Leading LGBT+ rights lawyer David Buckel dies after setting himself on fire in protest in Brooklyn park

Maya Oppenheim

A leading LGBT+ lawyer and environmental activist used fossil fuels to burn himself to death in New York in a drastic protest against climate catastrophe.

David Buckel’s body was found by onlookers in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Police said the 60-year-old was pronounced dead at about 6.30am yesterday in what they deemed to be a suicide.

Before setting himself alight, he had stowed his identification and a suicide note close by, police sources said.

The campaigner is understood to have used the note to implore others to have less selfish lives in order to protect the Earth.

He said he wanted his death to lead to increased action. “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,” read a copy of the note, which The New York Times obtained.

The Daily News reported that the activist left the note in a shopping cart nearby, saying he hoped his death would be “honourable” and “might serve others”.

“Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather,” read the note. “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.”

Mr Buckel took his own life just a few blocks from his home, just off the park.

As a lawyer, he had garnered praise for his role as the lead attorney in a lawsuit involving Brandon Teena, who was raped and murdered in Nebraska. His life and death were the subject of the Academy Award-winning 1999 indie film Boys Don’t Cry, which earned Hilary Swank an Oscar.

Mr Buckel also spearheaded same-sex marriage cases in a number of states across the US.

He worked as marriage project director at Lambda Legal, a national organisation that strives for LGBT rights, where he was the strategist behind same-sex marriage cases in New Jersey and Iowa.

Susan Sommer, a former Lambda Legal attorney, who is now the general counsel for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice in New York, said Mr Buckel was “all about justice, but he was also all about what it means to be human”.

“He was a very smart and methodical lawyer. He knew his craft and his trade, and was strategic in how to build the blocks towards a sweeping victory,” Ms Sommer told the paper.

Lambda Legal applauded Mr Buckel for centring the organisation on the rights of LGBT+ youth. Camilla Taylor, acting legal director, said he had been at the forefront of a case, Nabozny v Podlesny, that was the first time a federal court ruled schools are obliged to stop the bullying of LGBT+ students.

Mr Buckel was also a driving force on Lambda Legal’s work on gay marriage. 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 he first proposed filing a lawsuit for gay marriage in Iowa in 2005, it was legal only in Massachusetts.