From the 19th floor of 120 Wall Street, the waterfront view of New York City is spectacular and never taken for granted by the occupant of the corner office, Lambda Legal’s Executive Director Kevin Cathcart.
Lambda Legal is the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights group working for the LGBTQ community. Under Cathcart’s direction, it has become powerful with significant increases in inquiries and impact in 2011.
According to Cathcart who grew up in New Jersey just 35 miles from his office, there are two types of people.
“There are those who say they can’t wait to move to New York City, and those who say they can’t wait to move out of Jersey. I was part of the latter group. I didn’t even dream of becoming a lawyer, no, I grew up in a working class world. I didn’t know what a lawyer was. I came of age at a time when civil rights law was a driving force, in the late 60s early 70s. I began thinking about law in college, because I was interested in politics and because that is when I had come out. Maybe I was in a lucky time slot. Stonewall had just happened. I had nothing to lose by coming out. No job or family. I settled in Boston where I was the Executive Director of GLAD [Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders] for eight years. I got a call from a friend who told me about the Lambda job. I thought ‘I could live in NYC for a couple of years’ That was 20 years ago.”
Cathcart speaks about his 20 years at the helm of Lambda Legal with obvious delight in its accomplishments, its strengths and its future. How does he feel about the length of his tenure?
“I don’t feel like I’ve had the same job for 20 years. When I arrived, there were 20 people and two offices, with a budget of $1.5 million. We now have 92 staff people, an annual budget of over $13 million, and five regional offices. We have a docket of 60 cases at any given moment, but we are still too small and still have to say no to too much. Yes, my job has evolved even though the title hasn’t changed. The biggest difference at Lambda legal between then and now is the level of specialization. Even though I am a lawyer who has always done LGBT advocacy, I could never do all the things that our staff does now with their individual areas of expertise. My job is to provide the best conditions under which our lawyers can do the great work they do with their specific skills. “
Those specializations now include making the case for equality in the areas of same-sex relationships, workplace fairness, transgender rights, LGBTQ youth, healthcare fairness, HIV, parents and families, LGBTQ elderly, Latino outreach and fair courts. Cathcart explains Lambda Legal’s process for selecting its cases.
“Clients are sometimes referred to us by lawyers in private practice. We also have a very active 800 number with help desks at all five of our regional offices. We got more than 7,000 calls last year from people looking for representation or information on a wide range of issues. Lambda never charges for its representation. We do fund-raising. Because Lambda Legal has been at work for 39 years, we have a huge body of stored information to help. In deciding which cases to take, it is important to understand that Lambda Legal looks for impact litigation. We like cases in which our involvement can improve the lives of LGBTQ people in America. There are very few cases we take that will impact all LGBTQ people, but I think the Lawrence v. Texas case, in which Lambda defended the two men who stepped forward to end the sodomy laws in the U.S. had national impact with its historic Supreme Court victory that laid the legal groundwork for so much progress in communities across the country.”
Some of Lambda’s cases might initially appear small but end up with huge impact. Cathcart becomes animated when describing the Ohio teenage who contacted Lambda last year about his tee shirt.
“Maverick Couch was basically just a kid who wouldn’t accept the fact that his high school had forbidden him from wearing a tee shirt with the words ‘Jesus is not a homophobe.’ In federal court, the decision was that the high school had to let him wear the shirt, but the impact is wider when you consider all the teenagers who heard about this and thought ‘Huh, I could wear a shirt with a message like that.’ I always believe we are on the right side of every case we enter, but I never know if we will win. In this case, I was confident, but we did not anticipate how much attention this would get beyond Ohio.”
Cathcart admits to a personal appetite for cases dealing with government misconduct. “We added this area of specialization a few years ago. The cases include bar raids and entrapment. We handled an important case in Atlanta and a string of cases in Palm Springs. There is something about government malpractice that gets to me. I mean there are so many real crimes in our community that deserve police attention. Really, let the police go arrest rapists, for example.”
For the impressive list (by category and region) of victories won by Lambda Legal under Cathcart’s leadership, check out http://www.lambdalegal.org/in-court/cases. When the suggestion is made that Lambda’s strong success will lead to its obsolescence in perhaps a few years, Cathcart laughs and refers to what he calls the “bubble,” those regions where LGBT activism has made recent and great strides and is always in the headlines.
“You LGBT media types are in danger of forgetting how much of the country is outside your ‘bubble.’ Get in your car and drive west from Florida. Do you know how many states you will pass through in which you have absolutely no LGBT rights and protections? There is so much work to do.”
In the afternoon, the light through his office windows is so strong that Cathcart has to lower the blinds in order to focus. He sees the bright future of LGBTQ rights in the same way and intends to keep Lambda Legal focused and successful for many years to come.