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Lambda Legal and its Midwest office mark major milestones
by Charlsie Dewey
2013-04-17

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The year was 1972 and a small group of lawyers, led by Bill Thom, set out to found a not-for-profit legal organization based out of New York that would focus entirely on LGBT civil rights issues across the nation. They encountered their first challenge shortly after filing the paperwork for nonprofit status when a panel of New York judges denied the application.

It was not until 1973, after the group took on its own case and New York's highest court finally allowed for the nonprofit status, that the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund was finally up and running.

The 1970s saw the organization fight and win some of the nation's first LGBT-rights cases, including Gay Student Organization v. Bonner, a case focusing on a gay student organization's fight against its college, the University of New Hampshire, which had banned its activities.

Cases of all sorts followed and conversations about opening additional offices in other regions began to grow.

Cook County Circuit Judge Pat Logue, who was a board member at the time and later opened the Midwest Regional Office, remembered, "There was talk of expanding Lambda from just having a New York office to having additional offices and that growth, which did ultimately come to pass, prompted a lot of discussions.

"Chicago was identified early on as a place to open an office after Los Angeles. L.A. was done supposedly because of the money there and then Chicago was the next most obvious. So that is how we decided to do it, and it was prompted in large part because of Bon Foster."

Foster had attended Northwestern University Law School and passed away of AIDS in 1991 leaving behind money for a Lambda office to be set up in Chicago. The request stipulated that the funding had to be used within two years or it would be forfeited.

"There was some resistance from within the community, because some people thought that having a national organization here would drain resources for other organizations, which didn't prove to be the case," Logue said. "We had a lot of meetings with people on that score; I think we won them over in the end."

So, in 1993, Logue and assistant Mona Noriega (who is now the chair of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations) opened the Midwest Regional Office of Lambda Legal in Chicago. It currently covers 10 states.

"Our first case was on behalf of the ad hoc committee of Proud Black Lesbians and Gays, who wanted to march in the Bud Billiken Parade and had been told they could not march," Logue said. "We worked on their behalf to set up what amounted in the end to a negotiation with the family that runs the Chicago Defender, which is the sponsor of the parade. It historically says it's a parade about children, and this group had been denied based on their being a gay group, basically.

Logue said the group had submitted two identical applications, but one had its actual name on it while the other used a fictitious name. The application with the fake name was accepted and the other was denied. Lambda helped the group negotiate with the parade sponsors and in the end the negotiations were successful and the group proudly marched in the Bud Billiken Parade.

Logue recalled that the early years were a very busy time for the Midwest office.

"We did not yet have any second parent adoption," she said. "No marriage rights. We were struggling to find much more basic things, keeping people from getting fired and for being fired for being HIV positive."

Lambda Legal had its first HIV/AIDS case in 1983. The case, People v. West 12 Tenants Corp., resulted in a win for the organization. It recognized that under disability laws it is illegal to discriminate against people who have HIV, therefore, insurance companies had to cover HIV testing and treatments, pay benefits to people disabled by the disease and established privacy rights for people with HIV.

Many of the HIV/AIDS cases that followed were employment-based ones prompted by people's fear of the disease.

"It was a very fear based time with respect to the transmission of HIV and so she [the lawyer focusing on those cases] was trying to use these cases, and she did it very effectively, to demonstrate that these fears were way overblown and that this was not how we should be treating people with HIV," explained Camilla Taylor, senior staff attorney and marriage project director for the Midwest office.

Taylor joined the Midwest office in 2002, just as Lambda Legal was preparing for the Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas.

"It was a case involving Tyron Garner and John Lawrence, two men from Texas who were convicted of consensual sodomy," Taylor said. "Texas was one of 13 states in the country that prohibited intimacy between people of the same sex and that criminalized lesbian and gay people as a result.

"These sodomy statutes were horrible things that affected people even if they didn't live in that state. ... They were used as justification for terminating police officers or lawyers from positions—I'm thinking of two real-life examples and examples from our actual docket.

"They justified preventing lesbian or gay people from becoming teachers in public school systems, because a lesbian or gay person was a presumed criminal by virtue of the existence of these sodomy laws somewhere in the country. In some states they were even forced to register as sex offenders if they were convicted of engaging in consensual intimacy with the person that they loved."

Sodomy laws had created an intimidating roadblock for LGBT people in many legal areas.

"It was very challenging for lesbian and gay people to argue for affirmative protections for their relationships," Taylor said. "And, it was also very difficult for them to argue that it was a violation of their fundamental guarantee of equal protection in a state or federal constitution while we still had sodomy laws on the books. Taking down these laws that stigmatized lesbian and gay people even if they were never convicted of an offense was of paramount importance for the movement."

Logue was involved in preparing the liberty argument, which was one of two arguments used in the case. It focused on the idea that it violated our fundamental autonomy, a person's right to be free of this kind of intrusion of the state into ones personal life.

Taylor said that the liberty argument was seen by some to be the weaker of the two arguments because the Roe v. Wade decision was grounded in that argument and many thought the court was moving away from ruling on liberty grounds.

"Pat however had real faith that it is was the important argument to make and that the court would still find it to have vitality, this protection against intrusion into our most private lives," Taylor said.

In the end, the U.S. Supreme Court did rule on the liberty grounds and struck down sodomy laws across the nation.

To date, Lawrence is the most important victory for LGBT equality, according to Taylor.

While the organization was busily taking on a plethora of cases around employment discrimination, family law issues, HIV discrimination and transgender discrimination, it was regularly fielding calls from people who wanted to challenge their state's refusal to issues marriage licenses to gay couples.

Lambda Legal was concerned by the backlash that was already occurring as individuals attempted to take on their states, a concern that was amplified in 2004 when a flood of anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives were passed.

But, realizing the need to push the issue forward, the organization set its sights on Iowa.

"Iowa actually has a long tradition of protecting civil rights, sometimes long before its neighboring states have done so. ... It was something that we depended upon when we filed our lawsuit," Taylor explained. "So we had a sense of confidence and a great deal of hope based on precedents in Iowa that interpreted the Iowa State Constitution in a broader way than the federal constitution is interpreted, and also in the people of Iowa."

The gamble paid off, and in 2009 Iowa joined Massachusetts and Connecticut as the third state granting gay marriages.

Marriage continues to be a big focus for Lambda Legal, as it is for the rest of the country, and the organization is a member of the Illinois Unites for Marriage coalition, which is working to pass same-sex marriage in the state.

Taylor warned that while this is certainly a time to celebrate, it is also a time to be cautious, because anti-gay opponents are looking for ways to roll back previously won protections.

"A number of our opponents are being very opportunistic and seeing the passage of marriage legislation as a vehicle for rolling back vital protections that we fought for over the previous decades and won after brutal fights," Taylor said.

She notes that lawyers are seeing attempts by individuals and groups to claim religious liberty as justification for discrimination against LGBT people.

"We've seen a lot of effort on the part of our opponents around the country to misappropriate victimhood and to argue that there ought to be some sort of exemption from discrimination liability if they can articulate a religious justification for their discrimination," explained Taylor.

Still, despite the struggles still ahead, Logue and Taylor are both pleased with the victories the organization has wrought and share a positive outlook for the coming years.

"Over the last 10 or 11 years it feels different to be a lawyer for the LGBT community because we are not losing as much, because the world has shifted around us and there is an expectation of success around us when we file a case or walk into a new courtroom, so its nice to have the wind at your back," Taylor said.

The Midwest Regional Office will celebrate its 20th anniversary with the Bon Foster Celebration 2013 on Wed., April 24, 6-9:30 p.m. The gala is being held at The Art Institute of Chicago (Modern Wing), 159 E. Monroe St. Tickets and more information are available at www.lambdalegal.org/bonfoster.


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