The Law Weekly reached out to affinity group leaders to write for us in a feature we are calling “Spotlight.” Our goal is to give leaders a regular platform to start conversations about issues they are facing, to reflect on the events of August 11th and 12th, and to educate the UVa Law community about their diverse experiences so that we can become better allies to our fellow classmates.
If you or your organization would like to be featured, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wade Foster '19
Vice Chair of Programming, Lambda Alliance
Last weekend, Charlottesville hosted its annual Pride Festival, a time for the LGBTQ+ community to come together, to celebrate, to reflect, and to focus on the challenges still facing our community. Pride, even in Charlottesville, is a multi-day community celebration with events hosted by LGBTQ+ organizations, a festival downtown, and a parade. However, the first Pride wasn’t nearly so cheery or community oriented. The first Pride parade was organized in New York City to commemorate the police raid on the Stonewall Inn and subsequent riots that took place on June 28, 1969. The organizers of the first Pride parade intended it to build visibility and inform the public about the oppression faced by the LGBTQ+ community. Since the initial Pride parade in New York City, the LGBTQ+ community has gained more acceptance, and the focus of Pride has changed to reflect both that acceptance and the challenges still facing our community. Much like the changing tenor and focus of pride celebrations, Lambda has changed over the years to reflect the needs of its members and the challenges facing our community.
The Gay and Lesbian Law Student Association (“GLLSA”) was the first organization at the law school formed for gay and lesbian students. Founded in 1984, GLLSA brought “gay students together for social, political, and educational activities.”1 Shortly after its founding, GLLSA began bringing speakers to the law school to discuss challenges faced by gay and lesbian students and hosted the first “Gay Awareness Week” in 1986. In the early days of GLLSA, the organization took an active role in educating the law school community about the AIDS crisis through a conference entitled “HIV and AIDS in Central Virginia: A Legal and Medical Perspective.” At the time, HIV and AIDS were viewed as an urban disease. Speakers at the conference brought the AIDS crisis home to rural Virginia by focusing on the effects of the AIDS crisis throughout Virginia.
Today Lambda hosts multiple events focused on current issues facing the LGBTQ+ community. In the coming months, we plan to host a panel discussion in conjunction with Virginia Employment Labor Law Association (VELLA) on the Seventh Circuit’s decision that employment discrimination based on sexual orientation violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We are also planning several events focused on transgender issues and freedom of religion as it impacts LGBTQ+ rights.
Alumni of GLLSA recall the law school as a supportive environment that had a commitment to its lesbian and gay students. This is pretty incredible for the time, but not unexpected from the UVa Law community. One of the key aspects of supporting any minority population is getting to know those individuals and understanding what support looks like. GLLSA was originally founded to help educate the law school community about lesbian and gay issues. Today, Lambda continues to bring educational opportunities to the law school about challenges facing the LGBTQ+ community.
Lambda is planning programming to help our allies understand how they can support LGBTQ+ individuals. As an LGBTQ+ person goes through the coming-out process, they reveal one of the most intimate parts of themselves. We want our allies to be able to support our LGBTQ+ students, both as they go through coming-out process and after they are out. It is important to understand that if an LGBTQ+ individual has entrusted you with this information it is your duty to keep it confidential. It is their decision to come out on their own schedule, not anyone else’s.
Today, much like the early days of GLLSA, Lambda serves a social role for LGBTQ+ individuals to gather and be themselves. Alumni of GLLSA remember the organization as playing an important social function, giving them a “safe space” to let their hair down with people who had similar experiences. This remains a core mission of Lambda today. While the world is more supportive of the LGBTQ+ community than it was when GLLSA was founded, coming out can still be a scary process and it helps to have a readily identifiable community where you can open up and truly be yourself.
GLLSA appears to have changed its name to Lambda Law Alliance sometime in the early 2000’s, the first reference to Lambda in the Law Weekly is in April 2001. The Greek lowercase λ (lambda) was chosen as the symbol for the Gay Activist Alliance in 1969. “The GAA literature explained that the lambda represented ‘a complete exchange of energy--that moment or span of time witness to absolute activity’ in the notation of chemistry and physics.”2 Since then lambda has been adopted broadly as a symbol of the LGBTQ+ community.
The name change from GLLSA to Lambda reflected the increasing “exchange of energy” throughout the organization and the increasing diversity of the membership with students across the LGBTQ+ spectrum including transgender, gender non-conforming, queer, bisexual, and questioning students. It also reflects the changing mission of the organization and the changing state of LGBTQ+ rights in America.
While Lambda continues much of the work GLLSA was founded to do, the mission has grown significantly, Lambda serves as an important career/networking conduit for its members and the legal community. Lambda also strives to be more inclusive of individuals with marginalized identities and aims to raise awareness beyond the walls of the law school.
GLLSA alumni in the late 1980’s did not feel comfortable putting their association with the organization or anything relating to their sexual orientation on applications to law firms. So while they were out at the Law School (or at least to their peers in GLLSA), they went back into the closet when the job hunt began. Fortunately, the legal community today is much more accepting and encouraging of LGBTQ+ students.
In the early days, GLLSA had 15–20 members, some of whom were allies. Today the UVa Law LGBTQ+ community has over fifty out individuals. This is a testament to the support of the law school community that more and more law students feel comfortable being themselves.
Pride is a time to celebrate how far we have come and a time of reflection. Pride is also a time to focus anew on the challenges facing the LGBTQ+ community. While it is amazing how far we have come since GLLSA was founded, it is amazing how much work is left to do. Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. Forty percent of transgender adults report attempting suicide.3 LGBTQ+ individuals can still be fired in many states just for being themselves.
These are just a few of the challenges that Lambda will continue educating the law school community about. We are thankful for our straight allies here at the law school and in the broader community joining us to work on these issues. If you want to get involved please reach out, if you are questioning your sexuality or gender identity know that there are students here who will confidentially support you.
*Special thanks to J. Goodwin Bland (’87) and Joe Baker (’87) for sharing their experiences as members of GLLSA for this article.
1 Glenn Jessee, GALLSA Outlines Gay Awareness Week, 38 Va. L. Weekly No. 19 (March 28, 1986); Law School Briefs, 36 Va. L. Weekly No. 13 (Feb. 3, 1984).