Lambda Legal (Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund) is an American civil rights organization that focuses on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities as well as people living with HIV/AIDS (PWAs) through impact litigation, societal education, and public policy work.
Lambda's founder William J. Thom, Esq. submitted incorporation papers for approval to the New York Courts in 1971, but his application was denied on the grounds that its proposed activities would be contrary to public policy. That decision was overturned in 1973 by the New York Court of Appeals, which is the highest court of New York State. (In re Thom, 301 N.E.2d 542 (N.Y. 1973).).
The original incorporators, in addition to Bill Thom, were E. Carrington Boggan, and Michael J. Lavery. At their first meeting on November 10, 1973, they elected to the newly constituted Board of Directors Rodney L. Eubanks, Shepherd Raimi and D. Nicholas Russo.
Because of the scarcity of openly gay lawyers in 1973, Lambda Legal formed a Board of Advisors of eminent New Yorkers sympathetic to the cause of gay rights. They included US Congressperson Bella Abzug, NY State Senator Carol Bellamy, Association of the Bar President Merrell E. Clark, Rev. John Corn of Trinity Church and Martin Duberman, Distinguished Professor at City University of New York. Also on the Board of Advisors were two lawyers who later became New York State Supreme Court Justices: Phyllis Gangel-Jacob and Shirley Fingerhood.
From its inception, Lambda Legal sought diversity on its Board of Directors. Initially it could find no lesbian lawyers who were willing or able to be openly associated with a gay activist organization. Nathalie Rockhill, a major figure in the early post-Stonewall days of Gay Liberation, was the first woman elected to the Board in 1974. She was soon followed by lesbian law students and, in time, by lesbian lawyers. By the 1980s, men and women were equally represented on Lambda's board.
Lambda's growth paralleled the growth of the gay movement. By the 1980s, with the advent of AIDS, gay awareness and activism had grown significantly. Thomas B. Stoddard, who was executive director from 1986 to 1992, helped to author a bill passed in 1986 by the New York City Council to protect gays against bias in housing, employment, and public accommodations. Mayor Ed Koch, who signed the bill enacting it into law said: "The legislation drafted by Tom Stoddard was perfect." In 1993, Stoddard and other national gay leaders met with president Bill Clinton, the first such delegation to meet inside the Oval Office.
In 2013 Lambda Legal - Midwest Regional Office was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.
Its national headquarters remain in New York City, but today it has regional offices in Atlanta, Georgia, Chicago, Illinois, Dallas, Texas, and Los Angeles, California.
The current CEO is Rachel B. Tiven.
Lambda Legal has played a role in many legal cases in the United States pertaining to gay rights, including the 6-3 United States Supreme Court's 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which invalidated sodomy laws.
Lambda Legal carries out its legal work principally through test cases selected for the likelihood of their success in establishing positive legal precedents that will affect lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those affected by HIV. Lambda Legal's staff of attorneys works on a wide range of cases, with their docket averaging more than 50 cases at any given time.
Lambda Legal also maintains a national network of volunteer Cooperating Attorneys, which widens the scope of their legal work and allows attorneys, legal workers and law students to become involved in the program by working with Lambda Legal's legal staff.
Lambda Legal pursues litigation in all parts of the country, in every area of the law that affects communities they represent, such as discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, and the military; HIV/AIDS-related discrimination and public policy issues; parenting and relationship issues; equal marriage rights; equal employment and domestic partnership benefits; "sodomy" law challenges; immigration issues; anti-gay initiatives; and free speech and equal protection rights.
Before taking on legal work on behalf of same-sex marriage rights, Lambda Legal had to resolve an internal debate over the significance of marriage for its constituency and the strategic wisdom of taking on the issue. In 1990, it declined to represent the plaintiffs in the initial challenge to Hawaii's denial of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. It filed an amicus brief in that case at a later stage and another in Dean v. District of Columbia, its first advocacy for same-sex marriage.
Lambda Legal publishes the "Little Black Book," which contains information regarding the possible consequences of gay men "cruising" for sex in public places. The "Little Black Book" includes the following material: "If you cruise in parks, bathrooms or other spaces open to public view, trust your instincts, be aware of your surroundings -- and know your rights. While Lambda Legal and other groups are fighting against the ways police target men who have sex with men, having sex where others might see you and take offense can subject you to arrest, publicity and other serious consequences. If you feel unsafe, you should leave." The "Little Black Book" goes on to advise as follows: "If you’re cruising for sex and an undercover cop hits on you, what you do can still be a crime."
In July 2012, Lambda founder Bill Thom was interviewed at his nursing home in Manhattan, and gave a first-hand account of the early years of Lambda Legal. This resulted in a letter from the current co-chair of Lambda Legal to Bill Thom dated September 25, 2012 in which he says "The world is a vastly better place for LGBT people than when I started practice 20 years ago and is almost unrecognizable from the world in which you took on the heroic and unprecedented task of fighting back."