David Buckel

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David Buckel
Born(1957-06-13)June 13, 1957
Died (aged 60)
Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Cause of deathSelf-immolation
EducationBatavia High School (1975)
Alma materUniversity of Rochester (1980)
Cornell Law School (1987)
Known forLGBT legal work; environmental activism
SpouseTerry Kaelber

David Stroh Buckel (June 13, 1957 – April 14, 2018) was an American LGBT rights lawyer who worked with Lambda Legal on a number of their notable cases. He was also an environmental activist, focusing on composting. He died on April 14, 2018, by self-immolation as a protest against the use of fossil fuels.

Early life and education[edit]

David Buckel was born in Batavia, New York on June 13, 1957, to an agricultural consultant father and a florist mother.[1] He had four brothers. He attended Batavia High School, where he was very active; he played tennis, ran track and field, and was on the cross country team. He was voted the Senior superlative "Most likely to succeed" and was a member of National Honor Society. He graduated in 1975.[1] He then attended the University of Rochester, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1980, after which he worked as a home health attendant with hospice patients.[2] In 1987, he graduated from Cornell Law School.[3]

Legal work and environmental activism[edit]

Buckel was a senior counsel and marriage project director at Lambda Legal, the American organization that focuses on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities.[4] In 1996, Buckel represented Jamie Nabozny in Nabozny v. Podlesny, a case heard in the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit regarding the protection Nabozny did not receive while at school. Buckel represented Nabozny in his claims stemming from "consistent and significant anti-gay bullying and abuse."[5] In the late 1990s, Buckel was also a lead attorney on James Dale's case challenging the anti-gay policy of the Boy Scouts of America.[6] In 1999, he helped to secure a unanimous victory before the New Jersey Supreme Court and when the case Boy Scouts of America v. Dale went before the US Supreme Court, Buckel coordinated an extensive coalition of amici,[7] including the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.[8]

In 2000, Buckel was the lead lawyer for the estate of Brandon Teena, a transgender man who was raped and murdered in Nebraska, when Teena's family recovered damages against negligent law enforcement officers.[9] Buckel stated, "It's a very important case, not only within Nebraska but nationally."[10] The story inspired the 1999 biographical film Boys Don't Cry.[11] In 2006, Buckel argued before the Supreme Court of New Jersey in Lewis v. Harris that "for the government to use the label 'civil union' is a considered choice of language that assigns us a second-class status."[12]

At the time of his death, Buckel was senior organics recovery coordinator with the NYC Compost Project.[13] He was also a volunteer coordinator of Added Value Red Hook Community Farm, where he practiced composting.[14] Buckel's Red Hook composting site became one of the largest in the United States that did not use fossil fuels via machinery. Work at the site was predominantly done by hand.[15] He was nominated for a Solid Waste Association of North America Unsung Hero Award for his work in composting and for the environment.[16] Buckel wrote Guidelines for Urban Community Composting, a guide for composting in urban areas.[17]

Personal life[edit]

After his mother's death, Buckel changed his middle name to Stroh, his mother's maiden name.[2] Buckel and his future husband, Terry Kaelber, met in the 1980s.[2] Kaelber is an LGBT activist and would go on to head the Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders, commonly known as SAGE.[18] Both had an interest in Buddhism and practiced vegetarianism.[2][19]

Buckel and Kaelber raised a daughter, Hannah Broholm-Vail, who was college-aged at the time of Buckel's death.[2] They co-parented Hannah with Rona Vail and Cindy Broholm, a lesbian couple.[20][21]


Prospect Park, photographed in 2010, where Buckel died by self-immolation

At around 6 a.m. on April 14, 2018, Buckel set himself on fire at Prospect Park, near his home in Brooklyn. Emergency services were called by an eyewitness at 6:08 a.m., and he was pronounced dead at the scene shortly thereafter.[2][22] Several minutes prior, at 5:55 a.m., he had emailed a suicide note to multiple news media outlets, in which he wrote "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."[2]

Buckel left a lanyard bearing his identification nearby, along with a shopping cart carrying a plastic bag typically used to haul soil, which was labeled "for the police" and contained his business card, a copy of his suicide note, and a note in which he apologized "for the mess."[2][20] As the earth around Buckel was burned in a nearly perfect circle, The New York Times speculated that he had made a ring of soil to prevent the fire from spreading.[2]

Buckel's family and friends later said that in the time prior to his death, he had grown increasingly distraught at the politics surrounding climate change in the United States, particularly the environmental policy of the Trump administration, and had experienced further distress after sustaining a back injury that limited his workload.[23] Two weeks before his suicide, he had begun sending a fellow volunteer at the Red Hook Community Farm information on "how to complete paperwork, annual reports and other documents that would need to be turned over to city agencies" as well as labeling various fixtures and equipment at the facility, but had denied that he was planning on retiring when asked.[2][23]


Fox News called Buckel "a pioneering lawyer for gay and transgender rights."[24] In a statement to the Huffington Post, Camilla Taylor, senior staff attorney for Lambda Legal, stated, "His thoughtful and engaging advocacy broke through many stubborn misconceptions and showed it was possible and necessary for our movement to speak up for bullied, ostracized LGBT young people."[4] Susan Sommer, a former attorney for Lambda Legal, called Buckel "one of the architects of the freedom to marry and marriage equality movement."[25] The Independent called Buckel "a renowned lawyer turned environmentalist and expert composter."[26]

Kaelber donated a small grove of trees to Buckel's memory in Prospect Park through their Prospect Park Alliance Tree Registry program. The grove was composed of one of each of three types of dogwoods (Kousa, Venus, and Florida Cultivar); two Stewardia; and three sweetgum trees.[27] Four years after Buckel's death, on April 22, 2022, Wynn Bruce also died in an act of self-immolation while protesting climate change, this time at the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C. Buckel's and Bruce's deaths were compared to each other in the media.[19]


  • Logue, P. M.; Buckel, D. S. (1996). "Fighting Anti-Gay Abuse in Schools: The Opening Appellate Brief of Plaintiff Jamie Nabozny in Nabozny v. Podlesny". Michigan Journal of Gender & Law. 4: 425.
  • Buckel, David S. (July 26, 2016). "Legal Perspective on Ensuring a Safe and Nondiscriminatory School Environment for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Students". Education and Urban Society. 32 (3): 390–398. doi:10.1177/0013124500323007. S2CID 143645877.
  • Buckel, D. S. (2005). "Same-Sex Couples: Defining Marriage in the Twenty-First Century: Government Affixes a Label of Inferiority on Same-Sex Couples When It Imposes Civil Unions & Denies Access to Marriage". Stanford Law & Policy Review. Stanford Law School. 16: 73.
  • Buckel, D. S. (2006). "Lewis v. Harris: Essay on a Settled Question and an Open Question". Rutgers Law Review. Rutgers Law School. 59 (2): 221.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Reilly, David (July 28, 2020). "The Batavian who died to call attention to Earth's plight". The Batvian. Archived from the original on August 17, 2020. Retrieved July 11, 2022.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Correal, Annie (May 28, 2018). "What Drove a Man to Set Himself on Fire in Brooklyn?". The New York Times. Archived from the original on February 25, 2021. Retrieved May 28, 2018.
  3. ^ Wilensky, Joe. "Alumna nurtures Cornell connections through Brooklyn community composting project". Ezra Update.
  4. ^ a b "David Buckel: US lawyer sets himself on fire in climate protest". BBC. April 15, 2018. Archived from the original on April 15, 2018. Retrieved April 15, 2018.
  5. ^ Levenson, Eric; Milian, Gabriela (April 15, 2018). "Prominent gay rights lawyer sets himself on fire in protest suicide". CNN. Archived from the original on April 15, 2018. Retrieved April 15, 2018.
  6. ^ Schindler, Paul (April 15, 2018). "David Buckel, Passionate LGBTQ Rights Litigator, Dead at 60 – Gay City News". gaycitynews.com. Archived from the original on February 28, 2021. Retrieved March 28, 2022.
  7. ^ "Boy Scouts Can Discriminate Against Gay Members, High Court Rules". Lambda Legal. Archived from the original on June 27, 2015. Retrieved March 28, 2022.
  8. ^ "ACLU Amicus Brief in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale". American Civil Liberties Union. Archived from the original on March 28, 2022. Retrieved March 28, 2022.
  9. ^ "Damages in Boys Dont Cry Murder Argued Before Nebraska Supreme Court". Lambda Legal. January 9, 2000. Archived from the original on March 10, 2021. Retrieved April 15, 2018.
  10. ^ "Gay rights lawyer immolates self in NYC in ecology protest". AP NEWS. April 15, 2018. Archived from the original on September 27, 2019. Retrieved September 27, 2019.
  11. ^ "'Boys Don't Cry' Lawyer Dies by Setting Himself on Fire in Park". Hollywood Reporter. April 15, 2018. Archived from the original on April 15, 2018. Retrieved April 15, 2018.
  12. ^ Nejaime, Douglas. "Framing (In)Equality for Same-Sex Couples". UCLA Law Review. Archived from the original on March 10, 2021. Retrieved April 15, 2018.
  13. ^ "David Buckel". Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Archived from the original on April 16, 2018. Retrieved April 15, 2018.
  14. ^ "NYC: Reaching True Sustainability With Community Composting". The Organic Stream. August 4, 2014. Archived from the original on April 16, 2018. Retrieved April 15, 2018.
  15. ^ "David Buckel". The New York Times. November 20, 2023.
  16. ^ "Introducing... David Buckel". Solid Waste Association of North America. Archived from the original on April 16, 2018. Retrieved April 15, 2018.
  17. ^ Buckel, David. "Guidelines for Urban Community Composting" (PDF). Institute for Local Self Reliance. Archived (PDF) from the original on September 27, 2019. Retrieved April 15, 2018.
  18. ^ "Sage Celebrates Kaelber's Nine Years At Helm". Gay Star News. May 7, 2006. Archived from the original on July 10, 2022. Retrieved July 9, 2022.
  19. ^ a b Milman, Oliver (May 22, 2022). "Activists' Suicides Indicate a Wave of Climate "Doomerism"". Mother Jones. Archived from the original on May 30, 2022. Retrieved July 10, 2022.
  20. ^ a b Sandoval, Edgar; Gioino, Catherina; Brown, Stephen Rex (April 15, 2018). "Lawyer who killed himself in fossil fuels protest 'put his heart and soul' into all his work, colleague says". New York Daily News. Archived from the original on April 15, 2018. Retrieved April 15, 2018.
  21. ^ Humm, Andy (May 1–7, 2006). "Sage Celebrates Kaelber's Nine Years at Helm". Muscleboy. 5 (19). Archived from the original on April 16, 2018. Retrieved April 15, 2018.
  22. ^ "Prominent gay rights' attorney dead after apparent self-immolation, police say". CBS News. April 15, 2018. Archived from the original on April 15, 2018. Retrieved April 15, 2018.
  23. ^ a b Robbins, Liz; Ransom, Jan (April 15, 2018). "He Called Out Sick, Then Apologized for Leaving This World". The New York Times. Archived from the original on May 31, 2021. Retrieved June 3, 2021.
  24. ^ Hogan, Gwynne; Woods, Amanda (April 15, 2018). "David Buckel, prominent gay rights lawyer, burns himself to death in New York to protest global warming". Fox News. Archived from the original on April 15, 2018. Retrieved April 15, 2018.
  25. ^ Mays, Jeffery C. (April 14, 2018). "Prominent Lawyer in Fight for Gay Rights Dies After Setting Himself On Fire in Prospect Park". New York Times. Archived from the original on April 15, 2018. Retrieved April 15, 2018.
  26. ^ Boyle, Louise (May 12, 2022). "Husband of environmentalist who set himself on fire urges others to seize climate action: 'Choose to live'". The Independent. Archived from the original on July 5, 2022. Retrieved July 11, 2022.
  27. ^ "Tree Registry" (PDF). Prospect Park. Retrieved July 11, 2022.