Lambda Legal Authorized to Practice Law

The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a nonprofit, public interest law firm for lesbians, gays, and people with HIV-AIDS, argues cases with the potential of establishing positive legal precedents. Authorized to practice law by the New York Court of Appeals, Lambda Legal also was the first gay rights organization to receive tax-exempt status from the U.S. government.

Summary of Event

Lesbians and gays have yet to obtain legal rights that parallel the legal rights of heterosexuals, people of color, and, to some extent, women and those with disabilities, in areas of housing and accommodation, education, employment, marriage rights, medical care, and hospital visitation. Prior to 1973, the year Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund was permitted to practice law, the only organization with a national gay identity was the Mattachine Society. The group, in 1958, won a case against the U.S. postal service, which had restricted the mailing and receipt of gay-themed publications. The only organization of the time with a national lesbian identity was the Daughters of Bilitis. [kw]Lambda Legal Authorized to Practice Law (Oct. 18, 1973)
[kw]Law, Lambda Legal Authorized to Practice (Oct. 18, 1973)
Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund
[c]Civil rights;Oct. 18, 1973: Lambda Legal Authorized to Practice Law[1000]
[c]Government and politics;Oct. 18, 1973: Lambda Legal Authorized to Practice Law[1000]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 18, 1973: Lambda Legal Authorized to Practice Law[1000]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Oct. 18, 1973: Lambda Legal Authorized to Practice Law[1000]

During the social upheaval of the 1960’s, many gay (and some lesbian) groups originated on campuses and in large cities across the United States. While these were very important social organizations, a concerted effort to address the legal rights denied to lesbians and gays seemed to be lacking, and no national organizing was being done to address legal issues.

The creation of Lambda Legal is historic, for its founding in 1973 filled a profound legal gap. Lambda would emphasize a number of major issues, including the need for legal representation by a counsel who understands lesbians and gays, the need to encourage lesbians and gays to enter the legal profession, and the need for, and impact of, activism in the legal arena.

The founding of Lambda Legal was in and of itself a legal battle to establish Lambda as a nonprofit organization. Lambda had been denied by a New York court the right to exist as a nonprofit legal organization on the grounds that its “stated purposes ’are on their face neither benevolent nor charitable, nor, in any event, is there a demonstrated need for this corporation.’” The court further stated that it “does not appear that discrimination against homosexuals, which undoubtedly exists, operates to deprive them of legal representation.”

On October 18, 1973, after many battles, the original denial for nonprofit status was overturned by the New York Court of Appeals in the case In re Thom. In re Thom (1973) In July of 1974, the Internal Revenue Service Internal Revenue Service granted to Lambda Legal its tax-exempt status, the first gay and lesbian rights organization to receive tax-exempt status from the U.S. government. Lambda Legal, thus, was established as a legal nonprofit organization, and it adopted the following mission statement: “Lambda Legal is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV through impact litigation, education, and public policy work.”


The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund has had a profound impact on the LGBT community and on those living with HIV or AIDS. Lambda Legal, now a well-established organization with a national headquarters, has a staff of more than eighty in four regional offices, and hosts of volunteer attorneys. Its goals are the same as they were in 1973: recognizing that lesbians and gays deserve the same human, civil, and legal rights as the general population.

Lambda has worked since its founding to gain for the LGBT community fundamental human and legal rights, including fighting discrimination in housing and public accommodation, employment and domestic partnership, and the treatment and care of people with HIV-AIDS. Lambda also has argued cases involving U.S. immigration and asylum laws, international human rights for gays and lesbians, First Amendment issues, and legal benefits for survivors of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the partners of those who died because of those attacks. Additionally, Lambda Legal represents clients who have been discharged or are facing discharge from the military, argues cases regarding the public funding of religious groups, represents clients who have faced transgender discrimination, and works on reproductive rights and adoption and family rights.

Because of the long history of discrimination against lesbians and gays, all of Lambda Legal’s litagation is important, but a few cases have had a major impact, including the following: In 1981, the Department of Defense changed its policy of automatically giving lesbian or gay servicemembers a dishonorable discharge, regardless of the individual’s service record, to a policy of honorably discharging a servicemember, barring any other circumstance that would warrant a discharge of less than honorable or general. In 1993, New York City became the largest municipality to offer domestic partnership benefits to its employees. In 1995, second-parent adoptions became legal in New York State.

In 2003, Lambda played a crucial role in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which invalidated sodomy laws in the United States. Since the November 2, 2004, election, a great deal of Lambda’s time and energy has been devoted to arguing for the legal right for lesbians and gays to marry and to challenging the bans against same-gender marriage approved in eleven states during this same election.

“Since 1973,” its Web site states, “Lambda Legal has challenged [U.S.] courts and [the U.S.] constitutional system to open up the promise of liberty and equal treatment to lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV-AIDS. In the process, we have won significant victories both in and out of the courtroom. By widely publicizing our cases, we break the silence that has traditionally surrounded our lives and tell the real stories about ourselves.” Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund

Further Reading

  • Bernbach, Jeffrey M. Job Discrimination II: How to Fight, How to Win. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Voir Dire Press, 1998.
  • Cain, Patricia A. Rainbow Rights: The Role of Lawyers and Courts in the Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights Movement. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000.
  • Curry, Hayden, Denis Clifford, and Frederick Hertz. A Legal Guide for Lesbian and Gay Couples. 11th ed. Berkeley, Calif.: Nolo Press, 2002.
  • Halley, Janet E. Don’t: A Reader’s Guide to the Military’s Anti-Gay Policy. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999.
  • Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.
  • Nava, Michael, and Robert Dawidoff. Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter to America. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
  • Pinello, Daniel R. Gay Rights and American Law. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • “Same-Sex Marriage: A Selective Bibliography of the Legal Literature.” Law Library, Rutgers School of Law.

April 27, 1953: U.S. President Eisenhower Prohibits Federal Employment of Lesbians and Gays

1972-1973: Local Governments Pass Antidiscrimination Laws

1973: National Gay Task Force Is Formed

June 21, 1973: U.S. Supreme Court Supports Local Obscenity Laws

August, 1973: American Bar Association Calls for Repeal of Laws Against Consensual Sex

April 6, 1991: Asian Lesbians and Gays Protest Lambda Fund-Raiser

June 26, 2003: U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Texas Sodomy Law