Richard Burns revives a 40-year relationship with Lambda Legal and brings his experience in nonprofit management to bear in smoothing the way for the agency’s next CEO
Tammye Nash | Managing Editor
Since Kevin Cathcart retired as executive director of Lambda Legal at the end of April 2016 after 24 years at the helm, the legal advocacy organization has been through a bit of a rough period.
Rachel Tiven followed Cathcart as executive director in 2016, but, amid a wave of staffer discontent that saw numerous longtime employees leave the agency, she resigned at the beginning of August last year to concentrate on the 2018 midterms.
But now an old friend of Lambda Legal had stepped into the top office and is turning his considerable experience to the task of preparing the agency to move into the future.
Richard Burns came on as interim executive director for Lambda Legal last October. But his association with the agency, he told Dallas Voice this week, goes back decades.
Burns said he first became aware of Lambda Legal in the late 1970s when he became a plaintiff in one of the agency’s cases. He explained that he was working as managing editor of Gay Community News, a national LGBT newsmagazine based in Boston, when the federal Bureau of Prisons deemed his publication, along with the newsletter for what was then called the National Gay Task Force, to be obscene. Until then, Burns said, GCN and the Task Force’s newsletter had been sent, free of charge, to LGBT people in prison. But after being declared obscene, the publications were banned from the prisons.
“Now, you might have been able to declare [GCN] boring perhaps. But there was no way you could legitimately deem it to be pornographic,” Burns said. “So we sued.”
Over the course of the next year, Burns said, he went to Washington, D.C., to be deposed as part of the lawsuit. Lambda Legal was the firm representing GCN and the Task Force, and Nan Hunter with the Women’s Law Collective was the attorney.
“That was an eye-opening year,” he recalled.
In 1978, even though he was not at the time an attorney, Burns helped co-found Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, or GLAD, another LGBT legal advocacy organization, and served on its board until 1986.
In 1980, Burns became a member of Lambda Legal’s first national board of directors. And after his involvement with the GCN lawsuit, he decided to attend law school himself. That’s where he met several other future leaders of the LGBT movement, including Urvashi Vaid and Cathcart.
In the meantime, Burns said, “AIDS happened,” and he became part of the growing movement of “what we called back then gay liberation activists.”
In 1986, as the LGBT rights and HIV/AIDS movements were growing ever stronger and more visible, Burns became executive director of New York City’s LGBT Community Center, a job he held for 22 years.
“We were at war during the Reagan years and the Bush years,” Burns said, noting that it was during his time with the LGBT Community Center that the center became the birthplace of activist organizations like ACT UP and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (“the GLAAD with two As,” he explained).
And while those were “some heady years,” they were also years of never-ending struggle and frequent disappointments. The LGBT community was being devastated by AIDS and constant battles against discrimination at every level of government and throughout society. No one escaped completely unscathed.
In early 2009, Burns said, he stepped down from his post at the New York City LGBT Community Center. “I came crawling out on my hands and knees, burnt to a crisp,” he said. And he had no intention of heading up any other organization.
“But then I heard about this niche of being an interim CEO,” Burns said, explaining that being a management consultant and serving as an organization’s CEO gave him the chance to put his years of experience as an activist and a manager to good use without having to spend years in one place, with one organization.
It started when Paula Ettelbrick, an attorney and activist he knew from Lambda Legal, was diagnosed with cancer and asked
Burns to step in for her as interim CEO of the Stonewall Community Foundation while she underwent treatment and recovered.
But then Ettelbrick’s condition worsened and she died. And Burns spent 10 months as interim CEO there.
“So, for these last eight years, this is what I have been doing,” Burns said. “Lambda Legal is number seven on the list of organizations I worked for as interim CEO. The last one before I came here was the Johnson Family Foundation. I was there for 16 months.”
Any time the top officer leaves a company or organization after a long tenure is a challenging time, Burns said this week. Times of leadership transition are always turbulent times. And anyone who follows a 20-plus year organization director “is going to have a hard time of it,” he said.
It is also common, he added, to see a large number of staff members leave in the wake of a CEO’s or executive director’s departure.
But it is Burns’ job, as a professional interim CEO, to calm those turbulent waters and help make the transition as easy and as seamless as possible.
Especially in a time when the federal government is in right-wing hands and the federal courts are skewing more conservative, Burns said, Lambda Legal and its work are “critical to our movement.” And that’s why his job is so important.
“It’s true that the last couple of years [of transition] for Lambda have been a bit bumpier than usual,” Burns acknowledged. “But it’s my job now to help smooth things out. “I am here to send the message that there is someone in [the CEO’s] chair to keep things going, and to set the next CEO up for success.”
Pick up the Feb. 8 issue of Dallas Voice for our interview with Avery Belyeu, Lambda Legal’s new South Central Regional director based here in Dallas, and her outlook on the agency’s priorities moving forward.