For more than half the time that Lambda Legal has been battling for LGBT people, the organization has been headed by one man. Kevin Cathcart is celebrating his 20th year with Lambda Legal this spring, just shy of the organization's own 40th anniversary next year.
Cathcart has been working in LGBT legal advocacy for nearly three decades. He was executive director at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders when the organization was so small that his tasks included answering phones and replacing copy machine toner.
Now, he oversees one of the largest LGBT organizations in the country.
In celebration of his two decades at Lambda Legal, Cathcart is attending Lambda events across the country this year, and he is Chicago-bound April 25 for the organization's gala.
Windy City Times caught up with Cathcart to talk about his history with the organization and the evolution of its strategies in fighting for LGBT rights.
Windy City Times: Tell me about your early days at Lambda Legal.
Kevin Cathcart: The landscape was incredibly different in 1992. One of the major things that make the landscape so different was the AIDS epidemic was in a very different posture then because this was still before the beginnings of any sort of successful treatments. It was taking a much greater toll on the community day in and day out.
We were in the middle of a presidential election. That is when President Clinton was elected later that year, and there were great hopes for progress on a number of things. But unfortunately, within his first year, much of it within my first year here, we saw the signing into law of things like 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act].
Keep in mind that this is pre-Lawrence [v. Texas, which overturned sodomy laws], so sodomy laws are still on the books in a number of states…
Lambda Legal and all of our community organizations and institutions were much smaller then than they are today. Lambda Legal, for example, when I came, there were a total of 21 staff people. We now have just over 90.
WCT: So how did you get involved in the LGBT-rights movement?
KC: Well, I was in college in the early '70s, when the movement was very, very new. I went to school in a rural part of southern New Jersey and most of what I knew about the LGBT movement I read in the Village Voice. I started by being one of the founders of my college's first gay students organization.
WCT: Where did you go to school?
KC: Stockton State College. It's a small school and not particularly known outside of its region. Then, I moved to Boston to go to graduate school and ultimately I went to law school there. There was a very active, politicized gay community in Boston. I was part of the Gay Community News Collective at one point. I decided to go to law school because I thought that would be a good way to do some kind of political work. I wasn't clear on what that work would be. It was not really possible at that point to imagine a career running an LGBT legal organization.
WCT: It sounds like you were out before it was common to be out.
KC: Yeah, that's probably true. I came out pretty early in my college days. It's almost impossible to describe the invisibility of gay people in the general culture in the 1970s. I graduated from high school in 1971, which was just two years after Stonewall. So the people who were out tended to be more political people because it was a decision that was perhaps fraught with far more consequences in those days than it is today.
WCT: Tell me about your start at Lambda Legal. What was it like for you?
KC: When I came to Lambda Legal, it was to keep doing work that I was already doing. I had been, for eight years at that point, the executive director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. When the Lambda Legal position became available, I thought "well, it would be interesting to do this on a larger scale than New England."
So when I came here… there were two offices. Almost everyone was in New York. I think there were four people in Los Angeles. Our budget was much much smaller than it was today, although that didn't make it easy to raise.
WCT: Did you ever imagine it would take until 2003 to overturn sodomy laws?
KC: In the mid-'80s, I actually really believed that [Bowers v.] Hardwick case was going to do it. Actually, after Hardwick was lost at the U.S. Supreme Court, I didn't believe that it would be done by 2003 because the U.S. Supreme Court traditionally is very slow to reverse itself. In Supreme Court time, 17 years is sort of like the blink of an eye. I think our strategy worked, which was to keep chipping away at them on a state-by-state basis.
WCT: What are some of the high points for you beyond Lambda Legal's litigation work?
KC: One of the ways that we have grown during my time here is that we've expanded our capacity beyond not only to do litigation, but to do public education and policy work. We now have an education and public affairs department, which I think is critically important because … there's an enormous need for public education within the LGBT and HIV communities because a lot of people don't know what their rights are or what they are not. … So part of it has been making ourselves more accessible.
WCT: Has Lambda legal's strategy changed as LGBT people make progress?
KC: I think we have changed, in many cases, the way that we go about things as we have grown and been able to do more. For example, with certain kinds of cases, and what comes to mind most obviously, with our marriage work, we have educational components that go along with our lawsuits because we know that if we can change the climate on the ground, that that trickles up to the courts. We know that court victories can't be too far ahead where the public is.
WCT: A lot of people involved in other movements have wondered why the LGBT movement has been so successful. Do you have a theory there?
KC: It's an interesting thing because, inside the LGBT community, I often hear lots of complaints about how slowly things are moving. … When I talk to people who do political work on other issues outside of the LGBT community, what I always hear is "How do you people do it? You're winning everything." I think it would be good for people in the community to hear from people working on other issues to get a sense of how much we really are accomplishing. And I don't believe we should be self-satisfied and complacent. I just wish we could have more people in the game.
WCT: What is the future of Lambda Legal at this point?
KC: I continue to believe that the courts will continue to be our strongest avenue for success. I believe that we're going to continue through our impact litigation to lead the way on a lot of the issues that face our community. I wish I could see some sort of sunset time where I could say, "well, look based on everything that we've done, I think in a couple of years we'll just be able to wrap up and go home." I don't see that. I believe that will happen someday, but we are so far from there right now.
See Kevin Cathcart at Lambda Legal's gala Wed., April 25, at the Art Institute of Chicago's modern wing, 159 E. Monroe St. Details are at www.lambdalegal.org/events/bon-foster.