On-Demand: Today’s LGBTQIA+ Movement | An Interview with Kevin Jennings
Ken Weissenberg and Natalie McVeigh, co-leaders of EisnerAmper’s LGBTQIA+ Employee Resource Group interviewed Kevin Jennings, CEO of Lambda Legal to gain his unique perspective on the progression of the LGBTQIA+ civil rights movement.
Ken Weissenberg:Hi, I'm Ken Weissenberg. I'm Co-Chair of the LGBTQIA Employee Resource Group here at EisnerAmper. EisnerAmper is proud to have Kevin Jennings from Lambda Legal, the CEO there as our guest today. Lambda Legal is a wonderful organization. I was on the board there for many years.
And the organization fights discrimination and fights for justice and equality for LGBTQIA individuals and for people living with HIV. Kevin, you have a very interesting background. You're not basically straight along the not-for-profit route. You started off down south growing up in North Carolina, ended up in Harvard and Columbia, and went into teaching. Tell us your path to Lambda Legal, if you may.
Kevin Jennings: First of all thank you, Ken, for your service to Lambda Legal and for having me on the webinar today. I always want to express my gratitude to you. Yes, I have an unusual background. I grew up in the rural south. I literally grew up in a trailer park on an unpaved dirt road in an unincorporated town. My dad was originally from Boston, hence the Red Sox hat, go Sox. And he met my mother, who was from Appalachia and fell in love.
And she tried to live up north, but she couldn't stand it, so she moved in back to the south, which is where I grew up. Dad was a fundamentalist evangelist who could recite the entire New Testament from memory, and so I grew up in a fundamentalist home. My father actually died of a massive heart attack at my eighth birthday party, which was quite traumatizing as you might imagine.
He left my mother who only had a sixth grade education. My mother grew up in a shack in Appalachia, no running water, no electricity, had to leave school when she was 12 years old to go to work in the fields to support her eight brothers and sisters during the depression with the kids to raise. Mom got the kind of jobs you get when you have a sixth grade education.
She cleaned people's houses. She worked at McDonald's. She did whatever she had to do to put food on the table. Of course, I went to Harvard because doesn't everybody go to Harvard from a background like that? I was the first of 46 first cousins of my family to go to college. And I had to memorize 25 Bible verses a night as a child. And often when my mother wanted to make points to me, she would go back to the Bible.
And on the day I graduated from Harvard becoming the first person in my family to ever earn a college degree, my mother pulled me aside, and by the way, I always do my mother in her accent because that's how I hear her voice. I am not making fun of her, and she said to me, "Kevin, to whom much has been given, much will be expected," which was one of her favorite verses.
And I knew that having had this unbelievable opportunity to go to college, something no one in my family had ever had before, that I had an obligation to try to do something to help other people, that my purpose in life had to be more than just benefiting myself. So, I thought about my life, and the people who really changed my life had been teachers. So I became a high school teacher. This is 1985, by the way.
There was only one state in the country that protected people from discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1985, and if anybody can guess which state it is, I will send them a copy of my book, Mama's Boy, Preacher's Son, where I tell my story in much more depth because usually no one can get it. And I was forced out of my first job, which was in Providence, Rhode Island because I was gay.
I went to my second job, and I was very nervous about kids finding out that I was gay. And I have a message for anybody who's an LGBT teacher, the kids always know who the gay teacher is. So sure enough, a gay student came to me and confessed that he was thinking of killing himself. And I was 24 years old at the time, not very sophisticated or trained in my profession yet, so I immediately said, "Let's go see a counselor together."
And he said to me something I'll never forget. He said, "Why should I go? My life isn't worth saving anyway." And that changed my life. I thought about how I had grown up feeling like that. I had tried to kill myself when I was 16 years old. And I made a promise to myself that whatever I did with the rest of my life, I would work to make sure that the next generation of LGBT kids did not grow up feeling like that.
So a couple of weeks later, I got up and I did an assembly at the school. I was teaching in Concord, Massachusetts at this point, right outside of Boston, and I came out to the entire student body. This is November 10th, 1988. Ronald Reagan was president. Gay men were dying by the tens of thousands due to AIDS and HIV. There's a very different attitude towards LGBT people in 1988.
And the next day, a young girl came into my office and she decided that she wanted to start a club to fight homophobia at our school. And I was surprised because she wasn't my student, I didn't really know her. So I said, "Tell me why you care so much about this." And she said, "That's easy. My mother's a lesbian, and I'm tired of hearing my family get put down around this school." That's AJ, by the way. That's my dog.
And I'd never thought about the fact that I might have an LGBT parent. It just had never crossed my mind. I was 24. And I said to her, "Well, what do you want to call this club?" And she said, "I don't know. You're gay and I'm straight. Let's call it the Gay-Straight Alliance." And that was the first GSA in American high school, November 11th, 1988, Concord, Massachusetts.
And probably many of you went to high schools that have GSAs now, or your kids go to high schools that have GSAs, and that's where it all started. And that soon grew into an organization that I created called GLSEN, which works to help students and teachers and parents change their schools, and make them more accepting of LGBTQ people. And from there, I went to being Assistant Secretary of Education for President Obama, and I then came to Lambda Legal about two years ago.
And the reason I came to Lambda Legal was, it's very clear to me what's going on in America right now. The opponents of equality are trying to use the courts to chip away, chip away, chip away at civil rights. They did it to the Voting Rights Act. They spent 48 years trying to undermine it and finally in Holder vs. Shelby County, they succeeded in 2013.
They've been trying for 48 years to undermine Roe vs. Wade and reverse a woman's right to choose. And they're now trying to do the same thing to LGBTQ rights. And it seems to me that the main obstacle to their strategy was Lambda Legal. After all Lambda Legal was the one that, for example, won the rights of students to have GSS in their schools.
Lambda Legal was the organization that got the sodomy laws repealed at the Supreme court in Lawrence vs. Texas in 2003. Lambda Legal was the organization that was co-council in Obergefell vs. Hodges, which made marriage equality the law of the land in 2015. All of these advances were thanks to Lambda Legal, and if we were going to preserve the rights we had won, it was going to be critical that Lambda Legal be as effective and robust as possible. That's what led me, a non-lawyer, to being at Lambda Legal in 2021.
Natalie McVeigh:Kevin, such a wonderful story. Before I mark our next question for you, there's someone who's had an answer. They really want a copy of your book. Is the answer, California?
Kevin Jennings: No, I'm sorry to disappoint. It is not California. I'll leave it open for a couple more minutes to see if anybody else wants to throw another answer out there.
Natalie McVeigh:All right, keep trying we’re going to keep checking in with Kevin.
Kevin Jennings: Keep checking in, it is a surprise answer for you.
Natalie McVeigh:Wonderful. So you started talking about Lambda and your impact now, and that's wonderful. We're wondering, so Lambda has been around for about 50 years, what was seen as the reason for starting the organization? We understand why you started the Gay-Straight Alliance. Why was Lambda started?
Kevin Jennings: Yeah, so Lambda was started in 1973. And you have to go back and think about what the country was like in 1973. The Stonewall riot which we commemorate every June with Pride was only four years before. Same sex relationships were still illegal in 45 states in 1973. And Lambda Legal was started specifically to change the laws that held LGBT people down. And this was an incredibly brave thing to do in 1973 when after all being gay was still deemed a mental illness.
It wasn't taken off the list of mental illnesses till late 1973 by the American Psychological Association. So the founders of Lambda Legal literally started this organization in an atmosphere in which being gay was mental illness and being gay was a crime in 45 states, and that was incredibly brave.
And in fact, when they first filed their incorporation papers with the State of New York to become a charity, the State of New York rejected their application saying that Lambda Legal had no legitimate charitable purpose to exist. So Lambda Legals first client was literally Lambda Legal. Lambda Legal had to go to court to win its own right to exist.
Their second lawsuit was a lawsuit called Bonner vs. Gay Student Group. They sued on behalf of a gay student group at the University of New Hampshire which had been prohibited from meeting on campus and they won the rights of LGBT students to have campus groups on their college campuses in 1974. That was Lambda Legal's first real lawsuit after they won the lawsuit against the State of New York so they could exist.
And I love the bookend of that Lambda lawsuit, 1974 and the 2000 Lambda lawsuit, Colin vs. orange county United, which won the rights of students to have GSAs on their high school campuses. So literally the very right of LGBT students to meet in high schools and colleges across the country is a result of litigation brought by Lambda Legal.
So for 48 years, Lambda Legal has been bringing lawsuits that help win rights for LGBT people to do basic things like not be imprisoned because of who we are and have meetings. Basic constitutional rights, like freedom of assembly, defending those rights for LGBT people has been the purpose of Lambda Legal, defending those rights for LGBT people for 48 years.
Natalie McVeigh:Thank you. So we have the last cases, let's share those with you real quick before we get to the next question. We have Massachusetts. Is it Massachusetts?
Kevin Jennings: It is not. Second state was Massachusetts, by the way. Close.
Natalie McVeigh:Is it Alabama?
Kevin Jennings: No. Alabama is still one of the states where you can be discriminated against in public accommodations and housing based on your sexual orientation and gender identity.
Natalie McVeigh:Is it Kansas?
Kevin Jennings: People are actually shocked to learn that in 23 states you could still be denied housing and public accommodation because of your sexual orientation or your gender identity. Not Kansas.
Natalie McVeigh:Not Kansas?
Kevin Jennings: Closer. Getting warmer.
Kevin Jennings: Getting colder.
Natalie McVeigh:And the last one is New Hampshire. It looks like we might not have any winners.
Kevin Jennings: No. The correct winner is Wisconsin.
Kevin Jennings: Wisconsin passed the nation’s first anti-discrimination law at the state level in 1982, that was seven years out of Massachusetts, which was the second state. So Wisconsin was a real groundbreaker for LGBT rights which is something very few people know. So I appreciate all the guesses and if you get nothing out of today's lecture, other than that, you now know that Wisconsin was the first state to protect LGBT people.
Ken Weissenberg:I remember the first time I read about Lambda Legal I was in law school. It was 1981 and they had brought a lawsuit to stop entrapment of gay men in public restrooms by New York City Police who were very aggressive in their activities. And I thought that was just amazing that an organization was out there protecting people from harassment and basically wrongful arrest. And I became a supporter of Lambda Legal all the way back then.
Kevin Jennings: The fact is, I think it's hard for some younger people to understand the level of hostility to LGBTQ people that existed. And I think a lot of them are shocked to know that, for instance, the so-called sodomy laws, which prohibited same-sex relationships were still on the books in 17 states in the 21st century. It was Lambda Legal's 2003 Lawrence vs. Texas case that actually finally got those laws ruled unconstitutional at the Supreme Court.
I think for younger people, and at the time of Lawrence vs. Texas, your first year associates were probably six, seven years old, so of course I don't expect them to have remembered what it was like back then, but even in the 21st century, it was still illegal to be gay in this country in many states.
Natalie McVeigh:So you've mentioned a few already, Kevin, but what were some of the significant cases over the years?
Kevin Jennings: Yeah. Well, I have mentioned a few. There's one that's very much on my mind right now, because next week on July 3rd will be the 40th anniversary of the first mention of AIDS in the New York Times. And that was when people began to realize there was this new devastating disease that was sweeping the country, but particularly the LGBTQ community, which suffered the brunt of AIDS.
And in 1981, nobody even knew how AIDS was spread, and there was great terror around AIDS. People thought you could get it from drinking glasses or toilet seats or all kinds of crazy things that turned out not to be true. And Lambda immediately dove into that fight in 1981. And in fact, in 1983, a very important case The People vs. West 12th Street Tenant Corporation in New York City when a doctor was denied the right to practice in a building because he was treating people with HIV.
Lambda Legal won that lawsuit, and it was the first federal lawsuit that extended protections for people with HIV/AIDS from discrimination. And that was in 1983, almost 40 years ago, only two years into the epidemic. And Lambda Legal has been committed to not just LGBTQ people, but people living with HIV ever since.
We are currently representing, for instance, Nick Harrison, who was a Sergeant in the Air Force who was dismissed from active duty because he has HIV, believe it or not just two years ago. So there's still rampant discrimination against people with HIV and Lambda Legal has been representing people with HIV now for close to 40 years.
I mentioned some of the other suits that won the rights of students to have clubs and ended sodomy laws and won marriage equality for our community, but the People vs. West 12th Street Tenant Corporation is a little known case, but it came at a critical time when there was hysteria and frankly witch hunts for people with HIV. And Lambda Legal was the organization that won the precedent that protected people with HIV from discrimination.
Ken Weissenberg:It's been incredible work. I know that a few years ago there was a case under the Ryan White Act for funding and I think it was Alabama that Lambda Legal was able to secure funding for people with HIV in that state so they can get their medications.
Kevin Jennings: Yeah, it's amazing we're still fighting this battle 40 years later, but there still is tremendous misunderstanding and bigotry and stigma around the issue of HIV. And it has been on my mind a lot lately because of this 40th anniversary coming up next week. And I don't think people fully understand what HIV has done to our country and to this world. Almost 700,000 Americans have died of AIDS since 1981.
To put that in perspective, that's twice as many Americans as who were killed in the World War I and World War II combined. And worldwide, 33 million people have died of AIDS, that's 10 times the number of people who've died of COVID. So the failure of our government to do the right thing and to address the AIDS epidemic in its early years has had devastating consequences for our country and for the world.
Ken Weissenberg:We've all seen what happens when the government puts its head in the sand when a pandemic is around. It's just shocking.
Kevin Jennings: Yeah. There was a meme going around at the beginning of COVID where somebody was saying, "Oh my God, there's a deadly disease and the government isn't dealing with it." And then there was another person and the caption was, "The gay community. You must be new here." It was tragic to me to watch the government makes some of the same mistakes around COVID that it made around AIDS/HIV, and to see consequently, a lot of people die who didn't need to just like happened with AIDS/HIV.
Ken Weissenberg:It brought back a lot of memories for me when this pandemic started. Natalie you have another question?
Natalie McVeigh:Yeah. I'm interested. Kevin, it's a newer right, one that happened in most of us lifetime for those young people who'll still remember. What was Lambda's role in the struggle for marriage equality?
Kevin Jennings: The Marriage Equality Campaign really began with a Lambda attorney named Evan Wolfson who wrote his law school thesis in 1983 on the idea of marriage equality. And then after graduating from law school, he came to Lambda Legal and frankly, even people at Lambda Legal thought Evan was a little crazy. Because if you can remember in the 1980s and '90s, it was still illegal to be gay in many states, much less get married.
So people were like, "Oh, okay. Evan that sounds nice. You go do your little crazy thing." And Evan had a comrade-in-arms named Mary Bonauto, who was a attorney at GLAD which is a regional version of Lambda that works in New England. And they cooked up the very first lawsuit that succeeded, which was Goodridge vs. State of Massachusetts, which in 2003, the state of Massachusetts ruled that you could not deny people the right to marry simply because they were the same sex.
And this led to actually an enormous backlash. In 2004, 11 states at the ballot box passed bans on same-sex marriage. And the entire LGBT community was reeling. After the high of winning in Massachusetts, suddenly we were being banned in many states and this is less than a year after Lawrence vs. Texas by the way as well. So we'd had these two huge victories in 2003.
First we got sodomy laws struck down and then marriage equality was passed in Massachusetts, and then there was this huge backlash. And one of our brilliant attorneys in our Chicago office, a woman named Camilla Taylor said, "If this is going to work, we have got to take this to the heartland.” So she brought a lawsuit in Iowa. Now, talk about something that seemed crazy.
People thought, "Yeah, you might get same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, but you can forget Iowa." And Camilla masterminded a lawsuit which led to Iowa allowing same-sex marriages in 2008, just a few years after this incredible backlash that happened in 2004. And the argument formed the basis for the eventual Supreme Court case, Obergefell vs. Hodges where Lambda Legal was co-counsel in 2015, which actually made marriage equality the law of the land across the country.
So Lambda Legal literally started working on marriage equality over 30 years ago. And I think that is an important lesson for young people to know, because a lot of people naively think that marriage equality happened really fast, actually Lambda Legal worked on marriage equality for decades. And it takes a long time to work things through the court system.
And one of the most critical things that I love about Lambda Legal is we stick with things until we win. We've been working on behalf of people with HIV now for 40 years. We worked on behalf of same-sex marriage for 30 years. We understand that change takes time, and it doesn't just happen. The great gay artist, Andy Warhol, once said, "People will tell you that time changes things, but actually you have to change them yourself."
And it has been Lambda Legal's litigation, which sometimes has unfolded over a period of decades, that have won many of the rights like marriage equality, which we think happened quickly, that actually were the products of decades of work by Lambda Legal.
Ken Weissenberg:Title VII is another example of Lambda Legal's laying a lot of groundwork for the Supreme Court to rule that you can't discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Can you elaborate on Lambda's role in the Title VII cases?
Kevin Jennings: Sure. I think everybody is probably familiar with the Bostock case which was decided last summer by the Supreme Court. It was actually the first case on issues of gender identity and transgender people ever to be heard by the Supreme Court. And in that case, they ruled that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment was illegal.
So for the first time, LGBT people could go to work and know that they had legal recourse if they were fired because of who they were. And that might not seem like such a big deal, but you have to remember that in 1953, the then President, Dwight Eisenhower, signed an executive order, which actually banned the employment of “known perverts” by the federal government or any federal contractor.
So, that was a huge revolution in attitudes from the government actually actively banning LGBTQ people. And in case you think, "Oh, that was the '50s, that was Eisenhower." Elements of that executive order remained on the books until President Clinton repealed them in 1997. So that was government policy for over 40 years.
Kevin Jennings: Right, and then last year, the court completely reversed the position of the government. Now, this is another example where perseverance is critical. Lambda Legal first went to court in 2006 arguing that the Title prevented such discrimination. So it took 14 years for that argument, which we pioneered in a case in Georgia in 2006, to work its way through the system and make itself to the Supreme Court.
Once again, proving that; the great gay historian, John D'Emilio says that change proceeds the periods of what he calls creeping and leaping. That there are many, many, many years when people are working things in the background, no one's noticing, but people are laying the groundwork. Then all of a sudden there's a big leap like the Bostock decision, or the Obergefell decision, or the Lawrence vs. Texas decision.
And people forget that there was decades of work leading up to that. And I think that's one of the things that Lambda Legal is best at is understanding the arc of change and the time that change takes and sticking with something until the change actually occurs.
Natalie McVeigh:Wow. That’s wonderful.
Ken Weissenberg:It's a combination of impact litigation and policy and communication. Changing minds one at a time. And the amazing thing about marriage equality is the people who accepted it, I think something like 75% of the country now approves of marriage equality. I think that's a higher percentage than people who approve of interracial marriage, which was a decision in 1967.
Kevin Jennings: Right. It's shocking. That is something that is very personal to me because I lived in North Carolina and my brother married a black woman in 1970 when interracial marriage had only been legal for three years in our state. And he literally had to leave because it was not physically safe for them to remain in our little town. And he moved to Connecticut where I now live because it was safer up here than it was in North Carolina at the time.
So it's within my own lifetime that I've seen things like interracial marriage and same-sex marriage be approved, and the shift really is profound, Ken. In 1996, something like 23% of Americans approved of same-sex marriage. And I think the number that just came out a couple of weeks ago actually was 70%. So literally over the last 25 years, the number of Americans who approve of same-sex marriage has tripled from a pretty small minority to an overwhelming majority.
And that points to the second part of Lambda's work. You mentioned the work we do with law in terms of litigation and policy advocacy. The other court system we work in is the court of public opinion. You have to change hearts and minds not just laws, and Lambda Legal actively works to educate people about issues so that people understand why change needs to occur, because it's not just about winning court decisions, it's about changing people's hearts and minds as well.
Natalie McVeigh:That makes a lot of sense, Kevin. I'm interested in what some of the current areas of focus are for Lambda today.
Kevin Jennings: Well, that's a perfect question because we've just completed the new strategic plan. And we can boil down what we are seeking to do for the next five years into one sentence. Lambda Legal's going to win new protections for the most vulnerable in our community while defending our community from attacks. Let me unpack those two things.
Among some of the most vulnerable in our community we're going to be fighting for are LGBTQ immigrants, LGBTQ seniors, LGBTQ youth, trans people, people with HIV, people who are treated disproportionately badly by the justice system like LGBTQ people of color, and people who are facing systemic discrimination in areas like housing and public accommodations, which as I mentioned earlier is still legal in 23 states.
So those are some of the vulnerable populations we're going to fight for because -- as proud as we are of wins we've achieved like marriage equality -- we're very aware that the main concern of a homeless trans teenager is not their ability to get married. It's to avoid violence, it's to have a home, it's to be safe. And we need to make sure that we build off the wins we've already accomplished like marriage equality to make sure that the most vulnerable people in our community are treated fairly and equally as well, because as you might know, the American Medical Association has actually declared violence against trans people an epidemic. And the National Crime Victimization Survey, which came out last month, found that trans people were four times more likely to be victimized by violent crime than cisgender people. So we still have a long way to go before everyone in the LGBTQ community is safe.
Now, at the same time, we have to defend the gains we've made. We have to defend our community from attacks because unfortunately our opponents have not gone away and they're attacking in two ways. First of all, legislatively. This year, over 300 anti-LGBT bills were introduced to state legislatures around the country. That is a record high.
So anyone who thinks that this issue is settled and nobody cares about it anymore, our opponents are actively trying to pass hateful bills at the state level, most of them targeting trans people with banning trans young people from participating in school sports, banning healthcare providers from providing gender affirming care to trans youth, things like that.
I worked at President Obama's administration, as I mentioned earlier, and my nickname was the anti-bullying czar because President Obama asked me specifically to lead a campaign against bullying in American schools. These kinds of bills, telling a kid they can't play on their sports team. That's just bullying. Let's call it what it is.
And the second effort is through litigation. It didn't get much notice because Justice Ginsburg died the same week, but in October of last year, Justices Alito and Thomas wrote in an opinion that they would like to see a challenge to Obergefell so they could “fix” marriage equality. And we know what they mean by fix.
So the reality is we are seeing tremendous attacks through state legislatures, we're seeing attacks through the courts and Lambda Legal is dedicated to defending the gains we have made over the last 48 years for equality for LGBTQ people. So in short, we're going to win protection for the most vulnerable in our community and we're going to defend our community from the attacks.
Natalie McVeigh:We have two audience questions, and I know Ken has some valuable insights here too. So I'll just ask those before we move on. One was about the previous administration. Do you think that set back some of Lambda's work?
Kevin Jennings: I want to point out that Lambda Legal is a 501(c)(3) that does not endorse political candidates. But Having said that, the answer is yes. One third of the Supreme Court and one third of the entire federal judiciary was appointed by the previous administration. Lambda Legal researched these appointments and we found that at least 40% of them already have documented records of opposing equality for LGBTQ people.
And I like to scare people with this factoid. If Amy Coney Barrett serves to the same age as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she'll still be on the court in 2059. So Lambda Legal is going to need to be around for decades because while the previous administration is now out of office, as you all know, these judicial appointments are lifetime appointments. And the median age of the Trump appointees is in their mid 40s.
So these people are going to be around for 20, 30 in some cases, 40 years. And they have documented records of hostility towards LGBT equality. So we're going to have to fight these people for years to come. And in fact, during the Trump administration, we literally had to file dozens of lawsuits to stop awful things the Trump administration was doing. Like for instance, their proposed ban on trans people serving in the military, which we managed to get stayed in court for 18 months.
So the reality is there were both overt attacks on the LGBT community by the previous administration, but much more damaging. There were lifetime judicial appointments of people who are, I'm sorry to say it, known bigots, and we're going to have to fight those bigots on the bench for decades.
Ken Weissenberg:I know that Lambda was instrumental in the Judiciary Committee of providing evaluations of the judicial appointees. Well, their recommendations were highly sought after and respected. It didn't change the block of votes in favor of those appointees unfortunately. Some of them it did cause them to be rejected, but very few.
Kevin Jennings: Yeah, it was a very frustrating four years because President Trump actually appointed more judges than any other single term president in American history. The benches were really packed with people and people who are, frankly, in some cases not qualified as you know. For the first time in history, the ABA's recommendations were not taken into account in the appointment of judges. First time in any administration of any party in history has done that. So some of these people are frankly not even qualified to be judges.
Ken Weissenberg:I just wanted to say from my own life experience I've benefited greatly by marriage equality passing. I got married in Massachusetts in 2004 when it was legal to do that there. And it turned out that the state was refusing to marry people from states that wouldn't recognize the marriage.
Fortunately, David Paterson gave an executive order in 2006 in New York saying that out-of-state marriages and foreign marriages of same-sex couples would be recognized in New York. But it was an interesting time. And we at EisnerAmper, I'm a tax guy, so we were looking at it so you could file a joint return in New York and still have to file separate returns for the IRS. And it was a complex thing.
We ended up with a stack of papers like this big for our planning because it wasn't recognized Federally, but it was for the state. Now it's recognized everywhere, so thank you for your role in that and Lambda's role in that. It really made a significant difference in my life.
Kevin Jennings: Well that's very kind of you to say, Ken. I think that the whole point of every Lambda Lawsuit, part of the criteria, we have a national legal help desk. We take over 5,000 calls a year from people who face discrimination. And we can only represent a tiny minority of those people because we have 30-some lawyers. We're tiny.
What we do make a commitment to though is two things. First of all, if we can't represent you, we will get you a lawyer who can, and we have a legal referral network of lawyers who have agreed to work with us. And everybody who contacts us, all calls are evaluated by an actual attorney, not an administrative assistant or a volunteer or anything. It is a paid attorney who works for Lambda Legal, takes every call, and then if we can't represent them, we refer them to someone who will.
The second thing we do though, is we take cases that we think will make law that benefits and materially improves people's lives, like marriage equality did for you. And so that is the criterion we are looking at. Can we take a suit that doesn't just benefit that individual, but actually will bring new rights to people so that many people's lives will be improved?
And as we are filtering the 5,000 calls we get every year, that is the number one thing we're looking for, is will a victory in this case actually lead to people's lives being better. And every Lambda lawsuit that we bring has that in mind.
Ken Weissenberg:We do have another question from the audience and it involves healthcare access. And this is for family reproductive rights for lesbians, where in a lot of states when they go through the process of artificial insemination they're basically treated as if they were infertile and have to pay higher fees rather than just going through a simple process. Is Lambda doing anything for healthcare access in general to basically even the playing field for same-sex or for gay and lesbian and trans?
Kevin Jennings: Healthcare access is a huge issue for our community across many subpopulations within the community including, as you pointed out, lesbian couples who are seeking fertility treatments. I think it is most acute, to be honest with you, for trans people. Trans people really struggle to get gender affirming care. It's often not covered by insurance companies.
They do not get culturally competent medical providers and we really fight hard to make sure that everyone can access the healthcare they are entitled to, particularly trans people though, because there are active efforts to deny them that health care. I'll give you two examples. There was a bill passed in South Dakota this year that literally would have put parents and doctors in jail if they offer gender affirming care to their LGBT children. Literally put people in jail.
Lambda Legal, basically we said, "If you enact this, we're going to sue you." And luckily the governor of South Dakota vetoed the bill. In North Carolina, where I'm from, the state's insurance policy has a specific rider, which says, "We will not cover gender affirming care." So state employees are literally told, "We will not cover you. It's a provision of our healthcare insurance." Lambda Legal is in court fighting that rider as well.
So there are real problems with people who are LGBT accessing quality healthcare and culturally competent healthcare fairly, and in some cases, efforts to actually ban them from doing so. So we're going to continue to be working on healthcare for years to come, because we believe healthcare is a right, not a privilege. And it literally makes a life or death difference in the case of many people, whether or not they can get this unbiased care.
Ken Weissenberg:I know that the Department of Health in the previous administration was passing a regulation basically allowing discrimination by medical professionals against the LGBT community, which was shocking.
Kevin Jennings: Yes. This is a Lambda lawsuit called County of Santa Clara vs. HHS. The HHS under Trump actually proposed a rule, which said that medical care providers could deny care to people based on their personal belief system rather than the needs of the patient. And that would have allowed, for example, a doctor who did not like the fact that you were a lesbian couple to say, "I'm not going to help you with your pregnancy."
Nothing like this had ever been passed before in American history, by the way. There are conscience provisions for medical care providers, but what made this particular rule really terrifying was there was no emergency exception. And that literally meant that even if the patient's life was at risk, if the healthcare provider, for personal reasons, objected to the care, they could deny the person to the care, which would literally mean the person would die.
And the Trump administration actually defended that position in court when we went to court against them. And I think that's a really terrifying moment when we start saying that the premise of our medical system will be the prejudices of the providers, not the needs of the patient.
Luckily the courts agreed with us and we got that rule stayed in court. But I think it's a really, really frightening moment for our country when we have administrations that propose that the medical needs of patients should be secondary to the personal beliefs of the providers.
Ken Weissenberg:Another question from our audience which is rather interesting question. They want to make their company more diverse and they want to know if there's a way they can attract people of color and LGBTQI people as potential employees without discriminating against cisgender and heterosexual applicants.
Kevin Jennings: Absolutely. I think that here's something. I belong to many privileged groups. I'm white, I'm male, I'm cisgendered, I'm able-bodied, I'm Christian. I get lots of privileges. Because I'm gay, I also have area where I do not get privilege. And I think that if you are a person with privilege, here's the main thing I want you to understand. People who lack the privilege you have, have no reason to think you understand them, and no reason to trust you.
After all, if you're a Black person, you have seen a lot of white people that just don't get it, so why would you give a white person the benefit of the doubt? That would be, frankly, unwise based on the data you have accumulated over the course of a lifetime. So what people who lack privilege are looking for are signals that they are indeed welcome.
And we call this distinguishing behavior because since people who lack privilege assume that you don't get it, you have to engage in behaviors that distinguish yourself as someone who does get it. And I'll give you a very specific example because my partner is a corporate executive at a company called Euromoney.
Euromoney, as part of their Pride celebration this year, they have about 2000 employees, offered every employee a free Pride T-shirt if they would wear it on yesterday as a symbol of their support for equality for LGBTQ people. 850 of the employees of Euromoney, almost half of the entire company, asked for a free T-shirt and wore them yesterday at work.
What that does is that sends a very powerful signal to LGBTQ employees that you are valued and affirmed at this company. It in no way discriminates against straight or cisgender employees, but it sends a message that you are valued and desired as an employee of Euromoney regardless of your sexual orientation or your gender identity.
So I would urge people to look for steps they could take that distinguish their companies as companies who get it. And that is not reverse discrimination, that is simply showing that you accept everyone. Don't assume that people from groups that lack privilege, people of color, LGBT people, religious minorities such as Muslims, don't assume that they think that you get it because they think that you don't.
So you're going to have to do things that affirmatively show that you get it. And I want to put the burden here where it belongs. The burden on changing corporations around the issue of race rests with white people like me. There's the Pottery Barn rule; you broke it, you bought it. We broke it and we got to fix it.
It is not the job of people of color to solve the racism problem, although obviously people of color will play a critical role in that. White people broke it, white people got to fix it. And so if you want your company to be a welcoming place for LGBTQ people, we need straight allies to step up because they are the ones who are the majority. They are the ones with the power. They have to send the signal. They have to change the culture.
And that's why of all the things I've probably ever done in my life, my role in helping kids start the first Gay Straight Alliance is the thing I'm most proud of because it facilitated LGBTQ and straight kids coming together to make their schools better places. And by the way, I do want to give you the happy epilogue to the stories I told earlier, the young man who was thinking of killing himself, he is 50 today. He lives in Brooklyn with his husband of 12 years. I went to their wedding.
The young woman who wanted to start the Gay Straight Alliance, she today is 46. She lives in Boston, married to a man, two kids. We had coffee about two years ago, her lesbian mother babysat the kids so that we could go out for coffee. So both stories have a very happy ending.
Ken Weissenberg:And I just want to say thank you for your response to that question, because here at EisnerAmper we actually are very much behind the diversity equality and inclusion initiatives. We are proud sponsors of the National Association of Black Accountants and national sponsors of Lambda Legal, amongst other organizations. So I think we're doing it the right way and I'm glad to hear that's the way we should be doing it.
Kevin Jennings: Absolutely. And believe me, every LGBTQ employee notices you're having this session today, whether they're attending or not. They notice that you do things like sponsor Lambda Legal, and that sends a message to them that your company gets it. Same thing with Black employees and other people of color like Native Americans and Asian Pacific Islanders and Latinos. When you take affirmative steps to show that you are supportive of those communities, believe you me, people notice.
Natalie McVeigh:I'm so glad to hear that there are happy endings to those stories and that there are more happy endings to probably many more stories due to Lambda's work. And that leads us to another question and it seems like a lot has been accomplished. And we heard that you said there are two things, one, doing it and two, maintaining it. What are some battles left to be fought in Lambda's mission going forward?
Kevin Jennings: Well, a few of them I've alluded to like the fact that it's still legal to discriminate in public accommodations. People literally can be refused service in restaurants because they're LGBT in 23 states. That's outrageous. And we have real problems, as I mentioned with healthcare access for trans people. And I think that people don't know for instance that nearly 58% of LGBTQ senior couples when they've gone to try and access senior housing have experienced discrimination.
It's actually very sad. Lots of LGBTQ seniors tell us that they've been out their whole life, but when they enter an assisted living or other type of care facility, they actually feel like they have to go back in the closet because they feel so unwelcomed there. And what a tragic way to end your life. To have spent your whole life being honest about who you are and at the end of your life, feel like you have to lie.
So there are challenges across the age span. LGBT youth are still four times more likely to attempt suicide than non-LGBT youth. I know that's shocking, but that is CDC data. That's not my opinion. A third of homeless youth are still LGBT, kids who've been thrown out of their homes by their families.
So across the lifespan from youth to adult to senior, we find that discrimination is still pervasive in many areas and much of our country towards LGBTQ people and at Lambda Legal we're dedicated to continuing to fight that. And the people who really get hurt the most are the most vulnerable like youth and seniors. And that's why we decided to put them at the center of our plans.
Natalie McVeigh:Wonderful, Kevin. We have an audience question that says, "Where is the list of the 23 states that still permit discrimination of LGBTQ people?"
Kevin Jennings: There is a research organization called The Movement Advancement Project. I think it's just map.org, I could be wrong, but they have comprehensive maps which show you the state of discrimination across America which you can access their so called Movement Advancement Project. So just Google that. I'd say Movement Advancement Project LGBT and I'm sure their website will come up for you.
Ken Weissenberg:There was another question, which is about EisnerAmper. What are we doing to grow allyship at EisnerAmper? We have seven employee resource groups for various groups within the firm. And we just added an ally employee resource group for people who want to help in general to support all the other groups. So if you're interested, reach out. The firm has an allyship resource group.
Kevin Jennings: That's actually absolutely fantastic. I've never heard of that before in any company. Usually if you're an ally, you're suggested to join the group that you're trying to be an ally to. I think it's wonderful that you have a general allyship group. And I want to tell you a story about one of my professors in college, Chuck Willie, who was one of the first tenured Black professors at Harvard.
And he used to talk about how social change comes from the result of what he calls the courageous push and the compassionate pull. The courageous push comes from people who lack privilege, who decide that they've had enough and they decide to push back. But that never works alone because there have to be people with privilege who give the compassionate pull to the people who are pushing.
And an example he would use was the Underground Railroad. Obviously, running away from being enslaved was an unbelievably courageous thing to do for Black people, but they would not have been able to make it to safety if it wasn't for the many white allies who chose to hide them in their home -- at considerable risk to themselves, I might add. If you might remember from your history teacher, there was the Fugitive Slave Act, which actually criminalized hiding escaped enslaved people. So they could go to jail for doing it.
Without the courageous push of Black people against slavery and compassionate white people who helped pull them to safety, the Underground Railroad would not have worked. So two points. Number one, all of us have areas of our lives where we have privilege, like I mentioned the fact that I'm white and male and cisgender, and virtually all of us have an area in our life where we lack privilege, in maybe our sexual orientation, our religion, our ability status, whatever.
That's not relevant. What's relevant is what you do and do you play your proper role regardless of where you are on the privilege spectrum. If you lack privilege, push for change. If you have privilege, reach out a helping hand and help pull the people who are pushing for change to safety. Everybody's role is equally important.
Ken Weissenberg:Natalie, do you have a final question?
Natalie McVeigh:I think I just wanted to ask, Kevin, what you'd like to share with our audience. We just have a couple of minutes. What do you think is most relevant for people today to understand about Lambda, your journey and the state going forward?
Kevin Jennings: Well, I've talked a lot about Lambda, so I think everybody understands our priorities and what we're trying to do. And I actually want to close by telling you a very hopeful story. So my mother was born in 1925. As I mentioned, she grew up in a shack in Eastern Tennessee without running water or electricity until she was 16 years old.
My mother's father was in the Klan as was her brother. So my mother grew up with the typical attitudes of a white person who was born in 1925 in the rural South. So my siblings and I decided to give her some challenges. In 1970, my brother married a Black woman. In 1981, I came out as gay. My mother, I'm going to be honest with you, did not cope well with these at first.
She forbade my brother from coming home for four years with his wife because she couldn't accept the fact that he was married to a Black woman. She couldn't accept the fact that I was gay for many years. At the end of her life, my mother was a full-time volunteer at an AIDS hospice that served primarily gay Black men. This 75 year old Southern Baptist lady whose father and brother were in the Klan, spent the last years of her life tending to the needs of gay Black men with AIDS.
This is the story of my book, Mama's Boy, Preacher Son. I've just ruined the ending for you. But the lesson there is that people can change. And in the end, I don't think Lambda Legal is actually in the business of law or in the business of LGBT rights or in the business of the rights of people with HIV.
I think we're in the business of hope, hope that the world can be better. And over the course of my lifetime, as many struggles that remain, I have seen a tremendous transformation in social attitudes in America because of brave people, both people who lacked privilege and people who had privilege, who decided to take a stand and demand that things change like my gay student, Brewster and my straight student, Meredith.
People who just said things have to change. So Lambda Legal's really in the hope business. We are of the belief that the world can be better, that we can do better, that America could come closer to living up to its pledge of liberty and justice for all. And that's really what our work is about.
In the end, it's not about LGBTQ people. In the end, it's not about people with HIV. It's about helping America live up to its promise of being a land of liberty and justice for all. And I firmly believe deep in my heart that progress towards that goal is possible. I've seen it happen during my lifetime, I see how much more progress is needed and we're going to keep working until that progress has been achieved.
Ken Weissenberg:That's wonderful. And I appreciate so much your being here and talking with us for this past hour. To the audience, I encourage you to go to lambdalegal.org for more about the organization. It needs your support. There's volunteer work that needs to be done. There's financial support you can give them. So take a look at the website, do what you can.
I was involved with the organization for seven years on the board and been a contributor for a while. I think the organization has done tremendous work to advance civil rights for all Americans, particularly for LGBTQIA Americans, but for all Americans because each of these decisions that the Supreme Court has made, there are lower courts that have made similar decisions that move our rights forward. And it's everybody's rights that move forward. We're not equal until we're all equal.
Kevin Jennings: Absolutely. I'm not so good at things like chat boxes. But I think I just put my email address. I first put a typo so I corrected myself in the chat box. If you ever want to reach out to me directly, it's email@example.com. I would welcome any questions, comments, thoughts from you. If there are ways we can help and support you, please let us know.
I'm the only person who reads my email. I answer them all personally. So don't hesitate to reach out if I can ever be a resource for any of you personally. And thank you so much. I know that it wasn't like anybody was sitting around today thinking, "I haven't got any work to do. I'll go to this webinar."
I know everybody is incredibly busy. Everybody's incredibly stressed. Everybody's incredibly overworked. And the fact that so many of you chose to take time out of your day to join us today really means the world to us. So thank you.
Ken Weissenberg:Thank you.
Natalie McVeigh:Thank you, Kevin.
Ken Weissenberg:Happy Pride everybody.
Kevin Jennings: Happy Pride everyone.
Transcribed by Rev.com
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