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Mourning the death of pioneering Lambda Legal attorney David Buckel
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It seemed like a crazy idea back in 2005, bringing a state lawsuit to demand marriage equality in conservative Middle America. But David Buckel, then Lambda Legal’s marriage project director, was prepared to give it a shot.

Buckel championed filing a lawsuit on behalf of six same-sex Iowa couples seeking the right to get married. In 2007, an Iowa district court ruled in their favor—and so did the Iowa Supreme Court, unanimously, two years later. It was an extraordinary early victory for the marriage equality movement.

David Buckel

“You have to remember that at the time we filed the case, the Supreme Court had only just struck down sodomy laws, and only Massachusetts allowed same-sex couples to marry,” says Camilla Taylor, Lambda Legal’s Director of Constitutional Litigation, who worked on the case with Buckel. “But David believed we could get a foothold in the Midwest, and he fought for our ability to file that case. It raised a lot of eyebrows—but we won because of him.”

Buckel, who joined Lambda Legal in 1995 from the Legal Aid Society in New York and moved on from Lambda Legal in 2008, took his own life April 14. He was 60 years old. He committed self-immolation in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, not far from where he lived. He left a note nearby—and messages with several media outlets—calling his death by fossil fuel a protest against the damage society was doing to the planet.

In recent years, Buckel had immersed himself in environmental causes, most recently serving as the senior organics recovery coordinator with the NYC Compost Project, funded by the city’s sanitation department.

Taylor remembers Buckel as uniquely principled. “He was a visionary, a brilliant strategist who was extremely passionate about his work but also incredibly kind to his colleagues,” she says. “Everyone at Lambda had a story about how he reached out to them and showed his humanity.”

In addition to his work on marriage equality while at Lambda Legal, Buckel in 2001 represented the family of Brandon Teena, the transgender man murdered in Nebraska in 1993. (Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her portrayal of Teena in the movie Boys Don’t Cry.) In that case, the local sheriff was found liable for failing to protect Teena, who, feeling threatened, had contacted his office days before the murder.

It was not the only work Buckel would do to hold accountable authorities who did not safeguard LGBTQ people. He also brought the landmark 1996 case Nabozny v. Podlesny, in which a jury found that school officials in Wisconsin had failed to protect a student, Jamie Nabozny, from homophobic bullying so severe that he had to drop out of school. Nabozny and his family were awarded nearly $1 million in damages.

”That was a huge breakthrough at a time when bullying of LGBTQ students was not yet acknowledged nationally as a problem“ says Jennifer Pizer, Lambda Legal’s Law and Policy Director, who worked with Buckel for a decade. “It sent a powerful message nationwide to school administrators that they have a responsibility to protect all their students,” she says.

With other developments, the case led to school policies to prevent and address bullying, especially of LGBTQ students.

“David was kind and funny and deeply committed to our work at Lambda Legal,” remembers Pizer. “He had a strong sense of justice and an urgent moral call, particularly when it came to calling out the irresponsibility of institutions in not protecting the vulnerable, especially LGBTQ people.”

Suicide and suicide attempt rates are particularly high among LGBTQ people, especially young ones. If you’re struggling with those issues, or someone you know is, contact The Trevor Project’s 24/7 Lifeline by call, text, or online chat at (866) 488- 7386 or thetrevorproject.org.