What does it mean to make history?
For many, it means being the first—to hold public office, to share a same-sex kiss on television, or to throw a brick into a New York City bar to start a much-needed revolution. For others, it may mean being the best—taking home the gold for diving at the Olympics, brilliantly writing about race and sexuality, or singing pop music with an unapologetic flair in front of millions. Whatever it takes to have an impact felt and seen for generations, to open doors that systematic oppression has sealed off, and to shift the culture for the better, it takes sheer will, bravery, and tenacity.
Since Lambda Legal’s inception in 1973, we have embodied all of those traits. But making history wasn’t and isn’t the sole goal. We walked into this wanting to use the law—the very thing standing in our way to equality—to fight for the lives and dignity of LGBTQ+ people and people living with HIV. And along the way, we have made history by winning cases, setting precedents, and creating new standards for how the law would be applied to our lives.
But whether our cases make it all the way to the Supreme Court or a local school board, whether we win or lose, each time we say, “Not on our watch,” we set our own precedent—that we are entitled to equal protection under the law. Most importantly, we will never stop fighting.
As we commemorate LGBTQ+ History Month this October, here are a few examples of how we’ve contributed to that history, one client and case at a time.
John Lawrence and Tyrone Garner: On the night of September 17, 1998, someone made a phone call to the police, alerting them of a weapons disturbance in the home of John Lawrence. County sheriff’s deputies stormed into the apartment. Rather than finding a gun, they instead found Lawrence in bed being sexually intimate with Tyron Garner.
Instead of excusing themselves, the deputies arrested both Lawrence and Garner, where they were then jailed overnight for violating Texas’ “homosexual conduct” law, which made it a crime for two people of the same sex to have oral or anal sex. Represented by Lambda Legal, the two men challenged the charges, and in a stunning victory, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Texas’s “Homosexual Conduct Law,” and all remaining state sodomy laws in the country as unconstitutional.
Today, Lawrence v. Texas is considered the most significant gay rights breakthrough of our time. No longer can LGBTQ+ people be considered “criminals” because they love others of the same sex.
Andrew Adams: Andrew Adams was an honor student at Allen D. Nease High School in Ponte Vedra, FL who dreamed of a career helping other LGBTQ+ students. While in high school he played four musical instruments, enjoyed playing video games, and was an active volunteer at the Mayo Clinic.
Andrew just wanted to fit in with his male peers at school and used the boys’ restroom without incident until someone anonymously reported him. School officials told him he could only use the gender-neutral restrooms from that point forward, solely because he was transgender.
Andrew challenged the restroom policy by suing the school on the basis that the policy was unjust and discriminatory. He made history as the country’s first student to testify at a trial involving equal access to restrooms.
Zulma and Yolanda: Zulma first met Yolanda in 2008 at a Christmas party and reconnected a second time at a poetry event in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. This was just the beginning of their love story.
Since their second encounter, the two women formed a loving, committed relationship and moved in together in 2009 to continue to build their lives together. Together, they jointly raised Yolanda’s daughter, A.T.A., who they parented along with A.T.A.’s father.
After 6 years of building their life together in Puerto Rico, Yolanda and Zulma wished for their commitment to be legally recognized in their home country, but never had the opportunity until they joined a lawsuit filed in the U.S District Court for the District of Puerto Rico seeking the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.
In 2016, this loving couple made history when the District Court Judge Gustavo A. Gelpí struck down the marriage ban, allowing LGBTQ+ couples in Puerto Rico like Yolanda and Zulma to be legally married.
James Obergefell and John Aurthur: In 1992, James Obergefell fell deeply in love with John Aurthur. The loving couple built a life together for more than two decades in Cincinnati, Ohio, where they both worked and had deep roots in the community but never had the opportunity to marry.
In 2011, the couple received devastating news that John was diagnosed with terminal ALS and his last wish was to marry James. Since Ohio would not permit the couple to marry, family and friends pitched in so they could travel to Maryland and marry there.
When they returned to Ohio to live out John’s last days as a married couple, the state annulled their marriage. Heartbroken that John’s death certificate would say “single,” they went to court to seek recognition of their marriage. The judge granted their request to have his death certifcate properly issued but John, who passed away in 2013, did not live to see marriage recognized for all same-sex couples.
Their case would come to be known as Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark case that helped bring equal marriage rights for #LGBTQ+ couples nationwide. Everyone deserves the right to marry who they love regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
Tonya and Rachel Smith: Tonya and Rachel Smith are a loving, committed couple who have been married for 6 years and lived together in Colorado with their two children. In search of a new place to call home, the Smith family was looking for an affordable cozy space near a small school.
After locating a two-bedroom duplex that seemed to meet all of their needs, they met the landlord, Deepika Avanti, and toured the unit. Within hours, the couple received an email from Avanti, informing them that she would not be renting the unit to them because of their “unique relationship.”
Devastated, the couple continued searching for housing for several months but were unable to find a place before they had to move out, forcing them to stay at Rachel’s mother’s house.
The couple sued the landlord, asserting that Avanti discriminated against the couple’s sexual orientation along with Rachel’s transgender identiy. The court ruled in their favor, making history, as establishing this case as the first Fair Housing Act case ever.
Nyla Foster: Nyla Foster is a transgender woman residing in Kansas City, Missouri. She is an artist, community advocate and organizer who has dedicated much of her career to working with LGBTQ+ people who have experienced violence.
Though she had been living as the gender she identifies with for more than 15 years, her Kansas birth certificate still indicated her sex as male. In order to live her truth, Nyla sought to correct her birth certificate to accurately reflect her sex as female but the state denied her request.
Seeking to challenge the regressive and outdated policy, Nyla sued the state and made history by securing the right for transgender people born in Kansas to now be able to correct the gender marker on their birth certificates.
Dana Zzyym: Dana Zzyym was born in 1958 with ambiguous sex characteristics, but was raised a boy by their parents. As a result, Dana was forced to undergo several irreversible, painful and medically unnecessary surgeries to conform to binary sex stereotypes. The surgeries failed immediately and traumatized Dana with permanent scarring and damage.
Later into their adult life, Dana came to realize that they had been forced into an incorrect gender category, they identify as neither male nor female. As part of their work as associate director for the United States affiliiate of the Organization Intersex International, Dana was invited to attend a forum in Mexico city, at which time they applied for a U.S. passport. Dana’s application was denied for the use of an “X” marker in the sex field since the Department of state requires that the sex field be listed as “M” or “F.”
Denying Dana a passport would be depriving them access to any and all means of lawfully exiting the United States, so Dana fought back. They sued the U.S. State Department for denying them a passport that accurately reflected their gender and made history for becoming the first U.S. citizen to receive an official U.S. passport with an “X” gender marker.
Myles and Precious Brady-Davis: Myles and Precious Brady-Davis are a loving couple who always dreamed to become parents and start a family together. Their dream became a reality in 2019 when they welcomed the arrival of their baby. While the couple should have been taking time to celebrate their newborn, they had to seek immediate help to issue an accurate birth certificate that does not misgender them.
The couple was concerned that Myles, who identifies as trans masculine, would automatically be listed as the “Mother/Co-Parent” and Precious, who identifies as a transgender woman, as “Father/Co-Parent.” Knowing that this mistake would compromise the family’s safety because of the confusion it might create, Myles and Precious reached out to Lambda Legal for help.
On the couple’s behalf, Lambda Legal sent the state of Illinois an advocacy letter in support of issuing their baby’s birth certificate that accurately reflected their gender identities. Myles and Precious made history as the first couple to bring this to the state’s attention and in a legal victory, the state eventually agreed.
As we celebrate these wins, we know that history always repeats itself. Right now, there are right-wing extremists, whether sitting on the highest court of the land or crafting laws in our state and local legislatures, who are determined to roll back the rights that our community has fought hard for and gained. We have a lot more fighting to do…and we’re just getting started.
Read more about our past clients:
Where Are They Now? Meet Soul: In 2014, Soul, a gay Senegalese immigrant, sought help from Lambda Legal to obtain a green card after being abandoned by his parents for coming out.
Where Are They Now? Meet Chris and Shelton: In 2014 after being denied a marriage license, Christopher Inniss and Shelton Stroman teamed up with Lambda Legal to fight against Georgia’s discriminatory marriage ban.
Where are They Now? Meet Jessica Hicklin: In 2016, with the help of Lambda, Jessica, an incarcerated transgender woman, successfully sued the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC) and its contracted healthcare provider, Corizon LLC, for denial of medically necessary healthcare.
Where are They Now? Meet Meet Janizia Ross: In 2018, Lambda advocated for Janizia, an Alabama teen who was told she could not attend the prom with her girlfriend because of a public promposal she did at a school assembly.