Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund

2012-07-23 14:15:49

Lambda was the first, and remains the primary, legal advocacy group championing, according to its mission statement, the ‘‘full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV.’’ This task began immediately, when the group’s 1973 application for state recognition as a public interest law firm was unanimously denied. Lambda became its own first client, challenging the court’s denial of its right to exist.

Winning its appeal, Lambda became authorized to practice on October 18, 1973. Lambda’s organizational highlights include a move from its original location in the Manhattan apartment of founder Bill Thom into shared offices with the New York American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1979—an association that prompted the ACLU to create its Lesbian and Gay Rights Project—and finally into its own offices in 1987. An initial satellite branch in Los Angeles opened its doors in 1990, with more to follow in Chicago, Dallas, and Atlanta. Lambda ceased to be a purely volunteer organization in 1978 when it created its first paid staff position; a managing attorney was added to the roster in 1983. Whereas at its founding Lambda functioned ‘‘more or less on the edge of insolvency,’’ for the 2004 fiscal year it reported income in excess of $11.6 million.

The talent of the organization to devise and implement a legal strategy over the long term is best evidenced through its attack on sodomy laws. From its inception Lambda had challenged the constitutionality of sodomy laws, scoring the occasional win such as that in People v. Onofre, 424 N.Y.S.2d 566 (1980), which struck down the New York sodomy statute. These early victories encouraged Lambda to support challenges in federal courts on privacy grounds, an argument that was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986). Lambda persevered in its strategy, however, and, in a round of courtroom brinkmanship, won the reversal of Bowers in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).

The cumulative impact of Lambda’s courtroom challenges has secured greater recognition of civil liberties for its constituents outside the arena of sodomy legislation. For example, its arguments in Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996), persuaded the Court to overturn Colorado’s Amendment 2, which would have excluded gay men and lesbians from the legislative process.

Beyond the issues of sodomy laws and political participation amendments, the range of cases confronted by Lambda attorneys has been wide, whether in cases initiated by the organization or when working with others such as theGay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD). Topics include the stunning victory in securing same-sex marriage in Massachusetts (Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, 440 Mass. 309 [2003]), to recognizing second-parent adoptions, protection of students from harassment, as well as Refugees-and-the-convention-against-torture.html>Asylum and immigration problems. In short, practically every significant legal case advocating the rights of sexual minorities—both won and lost—has benefited from the active participation of Lambda.


References and Further Reading

  • Andersen, Ellen Ann. Out of the Closets & into the Courts:
  • Legal Opportunity Structure and Gay Rights Litigation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. Lambda Legal,

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986)
  • Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, 440 Mass. 309 (2003)
  • Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003)
  • People v. Onofre, 424 N.Y.S.2d 566 (1980)
  • Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996)

See also Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1996); Gay and Lesbian Rights; Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003); Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996); Same- Sex Marriage Legalization; Sodomy Laws