Remembering David Buckel, the Pioneering Lawyer Who Championed L.G.B.T. Rights
Sometime in the late nineteen-nineties, the lawyers Evan Wolfson and David Buckel were reading a mutual friend’s obituary together.
“Boy, I can’t wait to read your obituary,” Buckel said.
What Buckel meant, according to Wolfson, was that an obituary has a way of drawing attention to a person’s work and—in the case of a person with causes—his causes. But the comment didn’t come out quite right, and both men burst out laughing. At the time, both Wolfson and Buckel worked at Lambda Legal, an L.G.B.T.-rights organization, and Buckel was helping Wolfson litigate a discrimination case against the Boy Scouts of America.
Wolfson recounted the conversation to me over the phone on Sunday, the day after Buckel died after apparently setting himself on fire in Prospect Park, in Brooklyn. It was Wolfson who had been reading Buckel’s obituaries instead.
Minutes before Buckel killed himself, he sent an e-mail to the Times. “Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather,” the message said, according to the paper. “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.” Buckel was sixty years old.
Buckel’s husband, Terry Kaelber, told me in a telephone interview on Sunday that Buckel had long been passionate about the right of individuals to choose the time and manner of their death. When he was a recent college graduate, Kaelber said, Buckel worked as a home care attendant and observed the toll that dying takes on family and friends. “He was always very clear that he wanted control over the end-of-life process,” Kaelber said, but added that he had understood Buckel to mean that he favored making end-of-life decisions with family members. No one in Buckel’s family—not his husband, nor their daughter, nor her two mothers—was aware of Buckel’s plan to take his own life.
Buckel and Kaelber met through mutual friends thirty-four years ago. They wanted to adopt, but an adoption agency stonewalled them; Kaelber told me that they sued, and eventually won, but were still denied a baby or child. Soon after the case, they met the lesbian couple, Rona and Cindy, with whom they decided to form a family. The two men, two women, and their daughter have shared a house at the edge of Prospect Park since the girl was an infant. Kaelber works as the director of community engagement at a nonprofit organization; both of the women work in health care.
“His despair over where things are politically was so deep that he didn’t see what this was going to do to his family,” Cindy told me. Both women joined my phone conversation with Kaelber but asked that I not include their last name, to protect the privacy of their college-age daughter.
Buckel worked for the Legal Aid Society before joining Lambda Legal in the early nineteen-nineties. His work involved not only litigating cases but also conceiving them. Camilla Taylor, the Chicago-based director of constitutional litigation at Lambda Legal, said in a telephone interview on Sunday that Buckel had called her in 2003 and asked to research the possibility of litigating a case for same-sex marriage somewhere in the Midwest. At the time, she recalled, the idea seemed unrealistic, since not a single state in the country recognized same-sex marriage. But Buckel, she said, “had this faith in the goodness of other people, and believed that we could win a marriage case, even in the heartland.” The resulting case, Varnum v. Brien, made Iowa the third state—and the first Midwestern one—to recognize same-sex marriage.
Another former Lambda Legal colleague, the Columbia Law School professor Suzanne Goldberg, recalled that Buckel was, in addition to being dedicated and passionate, “also wry and funny.” She recalled, for example, that she once came across a letter that Buckel had prepared to send to opposing counsel in a case. “At the bottom it said DB/afq, which signaled that an assistant had typed the letter on David’s behalf,” Goldberg wrote in an e-mail. “Since our assistants did not typically type our letters and I knew we didn’t have anyone on staff with those initials, I was puzzled and asked him who afq was. He looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘Another fucking queer.’ ”
Buckel’s work, in keeping with much of the gay-rights movement, was based on the premise that the stories of real people—the stories of their lives and their bodies—could change minds, hearts, and policy. “He wanted to introduce the country to L.G.B.T. people,” Taylor said. “He had the idea that people would be moved by seeing families who were left unprotected.” Similarly, she said, “He introduced the country to transgender people, in a way.”
Wolfson said that Buckel became interested in and committed to the fight for transgender rights long before the cause received widespread attention—long before even most gay-rights advocates acknowledged that the gay and lesbian and the transgender causes were “aligned and overlapping.” Starting about a quarter-century ago, Buckel was making the case to his colleagues that the root cause of both anti-gay and anti-transgender discrimination was sexism, and that it required a single legal strategy. In what would become his most famous case, Buckel represented the family of Brandon Teena, a transgender man who was raped and then murdered in Falls City, Nebraska, after the county sheriff alerted the rapists to the victim’s complaint. The 1999 movie “Boys Don’t Cry” was based on the story.
Buckel won some extraordinary victories, leaving this country a very different place for L.G.B.T. people than it was when he became a lawyer thirty years ago. Still, the law had not changed enough to reflect the reality of his own family. The four parents had no legal agreement—the three surviving partners told me “it was based on trust.”
“Terry and David had to trust us a lot more since we’re the parents and the lack of protection and we’re honored by that,” Rona said. I asked if they had ever discussed the possibility that the law would someday accommodate four-parent families. “David thought it was hard enough to gain recognition for two people in the L.G.B.T. community,” Kaelber replied. Early on in that process—back in 2005, when New York State had begun to recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions, but years before same-sex couples could get married in the state—all four parents “eloped,” as they phrased it, to Canada. They had a double wedding, at which their daughter served as the ring bearer.
From 2001 to 2008, Buckel ran the marriage-equality project at Lambda Legal. Then he retired from law and dedicated himself to a composting project at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. He walked an hour to work every day: a testament to his opposition to the use of fossil fuels but also to his physical vigor. In his e-mail to the Times, Buckel stressed that he had enjoyed “good health to the final moment.” He was perhaps especially aware of this privilege because, like all gay men of his generation, he had seen many of his contemporaries die of AIDS. Kaelber said that both men felt lucky to have avoided infection with H.I.V. Still, the family said, Buckel was attuned to his own aging, and had said that he might be in his “last year of being able to perform the job he had taken on.”
“He had increasing distress about the state of the world, economic disparity, and climate change,” Rona told me. “And as he saw himself as being able to do less in the world physically, he wanted to jolt the world.”
Asked if Buckel had seemed depressed, Kaelber said no. “Distressed more than depressed. He was also trying to figure out what’s next—what someone can do.” Finally, after decades of drawing public attention to the plight of other people and other bodies, Buckel used his own body to send a desperate message.
“Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purpose in death,” Buckel wrote in his e-mail.
Kaelber hopes that his husband’s death succeeds in sending a “wake-up call to all those who care about the Earth,” he said. But the family added that they hoped that it would help spread another message, too: one about suicide prevention.
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April 16, 2018 at 10:13PM