NEW YORK — A lawyer who burned himself to death in a grisly protest against ecological destruction was a nationally known gay rights advocate and lead attorney in a famous case involving transgender murder victim Brandon Teena.
The charred remains of 60-year-old David Buckel were found in a grassy meadow in Brooklyn's Prospect Park at dawn Saturday, as early-morning cyclists and joggers strode by. He left a suicide note in a shopping cart near his body, writing that he hoped his act would bring attention to the need to protect the environment.
"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," the note read, according to the New York Times which received an emailed copy.
Buckel wrote that pollution was ravaging the planet and hoped his death would serve as a symbol. But he was best known as a champion of gay rights. A 1987 graduate of Cornell Law School, he served as marriage project director at Lambda Legal, a national organization that fights for LGBT rights. In one case he led, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples and their children were harmed because they were excluded from rights granted to married couples.
He argued against the Boy Scout ban on gay, fought for the right of gay high school students in Salt Lake City to organize a club and helped a Pennsylvania woman win a lawsuit allowing her to put "beloved life partner" on the headstone of her partner. And he spearheaded a federal case where a court ruled schools are obligated to prevent the bullying of gay students, Camilla Taylor, acting legal director at Lambda Legal, told the Times.
He'd been doing the work for years — Buckel worked on Brandon v. County of Richardson — where the sheriff's office in 2001 was found liable for failing to protect Teena. Hilary Swank won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Teena in the 1999 movie "Boys Don't Cry."
"It's a very important case, not only within Nebraska but nationally," Buckel said after the $80,000 judgment against the city, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's student newspaper the Daily Nebraskan.
Susan Sommer, a former Lambda Legal attorney who is now the general counsel for the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice in New York City, told the Times that Buckel "was all about justice, but he was also all about what it means to be human."
Sommer added, "He was a very smart and methodical lawyer. He knew his craft and his trade and was strategic in how to build the blocks toward a sweeping victory."