A brilliant lawyer, whose work is partly responsible for New Jersey gay people’s right to be married being recognized, set himself on fire in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park early Saturday morning. “My name is David Buckel and I just killed myself by fire as a protest suicide,” read a hand-written note left at the scene. “I apologize to you for the mess.”
Buckel left a longer suicide letter sent to several news outlets including the New York Times and Daily News, making it clear that his suicide is meant to draw attention to what he clearly saw as looming ecological disaster: “Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather. 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.”
Buckel had tremendous impact on the recognition of LGBT rights in this state. As Lambda Legal’s Marriage Project director, he was lead attorney in the Lewis v. Harris case (2006) which held that the state’s marriage laws violated the rights of same-sex couples to equal protection of the law under the state constitution, and which led to several years of civil unions, fought legislatively, with a marriage equality bill vetoed by Chris Christie, before the Two SCOTUS cases which struck down the most offensive part of DOMA (United States vs. Windsor 2013) and before the SCOTUS decision in the 2015 Obergefell case made marriage equality the law of the land. Winning marriage in New Jersey was a process that went on for a decade, and Buckel’s work contributed mightily to it. Lambda Legal released a statement mourning Buckel.
He helped represent James Dale, a Matawan assistant Scoutmaster of Troop 73 in Matawan, NJ, who was kicked out of the Boy Scouts when leaders found out he was gay. It took years, but the Boy Scouts, always a conservative organization, finally voted in 2013 to end their rule banning out gay boys from participating and two years later lifting their ban on gay leaders.
Buckel was also the lead attorney in the Brandon Teena case (Brandon vs. Richardson County 2001) in which a Nebraska county sheriff was found guilty of failing to protect Brandon Teena (Teena Ray), a transgender person who was murdered. That story was turned into the film Boys Don’t Cry, starring Hilary Swank who won the Oscar playing Teena.
David Buckel was 60. He had many friends in New Jersey and did good work here. We mourn him, too.