David S. Buckel, a former Lambda Legal lawyer who championed marriage equality and the rights of LGBT youth, died Saturday after setting himself afire in a protest over fossil fuel use and the environmental destruction it causes.
Buckel’s body was found near Prospect Park in Brooklyn, N.Y., The New York Times reports. He was pronounced dead at 6:30 a.m., and police termed his death a suicide. He was 60 years old.
He left a note in a shopping cart nearby and had sent the same note by email to several media outlets, including the Times. “Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather,” he wrote in the email, according to the Times. “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.”
“Many who drive their own lives to help others often realize that they do not change what causes the need for their help,” he continued. He expressed hope that his death would be a call to action. “Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purpose in death,” he wrote. Friends told the Times Buckel had become passionate about environmental causes since leaving Lambda Legal.
Buckel was marriage project director for Lambda Legal, and in that position he persuaded the organization to file a suit for marriage rights in Iowa in 2005, “at a time when only Massachusetts permitted same-sex couples to marry,” noted a statement released by Camilla Taylor, the group’s director of constitutional litigation and acting legal director. That case led to the Iowa Supreme Court ruling for marriage equality in 2009, making it just the third state to legalize same-sex marriage (Connecticut had been the second). “The decision vindicated David’s firm belief that we could win such cases even in the heartland, and propelled us to victories elsewhere,” Taylor said. He was involved in a New Jersey marriage equality case as well.
He also won a major victory for LGBT youth in the 1990s in Nabozny v. Podlesny, in which Wisconsin high school student Jamie Nabozny sued his school district for failing to protect him from antigay bullying — bullying that was so severe he dropped out of school. “It was the first time a federal court had ever held that schools have an obligation to prevent antigay bullying, and put schools across the country on notice that they were responsible for putting a stop to it,” Taylor said. “His thoughtful and engaging advocacy broke through many stubborn misconceptions and showed it was possible and necessary for our movement to speak up for bullied, ostracized LGBT young people.”
“David also led Lambda Legal’s work to secure justice and accountability for the murder of Brandon Teena, a transgender man who was brutally raped and then killed by his rapists after law enforcement failed to intervene,” Taylor said. In that case, Brandon v. Richardson County, a court found the county sheriff liable for failure to protect Teena, who was killed in 1993.
“Our thoughts and condolences go out to all those who loved David,” Taylor concluded.” We have lost a movement leader, a colleague, and a friend. We will honor his life by continuing his fight for a better world.”
For LGBT youth (ages 24 and younger) contemplating suicide or otherwise in crisis, the Trevor Project Lifeline can be reached at (866) 488-7386. Trans Lifeline, focusing on transgender peoplem can be reached at (877) 565-8860. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 can also be reached 24 hours a day by people of all ages and identities.