New CEO doesn’t want her organization to take every case, but to empower others to take cases
Lambda Legal’s new CEO Rachel Tiven, in Dallas last weekend for the organization’s Landmark Dinner, sees a continued role for impact litigation after last year’s marriage equality decision.
In Texas, within a few months of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Ogergefell ruling, questions about adoption and birth certificates were settled. But other states are still fighting second-parent adoptions and other family issues. Lambda Legal recently filed a case in Florida on behalf of two widowers to obtain correct death certificates listing them as the spouses.
While cases like those involve enforcement of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of LGBT people, Tiven sees other issues that haven’t been resolved.
“We’re seeing courts struggle with employment issues,” she said. “What is discrimination based on sexual orientation and what is based on sex and sex stereotyping?”
Lambda Legal recently lost a case in the Seventh Circuit involving a woman in South Bend, Ind., who was passed over for a promotion and then fired.
The court agreed she was fired for being lesbian. Although that’s not a fair reason to be fired in today’s world, it is legal in many places. If the woman have been more butch, Tiven said, she’d be covered by Title VII.
“Animus for being lesbian is clearly present,” Tiven said, explaining the court’s decision, “but we’re not persuaded.”
Transgender issues are another topic at the top of Lambda Legal’s list.
“Nationally, there’s an animus towards transgender people,” Tiven said.
And those legislating against the trans community are trying to drive a wedge between them and the LGB part of the community.
She said they’d like gays and lesbians to feel like, “I’m different, but not as different as you,” and not take up the trans cause.
Legislation such as HB2 in North Carolina and a long list of proposed bills that will be filed in the Texas Legislature this fall and winter affect young people terribly, Tiven said.
“They have a chilling affect on queer kids,” she said. “They send a message differences are not tolerated.”
She said the attacks on trans people “particularly on whether they can pee,” mean they can’t participate in public life. If a person can’t use a public restroom, he or she can’t work, shop, go to restaurants or lead any sort of life in public. She called the sudden interest in anti-trans legislation a backlash against the marriage-equality victory.
Tiven said a lawsuit recently filed in Illinois on behalf of a lesbian living in assisted living could be a milestone in protecting LGBT elders.
In that case, Marsha Wetzel claims administrators of Glen St. Andrew Living Community failed to protect her from harassment, discrimination and violence she has endured at the hands of other residents because of her sex and sexual orientation. Some residents began calling her names like “fucking dyke,” “fucking faggot” and “homosexual bitch.” Others physically attacked her and staff did nothing to stop the harassment.
“What happens to people at the end of their lives,” Tiven said, is a focus of new litigation that she sees growing as the baby boom generation ages and seeks assisted living, nursing and memory care.
Tiven would like to expand the capacity of Lambda Legal’s help desk.
“Lambda Legal needs to be a household name so LGBT and HIV-positive people know to call us when they have a problem,” she said.
That doesn’t mean she wants Lambda Legal to take every discrimination case. She’d like Lambda Legal to be the starting point to discuss what the next steps can be and point people in the right direction.
Tiven succeeds Kevin Cathcart, who has led Lambda Legal since 1992. Under his leadership, the organization scored victories such as Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, which declared sodomy laws unconstitutional and paved the way for the Windsor decision, which declared parts of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, and the Obergefell marriage equality decision.
Inclusion in the Boy Scouts, employment and housing protection and access to healthcare for people with HIV are additional legal milestones achieved under Cathcart’s leadership.
Lambda Legal focuses on impact litigation, meaning cases that can make a difference nationally by breaking new legal ground.
“We don’t want to take every case,” Tiven said. “We want to empower others to take cases.”
Tiven may be just the right person to keep Lambda Legal on course. The Harvard College and Columbia Law School grad was executive director of Immigration Equality for eight years.
That organization saw tremendous growth under her leadership. She built a pro bono legal program that serves more than 5,000 people a year that’s worth $17 million annually and helped change the immigration system for LGBT and HIV-positive people.
Cannon Flowers, who currently chairs the local Coalition for Aging LGBT, served on her board of directors. He said Tiven had a special ability to turn those pro bono attorneys into activists.
“Her tenacity of getting us into the White House to discuss a topic they’d rather not talk about,” was among the qualities that impressed Flowers.
But it was because of her passion that Flowers said he holds a place in his heart for her. Flowers and his husband, who is from Singapore, spent two decades fighting for the right to stay together in Dallas.
“She told us, ‘We’re not going to stop fighting until you two are safe,’” he said.
Lambda Legal Regional Director Roger Poindexter called Tiven a strong leader with a vision.
“She’s passionate about the LGBT community,” he said. “After 24 successful years under Kevin, she’s looking at things with a new set of eyes and will continue the legacy Kevin created.”
Tiven lives with her wife Sally Gottesman and their three children in New York City.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 19, 2016.