Prominent gay rights lawyer dies after setting himself on fire
NEW TORK — A lawyer nationally known for being a champion of gay rights died after setting himself on fire in Prospect Park in Brooklyn early Saturday and leaving a note exhorting people to lead less selfish lives as a way to protect the planet, the police said.
The remains of the lawyer, David S. Buckel, 60, were found near Prospect Park West in a field near baseball diamonds and the main loop used by joggers and bikers.
Buckel left a note in a shopping cart not far from his body and also e-mailed it to several news media outlets.
Buckel was the lead attorney in Brandon v. County of Richardson, in which a Nebraska county sheriff was found liable for failing to protect Brandon Teena, a transgender man who was murdered in Falls City. Hilary Swank won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Teena in the 1999 movie “Boys Don’t Cry.”
While serving as marriage project director and senior counsel at Lambda Legal, a national organization that fights for the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, Buckel was the strategist behind important same-sex marriage cases in New Jersey and Iowa.
Friends said that after he left the organization, Buckel became involved in environmental causes, which he alluded to in his note as the reason he decided to end his life by self-immolation with fossil fuels.
“Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather,” he wrote in the e-mail sent to The Times. “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.”
In his note, which was received by the Times at 5:55 a.m., Buckel discussed the difficulty of improving the world even for those who make vigorous efforts to do so.
Privilege, he said, was derived from the suffering of others.
“Many who drive their own lives to help others often realize that they do not change what causes the need for their help,” Buckel wrote, adding that donating to organizations was not enough.
Noting that he was privileged with “good health to the final moment,” Buckel said he wanted his death to lead to increased action. “Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purpose in death,” he wrote.
The police said Buckel was pronounced dead at 6:30 a.m. in what they said was a suicide.
Susan Sommer, a former attorney for Lambda Legal who is now the general counsel for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said Buckel was “one of the architects of the freedom to marry and marriage equality movement.”
“He deserves tremendous thanks for recognizing this was in many ways at the heart of what it meant to be gay for many Americans and making it a priority,” she said. “I learned so much from him about the emotional center of what it means for a gay person not to be able to have all the protections for the person they love and that it’s worth fighting for.”
Lambda Legal credited Buckel for focusing the organization on the rights of lesbian, gay and transgender youth. One of the cases Buckel spearheaded, Nabozny v. Podlesny, was the first time a federal court ruled that schools have an obligation to prevent the bullying of gay students, said Camilla Taylor, acting legal director at Lambda Legal.
Buckel also guided Lambda Legal’s national work to allow gay people to marry. In another case he led, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples and their children were harmed because they were excluded from the rights granted via marriage. When Buckel suggested filing a lawsuit for gay marriage in Iowa in 2005, it was legal only in Massachusetts.
“It was considered a crazy thing to do because of the notion that Iowa would get to marriage equality before places like New York and New Jersey,” Taylor said.
Catherine Varous, a neighbor of Buckel’s, said he was very active in gardening, and together they worked on the Greenest Block in Brooklyn competition.
She said she often saw Buckel and his partner at the Park Slope Food Co-op and a farmer’s market. “He was the quieter of the two,” she said, referring to Buckel. “He was definitely more serious.”
Amy Orr, a kindergarten teacher who lives in the neighborhood, was out for her regular weekend jog at about 6:25 a.m. when she saw police officers standing over something that was smoldering.
She said she first “thought it was a pile of garbage because of the shopping cart” but then she saw the outline of a human body.
Runners and bicyclists continued to pass. But as more police officers and firefighters gathered, they all looked “dumbfounded,” Orr said. “Nobody could believe it.”
By 11 a.m., authorities had removed Buckel’s body, leaving a blackened patch and a circular indentation around which parks officials placed two orange cones.
The grim scene stood in stark contrast to the rest of the park, which brimmed with activity. Several youth baseball games continued nearby, and participants in PurpleStride, a walk dedicated to ending pancreatic cancer, strode along the bike path with runners and joggers.
The field where Buckel died would ordinarily be filled with activity, too. Warren Beishir, a graphic designer, said it was used for volleyball, soccer and barbecuing.
Beishir sat across from the field under a tree with his wife, Susan Stawicki, their 2-year-old daughter and their neighbors. They live across from the park and were awakened by sirens and flashing lights.
“How do you do that to yourself?” Beishir asked. “It’s a terrible way to go, and I don’t want to think about it after today.”
“I hope they are at peace,” Stawicki said.