Lambda Legal to launch Washington office

The LGBT legal advocacy group Lambda Legal is opening a new Washington office in an expansion aimed at ratcheting up a fight against the Trump administration for which they’re planning to raise an additional $25 million over the next four years, on top of their existing budget.

The office will be run by Sharon McGowan, who was until January a top attorney in the Justice Department’s civil rights division under President Barack Obama. She has set up shop in an office several blocks from the White House and has already hired one attorney, with plans to hire more, as well as law fellows, paralegals, and media and advocacy operatives.

Within the LGBT activism world, Lambda Legal has taken a leading role on litigation for years, though to date it has done so without a dedicated staff in Washington.

“We are there to make sure that while all these other fires are burning, they’re not coming for us,” McGowan said. “While they’re not setting our house on fire, they’re poisoning our pool.”

McGowan said that while most of the civil rights fights with the Trump administration have not been over LGBT issues, she believes there will soon be grounds for lawsuits and lobbying.

“Wherever we can sue,” McGowan said, “we certainly will.”

The new office, with help from new hires in their existing offices in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, will fight against court nominees with records the group deems unacceptable and track whether the administration scales back LGBT protections in under-the-radar ways.

McGowan said analyzing and criticizing Trump’s court nominees will distinguish Lambda Legal’s efforts from other civil rights advocacy groups, such as the ACLU.

“This is what the beginning of the end of the courts look like – if we don’t plant the flag and make clear that nominees like this are beyond the pale, then we’re going to see more of the same,” McGowan said.

Lambda Legal hopes to move from a roughly $19 million annual operation budget to a $25 million budget, and it will share details of its plans with donors Thursday night at an event at the Newseum.

Lambda Legal CEO Rachel Tiven said the fundraising is already underway, with more than 7,000 new donors since the election who have given between $25 and $100,000.

Tiven said the Washington office will help harness the organization’s court experience in ways it hadn’t anticipated would be necessary until Trump’s election.

“We don’t dabble,” Tiven said. “It’s not an outpost. It’s a significant investment.”

Vanita Gupta, who was the acting head of the DOJ civil rights division and McGowan’s boss for the final years of the Obama administration before becoming president of the civil rights-focused Leadership Conference, said the expansion will be an important addition to anti-Trump efforts.

“There’s no question right now about the importance of organizations like Lambda Legal to be able to play a really powerful role in resisting the rollbacks on LGBT rights,” Gupta said, “while also recognizing huge opportunities to advance civil rights for the LGBT community.”

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