Law and disorder
Lambda Legal celebrates civil-rights unrest with a night of controversy.
What are the most controversial gay rights issues in America today? Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? Gay marriage? Same-sex adoptions? The lawyers at Lambda Legal, an organization whose mission is to achieve civil rights for GLBT people through litigation, imagine a world where these issues are no longer so contentious. It’s with that frame of mind that the organization presents Bon Foster: A Night of Controversy at the Museum of Contemporary Art, an exploration into the nature of controversy.
The annual gala, now in its 13th year, will examine the larger civil-rights movement through art and activism. At the heart of the celebration is the legacy of Bon Foster, who was a Chicago-based lawyer at Jenner & Block. He was also an AIDS activist and early champion of Lambda Legal who pushed for a Chicago office and for the group to expand its efforts nationwide.
“He had a reputation of being loud and proud,” says Lambda Legal’s Midwest regional director Jim Bennett. “He was out there at a time when you wouldn’t imagine a partner in a major law firm being so proactive and being proud that he’s gay. [He was] never satisfied with the status quo almost in that ACT UP mentality of, If we’re going to be seen and we’re going to have the AIDS crisis, which is where he made his mark, we’re going to have to bring attention to ourselves and wherever we bring attention is fine.”
Sadly, Foster died of AIDS complications in 1991, but in his will he left money to create the Midwest chapter of Lambda Legal. He since has been inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. His grassroots outreach fits with an organization whose own roots were the result of a Supreme Court decision.
Thirty years ago, gay lawyers in New York City tried to form their own nonprofit devoted to fighting GLBT causes but were denied by the state of New York. “We did illegal activities so we weren’t allowed to organize,” Bennett says. They sued and the case came before the Supreme Court. The ruling in their favor resulted in the formation of Lambda Legal. If you trace your finger along the path of gay civil rights, you’ll find Lambda Legal’s imprint in almost every instance.
Most notably, the organization was behind the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas case in which antisodomy laws were struck down nationwide. “[It] laid the groundwork for these marriage-equality cases because no longer were our lives illegal,” Bennett says. Here in the Midwest, the organization was behind another landmark case, that of Jamie Nabozny, a high-school student from Ashland, Wisconsin, who sued his former school district and several school officials in 1996 for not protecting him from years of abuse, which included being peed on, mock-raped and beaten so badly he required surgery. The win there signaled an accountability for the way in which schools treat GLBT students.
That’s not to say the wind always blows in Lambda Legal’s favor. The organization relies on expert lawyers to combat heavily funded right-wing groups like Focus on the Family. “That church in Colorado where [Ted Haggard] had his affair—his one megachurch is larger [financially] than Lambda Legal’s annual budget,” Bennett says. “You do realize how much is against us.”
But at the MCA, the focus will be on its successes. The evening will include a speech from Kevin Cathcart, Lambda Legal’s national executive director; an an exhibition to commemorate GLBT people of faith who’ve been turned away from their churches; and a photography display called “Marriage Equality Matters,” which will resonate in a state facing its own Civil Unions Bill. As for Foster, he’ll be honored with his very own cocktail, the Bontini. “He would’ve liked that,” Bennett says.
Celebrate Lambda Legal’s successes at the MCA Thursday 26. See listings.