Uplifting and serving LGBTQ+ youth isn’t new to staff attorney Kell Olson. Before law school, he worked in the non-profit world, providing direct services to vulnerable queer young people. One day, a queer studen tcame to him needing help because his school was blocking him from starting a Gay Straight Alliance. After researching, Kell came across Lambda Legal’s Help Desk and passed along the number. While that may have seemed like a small moment, just seeing firsthand the possibilities of what the law could do to help the LGBTQ+ community, the self-professed “legal nerd” was encouraged to pursue the law.
“I had decided that public interest work for me was doing direct service, but this was my first exposure to lawyers doing public interest work,” Kell shared, adding, “I was looking for a new challenge, and the combination of doing something that was intellectually challenging and serving the public good was exciting.”
Since Kell came on as a staff attorney in 2021, he has been doing all the good things while answering his calling to help young people in need. He is currently part of the team working on Cousins v. The School Board of Orange County, a federal lawsuit challenging the stigmatizing and unfair law known as the “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law. The lawsuit argues that the law, which bans discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3 and restricts such discussions for students through grade 12 based on undefined standards of appropriateness, effectively silences and erases LGBTQ+ students and families.
For Kell, it’s crucial that not only more organizations stand up for queer youth but more LGBTQ+ adults too.
“It’s particularly important because the attacks we see now are similar to what we’ve seen in the past. Maybe the terminology is different, but many older folks know firsthand what it feels like to be shoved back into the closet and shamed for being proud,” he stresses.
“We need them to unite around these common interests and experiences and share their valuable perspective and support to give hope to the younger generation.”
For the latest installment of our “Meet Our Lawyers” series, Kell opens about his proudest moments working at Lambda Legal, the dangerous messages the “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law sends young people, and why hiking with his family brings him joy.
What brought you to work at Lambda?
It was a referral to Lambda Legal that first inspired me to become a lawyer fourteen years ago. I was working at a drop-in center for LGBTQ+ youth then, and a young person came to me because his school was blocking his gay-straight alliance student club from meeting on campus. I found Lambda Legal’s helpline as a resource for him, which inspired me to explore a career in the legal field. This was my first exposure to lawyers doing good things, such as public interest work and fighting the good fight. It was exciting to see!
Additionally, as a law student in 2009, I interned with Lambda Legal’s Western Regional Office in Los Angeles and have been working my way back to Lambda Legal ever since. I worked for ten years in state courts and as a government attorney before joining the Lambda team full-time in 2021.
Can you tell us about your current case Cousins et al. v. The School Board of Orange County et al., and how and why this lawsuit came about?
The Cousins case challenges the Florida law known as “Don’t Say Gay or Trans.” This type of law restricts discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools and is part of a nationwide movement to keep LGBTQ+ youth in the closet and remove support systems for young people in schools. The law’s sponsors explained that it was meant to address parents’ concerns who believe that schools undermine their value systems when supporting LGBTQ+ students and families. The law also allows those parents to sue schools if they are not satisfied with its enforcement, placing additional pressure on schools to interpret the law broadly.
As a result of the law, we’ve seen schools remove anti-bullying guidance for K-12 teachers and books with LGBTQ+ characters. Young students with LGBTQ+ parents are in a particularly tough position, as instruction in those grades is often discussion-based and often involves discussion of students’ family lives (picture your typical “what I did last summer” assignment). In August 2022, along with our friends at Southern Legal Counsel, Southern Poverty Law Center, and private firm Baker McKenzie, we filed a lawsuit on behalf of LGBTQ+ students, parents, and organizations impacted by the law. We have also asked the court to block the law while the lawsuit is pending, in an effort to minimize the harm it is causing in the meantime.
Why is it so dangerous to erase LGBTQ+ youth, heroes, and history from classroom conversations and curriculum? What message does that send?
Although the targets have shifted, this struggle is not new. Our LGBTQ+ communities know—all too well—the harm that comes from labeling people as “too shameful” or “inappropriate” to discuss. This type of state-sponsored shame hurts us as a community and is particularly harmful to young people developing their sense of self-esteem and self-love. Multiple studies have shown that LGBTQ+ youth are healthier and more successful when their schools have affirming policies, and students who witness teachers intervene against bullying are more likely to do so themselves.
Schools should be able to continue supporting LGBTQ+ youth by providing the message that all students will be respected and safe at school and that none of us are “too shameful” to be the topic of respectful learning and conversation. Throughout our work, I have been incredibly inspired by all of the young people who have stood up in the midst of this struggle to show the world that they will not be erased. Not everyone is in a position to do so, but I am sure those watching silently are heartened to know they are not alone.
What has been your proudest moment working at Lambda Legal?
I am always proud to be a part of the Lambda Legal team, both as a long-time donor and as a staff member. Recently, I have worked with multiple clients who have been denied health care for treatment for gender dysphoria. This care is often denied under blanket exclusions that preclude coverage even where it would otherwise be covered as medically necessary. I have been proud to work side-by-side with these clients advocating for nondiscriminatory health care. There is a particular expression—a look of hope—a person has when they realize they will receive life-changing care that has been long-denied. I have been tremendously proud to be a part of their journey.
How has this work changed you or helped you view the world differently?
I’ve only been at Lambda for a little over a year, and with a nationally tough year with all the increased attacks, I haven’t had much time to reflect. But one thing that comes to mind is that the older I get, the more I realize there are many ways to do the “most good” for our community. We face complicated problems, and the solutions will be complex as well. None of us can do it alone and there is no “magic bullet” when it comes to which work will impact our community most. We need to value all work—whether it seems big or small, paid or unpaid—that improves peoples’ lives, and to inspire people to find an aspect of that work that fits their skills and interests. We each have our own piece of the work to do.
Tell us something personal about yourself: What brings you joy?
I live in Arizona, and the Sonoran desert brings me joy. I love hiking with my family, moving from low hikes in the winter to mountain trails in the summer. This time of year, we relish the monsoons that roll in during the evenings, trudge out in search of the temporary streams and washes that run only this time of year, and wait (not so) patiently for fall to arrive.