Headquarters Location: New York, NY
Mission: At Lambda Legal, we imagine a world without discrimination and inequality, and we work to achieve that vision every day. We make the case for equality in the nation’s courts and in the court of public opinion. The work we do has impact on the way all of us live—we change laws, policies and ideas.
Because of the overwhelming climate of prejudice against gay people, we became our own first client: A panel of New York judges turned down our application to be a nonprofit organization because, in their view, our mission was "neither benevolent nor charitable." With pro bono help, Thom appealed to New York’s highest court, which finally allowed Lambda Legal to exist as a nonprofit organization.
Throughout the 1970s, Lambda Legal fought and won some of the nation's first cases on behalf of lesbian and gay parents and same-sex couples. In one of our first cases (Gay Student Organization v. Bonner), we successfully helped a gay student group at the University of New Hampshire fight a ban on their school activities. In the 1980s, we stepped up our efforts against government discrimination, while also focusing more on antigay bias in corporations and established community institutions.
In 1983, Lambda Legal won the nation’s first HIV/AIDS discrimination case (People v. West 12 Tenants Corp.), helping establish that under disability laws it's illegal to discriminate against people who have HIV. We got insurance companies to cover HIV testing and treatments and pay benefits to those disabled by the disease. Lambda Legal also helped establish privacy rights for people with HIV, including the right to keep test results and medical records confidential.
In the 1990s we won a historic legal precedent holding schools responsible for harassment and violence against LGBTQ students (Nabozny v. Podlesny) and successfully defended the right of gay-straight alliances to exist in schools (Colín v. Orange Unified School District).
In 1992, we successfully kept Colorado’s Amendment 2 from taking effect. The statewide initiative would have stripped lesbians and gay men of civil rights protections, nullifying existing bans on antigay discrimination and preventing others from being enacted. In 1996, we convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to declare the measure unconstitutional (Romer v. Evans). The Court’s ruling made clear that lesbians, gay men and bisexuals have the same right to seek government protection against discrimination as any other group of people.
In 2000, we argued for a sheriff's culpability for his acts prior to the murder of Brandon Teena, who was brutally raped and later killed by two men who discovered he was transgender. This case (Brandon v. Richardson County) brought unprecedented visibility to the transgender community and was the subject of the film Boys Don’t Cry. It also strengthened the principle that law enforcement officials must be held accountable for fair treatment of people who are the targets of hate crimes.
Lambda Legal helped convince state courts to strike down sodomy laws in New York, Kentucky, Tennessee, Montana and Georgia. And in 2003, in the historic case Lawrence v. Texas, we persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn all remaining state sodomy laws. That decision fundamentally changed the legal landscape and is the most important legal victory to date for LGBT equality.
In 2009, we obtained a historic unanimous decision in Iowa Supreme Court, which ruled that denying marriage to same-sex couples is unconstitutional (Varnum v. Brien). This landmark victory makes Iowa the first state in the Midwest to offer marriage equality.
With the generous support of thousands of friends around the country, what began in 1973 as a couple of volunteers working out of a spare room in a supporter’s apartment has now grown to an expert staff of more than 80 in five offices around the country—New York, Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Our work is vital, and our strategy works: We make the case for equality in the nation’s courts and in the court of public opinion. We make a big impact in people's lives by changing laws, policies and ideas. Until we achieve full equality under the law in every state in this country, we will keep fighting and moving history forward.
Pictured is Erica and Tevonda Bradshaw, both 36, have been together more than four years. When Tevonda gave birth to their son, Erica went through a court adoption. She was investigated and fingerprinted, which she found extremely offensive. Because civil unions are so poorly understood, the couple has paid to execute many extra legal documents to protect their family. See the video of their story at http://www.lambdalegal.org/multimedia/vid_nj-marriage_erica-tevonda.
Expert Reviews of Lambda Legal
Evidence of Impact Summary:Lambda Legal is a national civil rights organization that works to bring about LGBT equality through litigation-based advocacy. They support individuals by taking on lawsuits and by offering legal aid through their hotline. Lambda Legal has also taken on large, precedent-setting cases that cover topics ranging from fair treatment for hate crime victims to marriage equality and school safety. Their strategic approach to litigation and strong track record have brought about significant victories for the LGBT community.
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Organization Strengths Summary:Many experts noted the strong impact of Lambda Legal’s Executive Director Kevin Cathcart. One expert noted him to be not only the longest tenured CEO in the LGBT movement, but the most effective. The organization is supported by strong, strategic, and savvy staff throughout the organization, from the administrative staff to the legal. Their established track record paired with their excellent communications and marketing have helped them to become trusted in the community.
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Areas for Improvement Summary:Lambda could improve on their marketing and communications to better share the powerful work they do. They could also do a better job of connecting with community organizations to share resources and insight. Growing resources would help Lambda to work more efficiently and in more areas.
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Expert Comments: Evidence of Impact
|Their impact is evident in their legal victories.|
|Consistent, high-level litigation with high impact and many successful outcomes. Provides legislative drafting and policy expertise to other organizations. Excellent collegial practices—convening and collaborating with other organizations and sharing expertise. Part of an informal consortium of LGBT litigation groups that work hard to move everyone forward together.|
|Their impact is evident in their historical impact litigation, striking down sodomy laws, fighting ballot initiatives that would strip LGBT individuals of civil rights, and upholding marriage equality.|
|Lambda Legal works in class action litigation.|
|From their litigation work, working with other communities such as the lesbian and transgender communities.|
|Lambda Legal has some of the top strategic thinkers in the LGBT movement who are creating policy and litigation decisions that impact thousands of people every day.|
|Lambda is the primary national LGBT civil rights organization. They take cases to court and fight bigotry through the justice system in all states.|
|Lambda Legal has secured legal protections for transgender people, the freedom to marry in Iowa and California, and civil unions in New Jersey, among other accomplishments. Its public education work has increased public understanding of the rights of LGBT people significantly. And its victory in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 was a signal of accomplishment for LGBT rights.|
|Lambda Legal has been victorious in numerous lawsuits that have advanced the cause of LGBT rights. From first amendment rights (a teacher was threatened with suspension if he wore a T-shirt with the slogan "Jesus was not a homophobe") to recognition of same-sex couples (e.g., requiring that the wife of a lesbian tenant be included on a lease for purposes of rent control), to fighting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and more. Lambda has racked up the victories.|
|I have known many friends who have turned to Lambda Legal when they were in need of legal help or advice relating to an LGBT issue.|
|Lambda Legal provides thousands of people with legal resources through their help desks. This resource is unique and is an important information-sharing tool to ensure that LGBT people throughout the US are aware of their legal rights and can seek the legal help that they need to protect their families, keep their jobs, be safe at school, access needed healthcare, and more. Additionally, their litigation has yielded incredible gains for the LGBT community, including marriage, safer schools, and employment protection.|
|Lambda Legal demonstrates its impact primarily through its victories in state and federal litigation and through legislative and policy work at both the state and federal level. Lambda Legal also does a great deal of public education both within the LGBT community and with the public at large.|
|Lambda Legal has been instrumental in pushing the envelope for LGBT rights. They strategize against discrimination on a national level, picking lawsuits one-by-one to strategically advance the movement little by little.|
|Lambda Legal has continued to support LGBT rights through litigation.|
|Lambda Legal is doing national work on equality, building visibility of the cause, and pushing for justice.|
|Lambda Legal has won landmark cases, including: gay student alliance permit (NH, 197x), first HIV discrimination case (NY, 1983), many cases in HIV testing, treatment, benefits, privacy, school harassment/violence (199x), school gay-straight alliance permits (CA, 199x), statewide LGBT civil rights (CO, 1996), fair treatment for hate crime victims (2000), elimination of state sodomy laws (NY, KY, TN, MT, GA), elimination of all sodomy laws (2003, US Supreme Court), and same-gender marriage (IA, 2009).|
|They litigate significant cases throughout the country and have moved the bar on LGBT rights and the rights of people with HIV/AIDS. Most visible is their marriage work in Iowa, New Jersey, and Illinois.|
|Lambda Legal was lead public interest counsel for several important LGBT rights cases that went to the US Supreme Court, at least two of which resulted in important landmark gay rights rulings, Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas. They were also lead counsel in the case that resulted in a unanimous ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court in favor of same-sex marriage, and they have litigated to establish important precedents on the rights of persons with HIV as well as LGBT rights in state and federal courts over almost 40 years.|
Expert Comments: Organization Strengths
Commitment to Diversity
|They work in Spanish-speaking communities|
|Lambda has top-notch, hard-working lawyers who could work in any major law firm but choose to use their skills to make an impact. They are leaders in the field.|
|They have strong leadership amongst their staff and a deep adherence to their mission.|
|They have astute legal knowledge and are pioneers in policy change.|
|They have strong staff, operations, and mission.|
Great Public Education
|They bring high viability to national issues. They also have strong leadership and marketing.|
|The public education work around the legal issues impacting LGBT people is very strong.|
Proven Track Record
|Founded in 1973, Lambda Legal has proven staying power. The current 80-person staff in 5 offices (GA, NY, TX, IL, CA) has depth and breadth.|
|They have brought about changes in laws that have benefited LGBT communities. These efforts go well beyond marriage laws and fight job and housing discrimination and school-based discrimination.|
|Lambda Legal provides movement leadership by convening regular roundtables of the legal advocacy groups, at which they discuss strategy and emerging needs.|
|Lambda Legal has one of the most talented and experienced Executive Directors in the country and a very effective development department that does particularly well with legacy gifts.|
|Lambda Legal boasts not only the longest tenured CEO in the LGBT movement, but the most effective. Lambda has continued to grow and expand its reach under Cathcart's leadership. In addition to effective delivery of its programs, Lambda is financially stable and strong.|
|I have known a couple of the staff members and felt that they had strong leadership, also the fact that Lambda Legal is well-known is useful—perhaps due to marketing.|
|Lambda has an exceptional Executive Director, Kevin Cathcart, whose tenure in office is longer than that of any other Executive Director of a major national LGBT public interest organization, mainly because he is extremely well-organized, a very effective leader of staff, a superb fundraiser, and also a superb diplomat. He gets along with all factions in the movement and has helped to promote cooperation between movement organizations. Lambda has also been very fortunate in its choice of Legal Directors. The current Legal Director, Jon Davidson, has done great strategic thinking for the movement. I would rank him second only to Matt Coles at the ACLU in this regard (and Matt is no longer directly in charge of the ACLU’s LGBT Rights docket, having been promoted to a higher administrative level in that organization).|
|The staff members of Lambda Legal are extremely committed and passionate people. The leadership provides strong vision and purpose to the organization.|
|Leadership is their primary strength; they have a highly talented administrative staff and a well-respected legal department. Their operations have always been strong, as have been their finances. They have a solidly and tightly run ship with great leadership at all levels.|
Strong Marketing & Communications
|They do a great job at bringing in real people, such as plaintiffs in their cases, that were affected by discrimination. It is great to hear their stories and is a great tool for getting donations.|
|They have done a good job of marketing themselves over the last few years.|
Expert Comments: Areas for Improvement
Connect to Community Organizations
|They need more connection with grassroots organizing|
|They could improve by adding further collaborations with existing nonprofits that have a presence on the ground in the states they do not have a presence in.|
|They need more community outreach|
|They need to have better coordination with organizations doing similar work.|
Improve Internal Operations
|I think they work people too hard and don't pay enough. There is also too much centralized control.|
|They could improve with better management. They should also be more collaborative|
Improve Marketing & Communication
|Their web site is often extremely slow. They also need to add LGBT immigration to the mission and the website.|
|I believe that Lambda does not get adequate credit for its work. They are good at marketing but they could be even better at tooting their own horn. Also, many people in our community have no idea about what their rights actually are (or are NOT), and it would be interesting to see Lambda do more community-based education on current issues that impact significant numbers of the LGBT community.|
|It would be useful to have more of an idea as to what exactly their work is about.|
|Lambda could do a better job on the public education side. I know they are trying very hard, but their media work could be more effective in getting the story out there. Somehow their public education efforts have not had the same impact as their litigation efforts. As a former Board Member (from the 1980s), I think another area where Lambda could improve would be in cultivating and retaining the interest of former Board Members!|
|More members of the LGBT community need to become aware of Lambda Legal, the services they provide, and the ways in which Lambda is improving the lives of LGBT people.|
|They could use more resources to penetrate the country more effectively with their work. I don't know if that means they need to improve development efforts or just need more development resources. I also suspect they could do more in social media.|
|I would think they could market more. I only hear of them about once a year.|
|They need more offices around the country—but that means a larger budget. They also need more outreach so a greater number of folks in the community know about them.|
|There is always more to do. Lambda is only limited by resources.|
Lambda Legal's groundbreaking work reached new heights in 2003 when it won a U.S. Supreme Court victory striking down Texas' "Homosexual Conduct" law and every law like it in the nation. Lambda Legal was lead counsel in the case, representing two men who were arrested in Houston while having consensual sex at home. The landmark ruling continues to impact all areas of LGBT people's lives, and Cathcart has mapped out a wide-ranging strategy for Lambda Legal to turn its historic court victory into a reality in people's everyday lives. In 2009, Lambda Legal won a historic and unanimous victory for marriage equality in Iowa, extending the organization’s record of groundbreaking accomplishments.
Other unique programs begun during Cathcart's tenure include Lambda Legal's Foster Care Initiative to improve care of lesbian and gay youth in foster care, whose needs go largely unmet throughout the country. With its Marriage Project, Lambda Legal plays a leading role in litigation and education to win the freedom to marry.
Cathcart has fostered dramatic growth in the organization as well as in the scope of its work. He oversaw the opening of Lambda Legal's second regional office, the Midwest Regional Office in Chicago in 1993, followed by the opening of the Southern Regional Office in Atlanta and the South Central Regional Office in Dallas. From its regional offices, including the Western Regional Office in Los Angeles and from its New York Headquarters, Lambda Legal responds to requests for help and information from thousands of individuals facing discrimination each year. Since Cathcart took Lambda Legal's helm, the staff has more than quadrupled and the organization's budget has grown to just over $10 million.
A longtime leader in the lesbian and gay community, Cathcart served from 1984 to 1992 as executive director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) in Boston, New England's lesbian, gay, and AIDS legal organization. Prior to GLAD, Cathcart was a staff attorney at the North Shore Children's Law Project. He also serves on the Steering Committee of the LGBT Executive Director’s Institute. Cathcart graduated from Richard Stockton State College (New Jersey) in 1976 and the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1978. He received his J.D. from Northeastern School of Law in 1982.