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What this activist learned from 23 years of helping lead LGBTQ legal battles

Lambda Legal Executive Director Kevin Cathcart speaks during the Lambda Legal Liberty Awards at the Egyptian Theater in 2005.
Lambda Legal Executive Director Kevin Cathcart speaks during the Lambda Legal Liberty Awards at the Egyptian Theater in 2005.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Kevin Cathcart has served as a leader of the LGBTQ rights movement during its biggest victories in history.

Cathcart plans to step down in 2016 after 24 years as the executive director of Lambda Legal, one of the leading LGBTQ legal groups in the country. During his time, Cathcart has seen huge advances in gay rights — including the 1990s marriage case in Hawaii that triggered same-sex marriage battles across the country, the Supreme Court ruling that ended sodomy bans in the US, and the most recent Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriages at the federal and state levels.

But Cathcart, who also worked at Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) for eight years prior to Lambda Legal, leaves the LGBTQ movement at a moment of some uncertainty. Advocacy groups are now moving toward what many see as the next phase of the LGBTQ rights movement: enacting nondiscrimination protections in 31 states that don't explicitly ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace, expanding transgender people's access to gender-affirming medical care, and dealing with broader social and economic disparities and discrimination, among other issues.

For all the progress that's been made, Cathcart says there's still a lot of work to be done. "No Supreme Court decision, no matter how important, can ever resolve all the issues of a movement," he said. "This year marks the 61st anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education and the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, and I think anyone would be hard-pressed to say that decisions of choice or equality in education have been resolved."

I spoke to Cathcart about where he sees the LGBTQ movement today, where he thinks it's headed, and his decades-long leadership advancing LGBTQ rights. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The next frontier in the LGBTQ movement

German Lopez: Where do you think the LGBTQ movement will go next?

Kevin Cathcart: I got into this business to change the world, and the world has changed a lot. But it has not changed nearly as much as it needs to.

There's a lot of work to be done with employment protections. There's a lot of work left to be done with the HIV epidemic. And there's a lot of other discrimination that continues — employment, medical, education, violence and harassment in schools, the right of young gay people to organize, and prejudice against transgender people. We have also been doing a lot more work on senior issues — because it's only really in the last couple of years that we have increasing numbers of older gay people who have been very out for a long period of time in their lives and aren't willing to go back in the closet as they age but still need more medical care or living in assisted care communities.

I wouldn't want anyone to think, "Oh, they won marriage. There's nothing left to be done." There's still lots of places in this country where life on the ground can be very challenging for openly LGBTQ people, and people have a lot of concerns about their children, their safety, their jobs, and so on.

We've made enormous progress, but we were starting so far behind the line that, with all this enormous progress, we still have a long ways to go.

German Lopez: One thing we've been seeing with the anti-discrimination arguments is the idea that the federal Civil Rights Act and its protections against sex discrimination can be used to protect LGBTQ people. Do you see that becoming the next big court battle?

Kevin Cathcart: I think the sex discrimination debate has a lot of potential. We have just seen recently the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] coming out with decisions first ruling that anti-trans discrimination is sex discrimination, then just recently ruling that anti-gay discrimination is also sex discrimination.

This is a line of argument that we have been pushing here at Lambda Legal for a while. It has a lot of potential down the line.

Although if we had the kind of Congress that could pass a law and clarify this issue once and for all, I would take new legislation immediately rather than litigation over some period of years to try to get to the same spot.

I do think it is a good, valid argument, and ultimately one that will continue to move forward. But it is a slow process. It's great to have the decision from the EEOC — but that's not a decision from the US Supreme Court, and it's not binding on all lower courts.

So the courts still have to be convinced. It is going to take some time before we have enough courts convinced. And I don't know if the US Supreme Court would be ready at this point to make a decision — the arguments have to percolate a great deal through the lower courts, there has to be a winning track record, and we have to convince the influential courts and courts of appeals that this is right before then.

But we can't just sit back and hope Congress will someday pass the law and clarify this issue. I don't know when that's going to be. And people are suffering right now.

On religious objections to marriage equality

A married same-sex couple.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News

German Lopez: What do you think about this movement to build religious exemptions to issuing same-sex marriages?

Kevin Cathcart: I think opponents are trying to confuse people about religion. There is nothing about the Supreme Court decision, the state courts' decisions, or the states' legislative decisions that says churches or temples have to perform same-sex weddings. Religious bodies have the absolute right [to decide] who they're going to marry and whatever kind of restrictions they put on that.

It is not our goal at Lambda Legal or anybody else in the marriage movement to force religious institutions to do anything that is against their religion. That's a cornerstone of the American Constitution and our separation of church and state.

What we have been fighting for all these years is civil marriage — the right to get a marriage license at city hall, the right to be married by a judge or clerk, and the right to be married by a clergy person who believes in and wants to perform these weddings. That's very different from forcing a religious person to do it.

People have been having commitment ceremonies — religious and secular — for years and years and years. The parts that were missing were the license and recognition that come from the state. And that's what we have changed.

But this is going to be a tough fight. The distinctions between civil marriage and religious marriage are not very well understood by a lot of people in American society. People think marriages have to take place in churches or other religious venues, and forget that what makes it a marriage is that you got a license from the state.

You may or may not have a religious ceremony. That's your choice.

It's the civil marriage that the government looks to when considering taxes and Social Security benefits, employers look to when deciding who gets to go on your health insurance plan, hospitals look to when deciding who gets to make medical decisions for a person who's incapacitated, and so on. That's about civil marriage.

A look back at how far LGBTQ rights have come

Two women at an LGBTQ pride celebration.

Gabriel Kuchta/Isifa via Getty Images

German Lopez: How much of a role do you think marriage equality played in advancing LGBTQ rights during your time at Lambda Legal?

Kevin Cathcart: Marriage has really changed the conversation about gay people in America. The Supreme Court decision, while it was about marriage, was really much bigger. It's really about bringing gay people into the fold of the US Constitution.

I thought the same thing 12 years ago when the Lawrence v. Texas decision came down — that was a decision about sodomy laws, and it was incredibly important to decriminalize sodomy and get rid of sodomy laws nationwide. But that was also really about bringing gay people within the protections of the Constitution: having privacy rights, having equal protection rights, and having the same protections as other people.

That's what I think was so amazing about what happened this year: It matters for more than marriage, although that was obviously important.

German Lopez: What do you think about marriage winning first — before nondiscrimination laws? I don't think most LGBTQ groups expected that to happen.

Kevin Cathcart: It is interesting that marriage was the breakout issue. If you had asked me 15 years ago, 20 years ago, or 30 years ago what order I thought these things would go in, I would have said that we would have gotten employment protections long before we had marriage equality.

In fact, it was only about a year ago — in 2014 — when we started winning marriage equality in states that did not have anti-discrimination laws that covered sexual orientation. All of the early marriage equality states had things like employment protections. That was what people thought was the route you had to go — a lot of people thought gay people could do the job, while marriage was put on a different pedestal with religious overtones and the definition issues in a way that employment protections don't.

But it turned out a lot more people were willing to get involved with marriage and push for recognition of their families. It struck a chord with a lot of people with society at large — whether it was their family members or their friends. And in some cases politicians and judges got involved, changing the discourse.

It was fascinating that marriage pulled ahead as the easier gay civil rights topic. No one would have predicted that early on.

The early days of the LGBTQ movement

The LGBTQ pride flag with the US flag.

Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images

German Lopez: The 1980s were obviously a very different time — particularly with the HIV epidemic. How was it getting into the LGBTQ movement back then?

Kevin Cathcart: It was a fraught time. I had gotten involved with GLAD when I was in law school. Back then, GLAD didn't have any full-time staff. After I graduated, they hired someone to be the executive director. Very unexpectedly, after about a year, she left — and so the job that I didn't think I was going to have to think about was suddenly open.

It's hard to compare then and today because it wasn't a career track at the time. There were lots of people who were convinced that having something like GLAD or Lambda Legal on your résumé was more of a risk of a career killer than a career track. But it was work that I was very interested in — I was an activist in the community, I had gone to law school wanting to do good things, and I was interested in civil rights work.

This was the tail end of the time when the courts had played a big role in the civil rights movement for African-American rights, although the courts had gotten more conservative. There were a lot of people who went to law school thinking this is the tool by which you can do good and make change and expand protections for our community. I was right in that pack.

In those days the dockets were extremely small, because the organizations were extremely small. There were at that time three national legal organizations: GLAD, which focused on New England; Lambda Legal; and what was then the Lesbian Rights Project, which subsequently became the National Center for Lesbian Rights. And later on the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] created its LGBTQ rights project.

The HIV epidemic had a lot to do with what people feared, how people felt, what it meant for careers, and all of that. It made the work way more cautious.

Sometimes I talk to law students today, and tell them what it was like 20 years ago, and they look at me like, "You've got to be kidding. The LGBTQ community is coveted. A lot of firms have openly gay partners. Firms want to recruit LGBTQ associates." And I'm like, "Yes, I know that's true today. But it wasn't true back then."