David Buckel. | COURTESY OF LAMBDA LEGAL
BY PAUL SCHINDLER | David Buckel, a former longtime attorney at Lambda Legal who had led the group’s Marriage Project and advanced LGBTQ rights on a broad range of fronts, was found dead in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park early in the morning on April 14, the victim of a suicide.
According to the New York Daily News, Buckel, in a hand-written note left in a shopping cart near his charred body, said, “My early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves,” he wrote. “A lifetime of service may best be preserved by giving a life… Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purpose in death. I hope it is an honorable death that might serve others.”
The Daily News, which first reported Buckel’s death, reported that his body was found by the FDNY, which was responding to reports of a fire burning in the park, and by early morning joggers.
Former Marriage Project leader at Lambda Legal committed suicide, saying he was protesting inaction on environmental crises
In a written release from Lambda, Camilla Taylor, the group’s acting legal director who also heads up its constitutional litigation, said, “The news of David’s death is heartbreaking. This is a tremendous loss for our Lambda Legal family, but also for the entire movement for social justice. David was an indefatigable attorney and advocate, and also a dedicated and loving friend to so many. He will be remembered for his kindness, devotion, and vision for justice.”
The Lambda release noted several prominent cases on which Buckel worked while at the group, which he left nearly a decade ago. In 1995 and 1996, Buckel was on the Lambda team that sued a Wisconsin high school on behalf of Jamie Nabozny who had been relentlessly harassed because he was gay. After a federal trial court found in favor of the school, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, laying out the obligations of public schools to protect students from anti-gay abuse. When the case was sent back to the lower court, the school agreed to settle with an award of nearly $1 million in damages to Nabozny. The following year, the US Department of Education clarified the requirements schools have under Title IX to ensure that gay and lesbian students are protected.
In 1999, Buckel prevailed against a Nebraska county sheriff for negligence in providing protection to Brandon Teena, a transgender man who was raped and murdered in 1993. Teena’s story was the basis for the 1999 film “Boys Don’t Cry,” for which Hilary Swank won an Oscar for portraying him.
On the marriage front, Buckel worked on the New Jersey case that led that state’s Supreme Court to rule in 2006 that gay and lesbian couples deserved all the rights and benefits of marriage, a decision that led the state to adopt its civil union law. Buckel also argued forcefully that LGBTQ advocates should pursue a marriage lawsuit in Iowa, a venue some considered an unlikely target but which had state constitutional protections and a Supreme Court make-up that provided a strong likelihood for success. In 2009, Iowa become the third state where gay and lesbian couples could marry.
Buckel was also one of the attorneys who represented James Dale, an out gay Boy Scout leader who successfully challenged in the New Jersey Supreme Court that group’s ban on gays participating as either scouts or adult leaders, only to lose at the US Supreme Court in 2000 when the Scouts appealed the New Jersey decision.
The lead attorney on that case was Evan Wolfson, who at the time was Buckel’s predecessor as Lambda’s Marriage Project director before going on to found Freedom to Marry.
Saying he was “horrified” when he heard the news of Buckel’s death, Wolfson, in an email message, said, “I have so many warm memories of David as a friend and colleague over two decades. He was earnest and dedicated, serious and kind, and worked on many important cases and battle fronts in our movement… He was such a good person and I am stunned at his death.”
In an email message, Dale wrote, “David Buckel was a kind, selfless man. I’m heartbroken to learn of his early death. His work and commitment to justice have helped countless LGBT people. His contributions to equality and civil rights have made this a greater nation.”
Alphonso David, who serves as counsel to Governor Andrew Cuomo, worked at Lambda with Buckel on cases including the marriage lawsuits in New York and New Jersey and the effort to win recognition of out-of-state marriages in New York, which garnered a court victory in 2008 three years before full marriage equality was achieved here. In an email message, David said, “David Buckel was a brilliant, thoughtful, and strategic lawyer. He always played the long game and crafted legal arguments and theories, not simply to achieve success in a specific case but to advance the goal of true equality for the LGBT community. I had the privilege of working with him on several cases and was always impressed with his intelligence, creativity and tenacity. He also exhibited profound empathy for others; a level of empathy that we rarely see. We all owe him a big debt of gratitude for his work and his commitment to LGBT equality. I am deeply saddened to hear of his passing.”
Suzanne Goldberg, a Columbia Law School professor who heads its Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, worked with Buckel while both were attorneys with Lambda. She recalled, “David was a deeply passionate colleague when we worked together many years ago — and also wry and funny. I remember seeing a letter he wrote and asking him whose initials were at the bottom next to his own — as though someone had typed it for him. It said DB/afq. I asked him since we didn’t have anyone with those initials on staff. He looked at me, smiled and said, ‘Another fucking queer.’”
On Facebook, Steven Goldstein, who when he headed up Garden State Equality worked with Buckel on the marriage fight there, called out the media for being “irresonsible” in “buying into the story that David Buckel died by suicide in a protest to further his cause.”
“We who worked with David experienced his unshakable optimism in pursuing justice and in predicting success against the longest odds,” Goldstein wrote, adding, “Depression and other mental health challenges cause suicide. God forbid anyone alive believes what David wrote, and tries to follow suit by attempting suicide allegedly to further a cause.”
Buckel, who was 60 at his death, graduated from Cornell Law School in 1987. He had a 34-year relationship with Terry Kaelber, the former executive director of SAGE, Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders. At a 2006 SAGE event honoring Kaelber on his departure from the group, he and Buckel appeared with Cindy Vail and Rona Broholm and the daughter they were all co-parenting, Hannah.
Both the Daily News and the New York Times reported that in recent years, Buckel had devoted himself to environmental causes and groups, including the NYC Compost Project at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and the Added Value Red Hook Community Farm.
According to the Daily News, the note Buckel left at the scene of his suicide referred to Buddhist Tibetans setting themselves on fire to protest their country’s occupation by China, writing, “This is not new, as many have chose to give a life based on the view that no other action can most meaningfully address the harm they see. Here is a hope that giving a life might bring some attention to the need for expanded actions, and help others give a voice to our home, and Earth is heard.”
The Times reported that the newspaper received an email with Buckel’s suicide note at 5:55 a.m., barely a half hour prior to his body being found in Prospect Park. According to the newspaper, the note sounded despair that Buckel could ever do enough to address the ills he saw in society.
“Many who drive their own lives to help others often realize that they do not change what causes the need for their help,” the newspaper quoted Buckel’s note as saying.
Neither the police department nor the medical examiner’s office responded to Gay City News’ request for information about Buckel’s death. A call to Buckel and Kaelber’s home on Prospect Park Southwest was not returned by the time of this posting.