For Rachel Tiven, the incoming CEO of Lambda Legal, her new position represents a sort of homecoming.
"I started my career at Lambda, back in 1999," said Tiven, an attorney and activist who has, for the last several years, been active with immigration issues. "I worked as part of its media team, which is very fitting because one of my goals is for Lambda, as an organization, to be more visiblefor it to have the name commensurate with its skill on legal issues, so that LGBT people around the country know that, if they have a problem, they should call Lambda."
She officially took over from longtime CEO Kevin Cathcart July 5. Initially a journalist with Bloomberg News, Tiven eventually studied law and began to work with immigration advocacy. She was executive director of Immigration Equality for eight years, then led Immigrant Justice Corps for another two.
"I was very fortunate to begin to work at the intersection of two things I'm most passionate about, LGBT and HIV issues and immigration law," said Tiven during a recent visit to Chicago. "When I started at Immigration Equality in 2005, the HIV ban was still in full effectyou couldn't enter the country or become a citizen if you were HIV-positive. Asylum based on sexual orientation or gender identity was already good law, but not particularly well-known to asylum officers and immigration judges around the country, so the ability to get help with your case and win was something new. And, LGBT families were totally excluded from the immigration system."
Lambda focuses very much on "impact litigation," cases that potentially have far-reaching effects even if they involve one or a few individuals.
"Lambda has been seen as the movement's quiet authority," noted Tiven. "Sharing more widely the rights and responsibilities of LGBT peopleby helping more people fight more widely for those and for freedom from discriminationis really my key goal. There is such need for us to solidify the advances we've made and protect ourselves from a backlash against those advances."
Many LGBT-advocacy organizations have struggled to get their bearings since marriage equality was fully recognized by the federal government. But Tiven said she is confident that Lambda will be able to keep its perspective on the legal landscape, adding, "When we look at our successes, and other moments of our successes and shifting legal opinion around women's rights, reproductive freedom and racial integration, those were not a one-shot deal. Marriage equality is very powerful, but you can still be fired for being gay in a lot of places."
For the moment, legal and political opposition to the LGBT community currently seems to be coming from two fronts.
"We're seeing backlash through fake claims to religious freedom," she noted. "No religion requires discrimination. No religion says, 'My right to practice my religion freely is infringed by having to treat you equally.' The other backlash is lies about transgender people, which is just another version of the kinds of lies about LGBT people as predators, which unfortunately have been with us for a very long time."
She's noticed changing dynamics within some families. A friend recently mentioned matter-of-factly that they did not think one of their kids was straight.
"It knocked my socks off," Tiven recalled. "I couldn't imagine that we'd arrived at the point where a parent talking about her 12-year-old would say that like it was nothing. I was floored by it. For some people, the road was much easier than it was a generation ago. But at the same time, many of us don't share this about who we are with our family of origin. …LGBT people will continue to be born into straight families. The journey that so many of us went through is going to continue to be the same journey, but much of the progress in changing public attitudes will be easier for some people."
Tiven envisions Lambda as "a cradle-to-the-grave service to the [legal] needs of an LGBT person as you come of age, become an adult, become a parent if you want, become an older person," she said. "All those needs will require a watchdog that knows the law and is prepared to defend LGBT people. The question is, 'Do I know Lambda will be there, and have my back, no matter what happens? Maybe I don't need it today, but I want to know that they're there if I do.'"