Kevin Cathcart wants every gay and lesbian person to learn the value of patience. We can't get discouraged, he says, just because marriage equality and parental rights for LGBT people are under all-out assault by social conservatives in America. "We are fighting a backlash that is incredibly strong, but it was incredibly strong all along," he says. "A backlash is to some extent a sign of success--that the other side is worried."
Cathcart, who on May 1 of this year marked 14 years as head of the gay rights group Lambda Legal, believes his organization's greatest accomplishment might be that it has helped raise expectations. Gays and lesbians now know what equality and justice look like in a way that could not have been conceptualized 30 years ago. "If anyone looks back over any long-term period and doesn't see we've made incredible strides, they aren't looking back at what I am looking back at," says Cathcart, 52. "I feel the courts have been our community's strongest avenues for progress."
And Lambda Legal has been fighting in those courts for decades. The organization was founded in 1973--when a couple of volunteers set up shop in one room of a friend's New York City apartment--as the nation's first group focused on winning gay rights through the U.S. court system. Now the nonprofit organization has a staff of almost 100 with offices in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and Dallas. Its work is focused on litigation--averaging over 50 cases at any given time--but the group also conducts public policy work and educational programs to raise awareness about gay rights issues.
In addition to leading the high-profile fight to overturn the nation's antisodomy laws in 2003, Lambda has taken on the Boy Scouts of America and fought for gay-straight alliances and antiharassment protections for LGBT students. It won the first HIV discrimination case and was instrumental in making the military give gays and lesbians honorable rather than dishonorable discharges when booting them because of their sexual orientation.
Dominick Vetri, a professor at the University of Oregon Law School of Law who specializes in gay rights, says Lambda has been particularly good at selecting cases that go on to establish positive legal precedents. "They've had their losses, but wonderful successes as well," Vetri says. "On balance, if you look at everything over a period of time, they have done magnificent work, provided resources and legal talent that have made it possible to bring forward a lot of cases of discrimination, and have been remarkably successful in winning."
But Vetri takes issue with what he sees as Lambda's failure to seek enough community input on which cases to champion. "I think there needs to be more involvement of the community," he says. "They should be reaching out through focus groups to see concerns rather than looking to the elites. Now that they have become so big and powerful and influential, they should figure out some structure to give the gay and lesbian community more say in the process."
Lambda often does best when it has plaintiffs who are willing to go public with their fight and tell their stories to the media. That's what happened when Matthew Cusick was fired in 2003 by Cirque du Soleil, after the acrobatic performer disclosed that he is HIV-positive. His case drew international attention to HIV discrimination in the workplace.
"It was pretty tough to go through the legal battle, which was very media-driven," says Cusick, 34, who settled with Cirque and is now working as a performer in New York City. "But [Lambda] was willing to go all the way, as far as I needed them to go. I felt like even one person can have a great impact in standing up for what is right."
B. Birgit Koebke and Kendall French, together 14 years, also braved the spotlight in their recent battle against the Bernardo Heights Country Club in San Diego, which had demanded that the domestic partners buy two separate memberships even though married couples didn't have to. …