Jim Bennett remembers what he thought of Lambda Legal before they hired him.
"My first impression was that they were extraordinarily smart nerds," he said with a laugh. But this impression belies deep respect. "I realized they were key to nearly every single victory our community had ever had," he continued. "The work they do is phenomenal. There's nothing that compares to it."
Even though Bennett wasn't a lawyer, he knew Lambda could use his skills. "For my background to be more in marketing and fundraising, and nonprofit management, I felt like, 'I'm something they don't have,'" he recalled.
Bennett was Lambda's longtime Midwest regional director before becoming chief development officer in late 2016. After 11 years, Bennett leaves Lambda Legal this monthas equally impressed as when he first arrived.
"I'm honored to have been part of the work, even if I played a very small role in a very big movement," he said.
Many would argue that Bennett played a big role in the fights for marriage equality in Iowa and Illinois. Hired in July 2006, Bennett jumped straight into the string of early Iowa court battles, thanks to former Marriage Project Coordinator and Lambda's current Acting Legal Director Camilla Taylor.
"Camilla was trying to get an amicus brief, and she was really frustrated because she could not get churches to sign on on this pro-marriage equality brief," Bennett recalled.
A member of the Broadway United Methodist Church, Bennett started explaining the nuances of church procedures to Taylor. "She just looked at me like I was speaking in tongues and she was like, 'you're going to Iowa.'" he recalled. He ended up meeting with churches all over the state, and went on to help create Iowa's first state equality group.
"We built a really robust coalition with the goal of trying to win marriage in the hearts and minds of Iowans at the same time we were winning in courts," Bennett said. "We had realized by then that we could have a victory in the court but if the public was too far behind we wouldn't be able to hold onto it."
His time at Lambda indicates that the extroverted Bennett is a natural coalition-builder. "I try to make all of the projects I'm working on fun, like Tom Sawyer getting everyone to paint the fence," he joked.
However, marriage equality in Illinois would be an unexpected battle.
"I think for Lambda Legal in particular, our goal was, we want marriage, and we want it as fast as we can get it, and we were not willing to compromise," Bennett recalled. "There was a push in Illinois primarily driven by the Catholic Church to make carve-outs in our human-rights ordinance in exchange for a marriage vote. We had a very hard line and the whole coalition stood behind us. There would be no compromises to the Human Rights Act, and if that's the way it went, we would just prefer to win it outright in court."
Initial attempts to bring a vote in the state legislature failed, and looking back, Bennett, who chaired the coalition, sees a failure to bring everyone to the table. The coalition redoubled its efforts with a more inclusive focus, and Bennett cites the March on Springfield for Marriage Equality on Oct. 22, 2013 as "the final catalyst" to bring marriage equality to a successful vote.
"I grew up in Springfield and I've been around a million marches and rallies and the LGBT community is not known for driving down four hours from Chicago to make an incredible showing," Bennett explained. "On the crappiest of rainy days, we had thousands of people down there, from all over the state, straight and gay, standing in the rain demanding full equality. There was definitely an understanding after that day that that vote had to take place. The best day to me in my life is that march: to be in my hometown and watch all of these gays around the capital. Even though we were demanding our rightsit's gay, so it was beautiful."
Outside the office, Bennett's passion is improv comedy and storytelling. He was a longtime member of GayCo, Second City's LGBTQ improv group, and is a Moth GrandSLAM winner, with a story pulled directly from his time working with Lambda in Iowa.
"I love comedy. I think the most upsetting thing I ever did to my father was in grade school when he asked me if it was more important to be funny or respected, I said, 'to be funny,'" he laughed. "Some of my greatest scenes that I've written come out of my experiences from Lambda."
But Bennett said he sees overlap beyond the material. "A lawyer's work is storytelling," he stated. "Nothing moves when we just talk about rights and responsibilities. The thing about Lambda is people's worst thing that happened in their life is often our best test case. These brave plaintiffs that are willing to put themselves out there and tell their story is what changes everything."
There will be a farewell party for Bennett on Friday, Jan. 5, 6-8 p.m., at Sidetrack, 3349 N. Halsted St. See "The Jim Bennett Party: A Lambda Farewell" on Facebook.