguments on behalf of gay men and lesbians had not been presented by legal counsel.

Despite the paucity of funds, Lambda did provide direct representation in some key early cases. In 1977, when the ACLU decided not to appeal the case of Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, which challenged the military's ban on homosexuals, Lambda's general counsel, E. Carrington Boggan, agreed to handle the case himself, provided Matlovich could forward the necessary costs of litigation. And in 1979 Lambda's president, Margot Karle, served as co-counsel in People v. Onofre, a case in which the New York Court of Appeals declared New York State's sodomy statute unconstitutional under the federal Constitution.

Lambda operated with minimal staff and on a shoestring budget until the early 1980s. Under the leadership of Tim Sweeney, executive director from 1981 to 1986, Lambda's financial situation improved significantly. The annual budget grew from approximately $70,000 to over $350,000 in just four years. Sweeney pushed to add full-time professional staff to the organization. In 1983 Abby Rubenfeld joined the Lambda staff as its first managing attorney (renamed "legal director" several years later). In 1984 Nancy Langer was appointed as Lambda's first full-time public information director. With the growth in financial support, Lambda began to focus on transforming itself from a New York organization to a more national one. In 1980 a new national board of directors was elected, with an emphasis on geographical diversity.

After Sweeney announced his resignation in 1985, Tom Stoddard was selected as executive director. From 1986 to 1992 Stoddard transformed Lambda from a $350,000-a-year public interest law firm with a staff of six to a firm with a $1,800,000 annual budget and a staff of twenty-two. Under Stoddard's leadership, Lambda also opened its first regional office in Los Angeles.

As Lambda's first legal director (1983–1988), Abby Rubenfeld handled Lambda's growing docket of cases and worked to make the docket consistent with Lambda's image as a national organization. Rubenfeld's tenure with Lambda coincided with Bowers v. Hardwick, a case challenging Georgia's sodomy statute that reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986. While the Hardwick case was on appeal, Lambda was working on another sodomy case, New York v. Uplinger, challenging a state loitering statute that had been used to arrest a gay man for soliciting sodomy from an undercover policeman. The Supreme Court had granted certiorari in Uplinger, raising concerns that Lambda's earlier victory in Onofre, striking down the New York sodomy statute on federal constitutional grounds, was at risk. At the same time, a Texas sodomy case, Baker v. Wade, was pending before the Fifth Circuit. To help coordinate litigation challenging sodomy statutes nationwide, Lambda organized the Ad Hoc Task Force to Challenge Sodomy Laws.

Because gay rights litigation included issues in addition to sodomy challenges, the original Task Force quickly grew to become the National Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights Roundtable. The group met three times a year in different locations. Before long it expanded to include academics and researchers who were also interested in national strategies to obtain equal rights for lesbians and gay men. In addition to the Roundtable, Lambda organized a monthly conference call for lawyers at lesbian and gay rights organizations around the country. Known as the National Litigators Strategy Project (later known as the Litigators' Roundtable), the conference call enabled each legal organization to stay abreast of the others' docket and to stay informed about precedents that would negatively or positively affect other cases.

Lambda at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century

In 1992 Kevin Cathcart became the new executive director of Lambda, following Tom Stoddard. Over the next ten years, under Cathcart's leadership, the Lambda staff tripled in number and the annual budget grew to over $6 million. Cathcart guided Lambda through the opening of its second, third, and fourth regional offices, based in Chicago (1993), Atlanta (1997), and Dallas (2002).

In addition to bringing groundbreaking cases, Lambda continued its role from the 1980s as a key organizer of the national network of lesbian and gay rights litigators. It also educated the public about discrimination against LGBT people and people with AIDS by working with the media, publishing educational pamphlets, participating in conferences, and providing guest speakers for schools and similar groups.

High-Profile Cases

Lambda's most important cases have been those with nationwide impact. For example, the 1993 Hawaii marriage case, Baehr v. Lewin, changed the national conversation about same-sex marriage, even though the litigation failed to establish same-sex marriage rights in Hawaii. Lambda attorney Evan Wolfson was co-counsel in the case. His work on Baehr v. Lewin led to the creation of Lambda's Marriage Project.

Lambda's first appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court occurred on 18 January 1983 in New York v. Uplinger. Lambda cooperating attorney, William Gardner from Buffalo, argued the case. In 1984 the Court voted five to four that certiorari had been improvidently granted, thereby preserving the state court decision in favor of Uplinger, which held that solicitation for sodomy was a constitutionally protected activity. While Uplinger was under consideration, Lambda worked behind the scenes on Bowers v. Hardwick.

Lambda lawyer Suzanne Goldberg was co-counsel in Romer v. Evans, in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an amendment to the Colorado constitution that discriminated against lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men. Romer was the first Supreme Court case to strike down an antigay law under the equal protection clause. Lambda also represented James Dale in his legal battle against the Boy Scouts of America. Lambda senior attorney Evan

Wolfson argued before the Supreme Court that the Boy Scouts did not have a first amendment right to be exempt from New Jersey's antidiscrimination laws. The Supreme Court disagreed and upheld the decision of the Boy Scouts to remove Dale from its membership.

In 2003, Lambda won a sweeping victory in the case of Lawrence v. Texas. This case began as a challenge in state court to Texas's same-sex sodomy statute. On facts very similar to the Bowers v. Hardwick case from 1986, the Texas courts, relying on Bowers, held that it was constitutionally permissible to criminalize consensual private same-sex sodomy. On 26 June 2003, the U. S. Supreme Court disagreed and reversed the convictions of the Texas men charged under the statute. Of greater import, however, was the court's pronouncement that " Bowers was not correct when it was decided and it is not correct today. It ought not to remain binding precedent. Bowersv. Hardwick should be and now is overruled." Many commentators claim that the victory in Lawrence is as important to the LGBT movement as Brown v. Topeka Board of Education was to the civil rights movement for race equality in the 1950s.


Cain, Patricia A. Rainbow Rights: The Role of Lawyers and Courts in the Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights Movement. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000.

Keen, Lisa, and Suzanne Goldberg. Strangers to the Law: Gay People on Trial. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. The Lambda Update Newsletter Archives. New York: Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Winter 1976–Spring 1992.

Lawrence v. Texas, 539 US_____ 123 S. Ct. 2472 (2003).

Patricia A. Cain

see alsoanti-discrimination law and policy; boy scouts and girl scouts; disability, disabled people, and disability movements; family law and policy; federal law and policy; military law and policy; privacy and privacy rights; rights of association and assembly; sodomy, buggery, crimes against nature, disorderly conduct, and lewd and lascivious law and policy; youth and youth groups.

in re thom

301 n.e.2d 542 (N.Y. 1973) (reversing lower court and holding that Lambda should be granted corporate charter).

people v. onofre

415 n.e.2d 936 (n.y. 1980), cert. denied, 415 u.s. 987 (1981) (holding that state criminalization of consensual private sodomy violated federal constitution).

bowers v. hardwick

478 u.s. 186 (1986) (upholding georgia's sodomy statute against claim by gay man that constitutional right to privacy should protect consensual sodomy in private home).

baehr v. lewin

(holding that state's restriction of marriage to opposite sex couples was sex discrimination and remanding for trial on state's justification for restriction). on remand, trial court held state statute unconstitutional. baehr v. miike, 65 uslw 2399 (1996), but the decision was mooted by a constitutional amendment that authorized the state legislature to restrict marriage to opposite sex couples.

new york v. uplinger

467 u.s. 246 (1984) (writ of certiorari dismissed in sodomy statute challenge because of "uncertainty regarding precise federal question decided" by new york appellate court).

romer v. evans

467 u.s. 246 (1984) (holding that colorado anti-gay constitutional amendment violated federal equal protection clause).

dale v. boy scouts of america

528 u.s. 1109 (2000) (recognizing first amendment right of boy scouts to exclude gay scout members).

lawrence v. texas

2002 wl 1611564 (granting certiorari in challenge to texas sodomy statute).

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