Lambda Legal celebrates 50th anniversary

Lambda Legal CEO Kevin Jennings on Sept. 28. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Lambda Legal CEO Kevin Jennings in conjunction with his organization’s 50th anniversary said the courts remain crucial to the protection of LGBTQ rights in the country.

“Litigation has been the crucial tool for advancing the rights of the LGBTQ+ community,” Jennings told the Washington Blade during a Sept. 25 interview. “Lambda Legal has been at the forefront of that litigation for 50 years.”

The New York Court of Appeals in 1973 overruled a decision that denied Lambda Legal’s application to incorporate because its mission was “neither benevolent nor charitable” and “there was no demonstrated need for its existence.”

“We have to be our own first client,” said Jennings.

Lambda Legal represented a group of gay students at the University of New Hampshire who sued after then-Gov. Mel Thomson threatened to defund the entire UNH system if they continued their “socially abhorrent activities.” The U.S. Supreme Court in 1974 ruled in favor of the students in Gay Students Organization v. Bonner.  

Lambda Legal in 1983 represented Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, an AIDS researcher who opened a clinic for people with HIV in New York’s Greenwich Village. His neighbors tried to evict him, but Lambda Legal and the New York attorney general’s office were able to stop the eviction in People v. West 12 Tenants Corps. 

Police in Harris County, Texas, in 1998 arrested John Geddes Lawrence, Jr., and Tyron Garner, while they were having sex in Lawrence’s apartment and charged them with violating the state’s sodomy law. Lambda Legal represented the two men and the Supreme Court in 2003 struck down the Texas statute in Lawrence v. Texas.

Lambda Legal was co-counsel in Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that extended marriage rights to same-sex couples across the U.S. Lambda Legal also represented Dana Zzyym, an intersex person who sued the State Department in 2015 after it denied them a passport because they do not identify as male or female. (Zzyym in October 2021 received a passport with an “X” gender marker, and the State Department now issues gender-neutral passports.)

Jennings on Sept. 28 spoke at an event at Paul Hastings LLP in D.C. after Jennifer Eller, a former English teacher in Prince George’s County who successfully sued the county’s Board of Education after she suffered harassment and discrimination because of her gender identity, introduced him. Lambda Legal on Wednesday held similar events in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas and Chicago.

“The courts have been a central battleground for 50 years,” Jennings told the Blade. “I predict they are going to remain one for the next 50 years.”

Opponents using ‘shock and awe against us’

Jennings, who was born in Florida and grew up in North Carolina, was a teacher in Massachusetts when he founded what became known as the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and later GLSEN in 1990. He left the organization in 2008.

Then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan in 2009 appointed Jennings as Assistant Deputy Secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. Jennings was the CEO of Be the Change, executive director of the Arcus Foundation and president of the Tenement Museum in New York before Lambda Legal in 2019 named him as its CEO.

Jennings noted to the Blade that nearly 600 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in 47 states. 

“We are facing the most concerted effort to rollback LGBTQ+ rights in my lifetime,” he said.

“Our opponents are using shock and awe against us right now,” added Jennings. “They are trying to overwhelm us and drown us in the number of anti-LGBT bills nationwide. That’s their own strategy.”

Jennings said Lambda Legal currently has nearly 80 active lawsuits across the country.

He noted Lambda Legal for the last two years has represented Becky Pepper-Jackson, an 11-year-old transgender girl who challenged a West Virginia law that bans trans students from school sports teams that correspond with their gender identity. The Supreme Court in April ruled in her favor.

“Becky is on her middle school cross country team,” said Jennings.

Lambda Legal is among the organizations that challenged a Florida law that prohibits the use of Medicaid funds for gender-affirming health care. A federal judge in June struck down the statute.

“Our opponents are trying to demoralize our community, and make us feel like we are going to be defeated,” said Jennings.

He added the “battle” for LGBTQ rights in many states is “moving from the State House to the courthouse.”

“It comes down to Lambda Legal to get them struck down in court,” said Jennings. “We are the community’s last line of defense.”

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