The National Center for Lesbian Rights, Kate Kendell, and The Audacity to Fight for Justice
My wife, Tami, and I were fortunate to be in San Francisco for the 41st anniversary celebration of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). Along with celebrating NCLR’s work, the 2,000 plus people gathered at the Palace of Fine Arts were honoring my long-term friend Kate (Kathy) Kendell as she retires at the end of 2018 from 22 years of being the Executive Director of NCLR. Along with tributes to Kate, the program gave special honors to the two plaintiffs in Doe vs. Trump, the NCLR lawsuit challenging President Trump’s ban on transgendered people serving in the military. Listening to these two individuals (ages 20 and 22) address the crowd, I was inspired and realized that we really are now living in a world that Kate Kendell helped create.
Reflecting back 40 years, when I was about the age of these plaintiffs, I remember my first contact w/ NCLR. The organization was founded in 1977, the same year I graduated from law school. In 1979, I attended a “Women in the Law” conference in San Antonio. There were at least a hundred seminars to choose from during the three day gathering. I noticed there were a few put on by some women affiliated with an organization out of San Francisco called “the Lesbian Rights Project” (predecessor to NCLR). I was intrigued, even though at the time I was married to a man and had no clear understanding yet that I was gay. I snuck into two of the meetings (“snuck” because I didn’t want my other female lawyer colleagues from Utah to realize where I was going). I was awestruck listening to these strong women (who included Donna Hitchens and Roberta Achtenberg, two of the original founders of NCLR) talking about lesbian mothers and custody rights. To my naive mind, it hadn’t even occurred to me that lesbians would want to have children, nor that they would ever have any custody rights in a contested divorce action.
Skip ahead a few years to the early 1980s, and I had gotten divorced from the man, fallen in love with a woman, and met Kathy Kendell through some mutual friends who were part of a National Organization for Women (NOW) group in Ogden, Utah — the town where I lived and practiced law. Kathy was a college student. She was a star on the college debate team and I knew she had the potential to be a great lawyer. Never did I imagine she would become THE lawyer for lesbians (and other sorts of LGBTQ people) everywhere.
Move up another decade to the early 1990s, and Kathy and I were both testing our wings in Utah as “out” lesbian attorneys. We both spoke at a conference at the University of Utah. For me, it was one of the first times I had been willing to be openly identified as a lesbian in a crowd of strangers. When our remarks were covered by our hometown newspaper, the Ogden Standard Examiner, I nervously read the article, wondering what my father and clients would say about this. To my great delight, while the article mentioned both our names, the only photo it ran was Kathy’s. Whew — I had eased gently into the public identification experience. And typical of Kathy, she’s been paving the way for me ever since.
Fast forward again to February 2004, the “winter of love.” Mayor Gavin Newsom had started allowing same sex marriages in San Francisco. Kathy — now Kate — was right in the thick of it. Not only did we appreciate her professional advocacy, we appreciated her personal support when she encouraged Tami (my partner and finally legal wife, see Why I’ve Been Married 8 Times) and me to fly to San Francisco. She met us at the courthouse and she and Sandy, her partner (now wife) were going to be our witnesses. We ended up having to stand in line all day, and they had jobs to get to, so we missed out on actually having them be present at our ceremony. However, we got to trade phone calls all day long about life in the line, our chances of getting through the door to the clerk’s office that day, etc.
Throughout the many ups and downs of the national fight for gay civil equality, I’ve been lucky to call her my friend. Since meeting in the early 80s, we’ve each experienced our own share of break-ups, deaths of parents, deaths of friends, weddings of friends, and the joy of children and grandchildren. While she is known around the country for her groundbreaking civil rights work, she is known to me as a dear friend of close to four decades. And while I was initially her mentor, she soon surpassed me — illustrating the power of every educator’s goal: “the student becomes the teacher.”
The depth and breadth of Kate’s teaching was evident as she closed out the evening at the 41st annual NCLR celebration. Noting that the current administration’s policies have taken the country to a new state of division and fragility, she reminded the crowd that they hold the key to moving forward. “We, the LGBTQ community, know what it is like to have and stay in difficult conversations. We discuss, we learn, we educate, and we lead. We are the ones who can make the difference.”