The Job of a Lifetime

Leading the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) has been the job of a lifetime. I feel extremely honored to have held this position and privileged to have experienced the countless moments of joy and awe that have forever changed our lives as LGBTQ individuals. After 22 years, with a full and grateful heart, I will step-down as the Executive Director of NCLR at the end of this year.

I never imagined I would live in San Francisco or lead an organization at the forefront of the fight for LGBT civil rights. I grew up Mormon in Ogden, Utah, was the eldest of three and the first to go to college in my family. Growing up, my parents never talked politics or current events. I never saw my Dad reading a book or newspaper. We never traveled out of the country or even east of Colorado. We went on an airplane once. I could only dream of one day being a lawyer and I was sure that my sexual orientation would make it impossible for me to get a job. I most certainly never dreamed I would be the executive director of NCLR, nor that I would hold such a role for 22 years.

But I did and I have.

I came to NCLR as Legal Director in 1994 and became Executive Director in 1996. In my first weeks as Executive Director, I took a call from Mary Ward, a lesbian mom in Florida who had lost custody of her 8-year-old daughter based solely on her sexual orientation. Nothing about Mary’s story was unusual at this point in the conversation; I had heard the same facts countless times. Then came the kicker: Mary’s ex-husband had served 8 years in prison for murdering his first wife. I almost dropped the phone. An abusive murderer was deemed more fit for custody of a young girl then her lesbian mother. While our case was on appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, Mary died of a heart attack. I remember where I was when I got the call about her death as if it was yesterday.

Two weeks ago our victory for Suzan McLaughlin means she is a fully recognized legal parent to her 7-year-old. Suzan and her former partner were married. Her wife gave birth to their child in 2011. After they separated in 2013 her ex would not allow Suzan to see her child. We sued to have Suzan recognized as a parent and we won. In an e-mail to us upon hearing that her relationship with her child was secure, Suzan wrote: “I am so happy right now I think I’m going to burst!!”

And last year, for the first time in our 42-year history, we sued a sitting U.S. President over his move to ban transgender soldiers from military service. At every stage of this groundbreaking litigation we’ve won and January 1 of this year trans recruits began enlisting in our military.

These cases, one early in my tenure and the others just days ago and ongoing are a snapshot of our work. They illustrate both how far we have come and how powerful this work is. I have innumerable such stories and the impact NCLR has made. When now retired San Francisco Superior Court Judge Donna Hitchens founded NCLR in 1977 she could not have imagined the impact she, and NCLR would make. Her legacy, nurtured by several other leaders before me, has allowed LGBTQ people to live openly and authentically. Nevertheless, we all know our work is not done.

At a moment filled with both promise and challenge for the multiple movements that impact LGBTQ people, NCLR has never been more important. To lead this next phase of our progress, I believe it is the right time to welcome a new generation of leadership to chart and lead a bold and fierce future.

My time at NCLR has widened my vistas and laid open my heart. I’ve been at the center of enormous NCLR victories, four at the U.S. Supreme Court, including the freedom to marry, a fight that was fanciful to me 22 years ago.  Most importantly, I have been held up by so many. I would not be who I am without all of you. I have been unalterably marked by this work and by the many relationships that have brought me so much joy.

I feel enormous gratitude to have been a part of the NCLR legacy, part of the history of the fight, still on-going, for full lived justice for all LGBTQ people. I am forever beholden to you all for making me better. The honor, truly, has been all mine.

Dearest staff, board, colleagues and generous supporters of NCLR, I am forever indebted for the opportunity you have given me.  From a full to bursting heart, thank you for your steadfast support of me, NCLR and our vision of what the world can be. The road ahead will be both challenging and filled with possibility. The needs of our community will be both pressing and complex. But you can rest assured that NCLR will be here, rising to the moment as we have for 41 years. Your continued support will assure that we meet every challenge head on. We have much more to do and more history to make.

With mad love and respect,


World AIDS Day Message from Executive Director Kate Kendell

This year, NCLR celebrated four decades of work to advance LGBTQ equality. We know that we are stronger and better able to fight today’s battles because of our deep history in the movement—growing with, standing with, and supporting our community. And today, on World AIDS Day 2017, we renew our commitment to the fight against HIV, supporting our family members living with HIV, and honoring those who have died.

Former executive director Roberta Achtenberg recently reflected on our early work in support of those living with HIV during the height of the epidemic in San Francisco: “When I think back on that time, it was a slaughter, a disaster impacting hundreds of thousands of young men. Particularly because of our social justice background and the more progressive inclinations of the lesbian community in our own town and nationwide, we did everything we could think of in the middle of such dramatic loss and terrible tragedy.”

For NCLR, then called the Lesbian Rights Project, that included delivering free legal services to individuals living with HIV, laying the groundwork that helped establish the AIDS Legal Referral Panel, and coordinating with a deep bench of volunteer attorneys both in San Francisco and across the country.  In 1988, Achtenberg and others helped secure the first ruling in the nation granting custody to a parent living with AIDS. At the time, Achtenberg commented that the ruling, “strikes a blow against the ignorance that surrounds both AIDS and homosexuality.”

Yet despite the incredible significance of the fight against AIDS for our community, yesterday, President Trump failed to acknowledge the LGBTQ community and people of color in his World AIDS Day Proclamation. Under this administration, it’s more important than ever that we remember our history—and counter these repeated attempts at erasure.

Today, and every day, we honor those community members lost to HIV/AIDS, and we stand with those living today with HIV. We are here for you and will keep fighting and advocating for you—in Washington and across the country.


We must smash white supremacy. Together.

Yesterday, the President of the United States defended white supremacy and virulent racism on national television. He derided the journalists who challenged or questioned his comments, and he created a false equivalence between anti-racism protesters and Neo-Nazis.

This is not normal. And we cannot allow this to become the new normal.

Trump did not make yesterday’s statements in a vacuum. He made them against the backdrop of a nation reeling from the recent deadly racist rally in Charlottesville and a lethal string of unjustified police killings of innocent Black people. Through its actions, this administration has repeatedly emboldened white nationalists and implicitly condoned attacks on people of color, Jewish people, immigrants and the LGBTQ community. This Presidency is a national tragedy. And every day there are more victims.

Our nation’s failure to deal honestly with race and injustice is not new. Multiple generations have pushed white people to acknowledge our nation’s legacy of slavery and racist subjugation.  Repeatedly, that legacy has been denied, lied about, and perpetuated by white people, even as it has continued to exert a crushing burden on people of color. But that past failure need not be our future.

We can, must, and will turn this tide.

As Elie Wiesel once said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormenter never the tormented.” There is no moment to doubt, cower or dismiss. THIS is a moment where moral courage and action is demanded. None of us can do anything alone. But if every day you vow to do what you can, about what you can, we will see change.  At NCLR we will use our platform to denounce racism and white supremacy and fight every day for justice.  For me personally it means engaging in all sorts of conversations, asking everyone I know to speak out and get involved, to be relentlessly engaged, and to seek out difficult conversations and search for common ground.

Never in our lives has there been a more consequential moment.  The world has witnessed how fascism flourishes. “Never Again” must be our personal pledge: we will not allow our nation to slide further into the abyss of hatred and oppression. Stand up, speak out, support us and other organizations who are fighting back. We can and will make a difference.

We can end this national terror, but only if we rise up, resist and fight back in ways and with a resolute passion never unleashed before.

We pledge to do that work every day. Join us.



NCLR’s Supreme Court Win This Week, and Other Moments That Build a Movement

Monday marked two important moments at NCLR. First, we celebrated the second anniversary of winning the freedom to marry nationwide at the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges. Being a part of the legal team that won that landmark and transformative victory for our community will always be a highlight of my legal career. Also on Monday, NCLR won our third U.S. Supreme Court victory in two years, Pavan v. Smith. In this case, we represented two married same-sex couples who sued the state of Arkansas for refusing to put the names of both parents on their children’s birth certificates as the state does for all other married couples, regardless of their biological connection to their children.

Pavan was a decisive victory for NCLR. The Court “summarily reversed” the Arkansas Supreme Court, finding its decision so clearly erroneous that the Supreme Court reached a decision without requiring oral arguments or any additional briefing. Summary reversals are extremely rare and happen only when a lower court disregards clearly established law. In Pavan, the Court concluded that the Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision directly flouted Obergefell by denying “married same-sex couples access to the ‘constellation of benefits that the Stat[e] ha[s] linked to marriage.’”

The newest member of the Court, Neil Gorsuch, dissented, joined by Justices Alito and Thomas. That Justice Gorsuch would endorse such an obvious attempt to disregard Obergefell is deeply troubling and confirms the grave concerns that NCLR and other LGBTQ legal groups raised during his nomination process.

The Court’s ruling in Pavan is all the sweeter because it comes on the heels of a similar victory just last year. In V.L. v. E.L., NCLR won another summary reversal – this one unanimous – when the Supreme Court ruled that the Alabama Supreme Court had wrongly denied recognition of our lesbian client’s adoption of their three children. In both the case Monday and the one last year, the Court’s opinions, which are traditionally unsigned, were unwavering in their rejection of the actions and reasoning of the courts below.

But not all the news from the Court on Monday was good. On the same day, the Court allowed key portions of the Trump Administration’s Muslim Ban to go into effect pending the Court’s review of lower court rulings declaring the ban unconstitutional.

The Court also agreed to review Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a Colorado Court of Appeals decision holding that businesses cannot refuse to serve same-sex couples based on the business owner’s religious beliefs.

The Court’s decision to hear this case is troubling; however, we are hopeful that as it has done in the past, the Court will reject the dangerous notion that commercial enterprises should be able to violate anti-discrimination laws in the name of religion. In fact, the last time the Court considered a closely related issue, it did so in another NCLR case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. In that case, the Court soundly rejected the claim that religious student groups have a right to violate a public university’s anti-discrimination rules. If the Supreme Court were to reverse course in Masterpiece Cakeshop and embrace such a radical position, the ramifications would be potentially catastrophic for the future of all anti-discrimination laws.

NCLR filed a friend of the court brief in the Colorado court emphasizing the importance of public accommodation protections, which not only ensure that people can receive needed services, but also protect personal dignity and promote equal opportunity for members of historically disadvantaged groups. We’ll be back again to support our colleagues at the ACLU as they defend the Colorado court’s decision before the Supreme Court this fall.

So even as we celebrate our victories present and past, we are reminded every day of the tremendous threat this moment poses both to our community and to the entire nation. This moment requires a level of vigilance and engagement and energy I have not seen in my lifetime. But I know that movements are born of moments like this.

Whether this administration or others are attacking same-sex couples, refugees, immigrants, healthcare, transgender people or people of color, sitting idly is NOT an option. Engage, push back, support NCLR and other LGBTQ organizations, and show up.

We will have more victories yet…


More than 60 LGBTQ groups tell Senate that healthcare repeal would ‘harm millions’ of Americans and devastate the health of the LGBTQ community

On June 13, 2017,  the Human Rights Campaign and National Center for Lesbian Rights delivered a letter to the U.S. Senate urging them not to gut access to healthcare. More than 60 LGBTQ organizations, representing millions of LGBTQ people across the country, signed onto this letter sharing deep concerns for the health of our community. The letter notes that the Congressional Budget Office has projected that repeal of the Affordable Care Act would result in 14 million Americans losing health insurance by 2018 and 23 million by 2026. It also spells out dire consequences for the LGBTQ community related to proposed changes to the ban on preexisting conditions, Medicaid, cuts to Planned Parenthood, the elimination of the Public Health and Prevention Fund, and more.

To see the full text of the letter and list of organizations signed on in support, click here.


Standing Up to Attempts to Take Down Marriage Equality.

In North Carolina this week, anti-LGBTQ extremists tried to do the unthinkable. They introduced House Bill 780, also known as the “Uphold Historical Marriage Act” in an attempt to turn back the clock and, once again, whip up anti-LGBTQ sentiment. The bill directly challenges the Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges by seeking to nullify same-sex couples’ marriages.  

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper weighed in yesterday: “This bill is wrong. We need more LGBT protections, not fewer.” And Republican House Speaker Tim Moore noted that he intends for this bill never to see the light of day, that it will not be debated. And it will not be voted on.

But before these elected leaders took a stand, when news of this proposed legislation was first being broadly covered by media, NCLR received questions from LGBTQ people both inside and outside North Carolina about what to expect and whether states have the ability to undermine Obergefell. In the midst of an administration that has stirred so much conflict and division, and has taken steps to rollback protections for LGBTQ people, we understand these concerns. And we are committed to continuing to take a stand for you and your families. Here’s a link to a helpful legal analysis about the future of Obergefell written by my friend and colleague at NCLR Shannon Price Minter that we shared after the 2016 election: “Now That Trump Has Been Elected, Can Our Marriage Be Undone?”

Since 1977, the National Center for Lesbian Rights has fought to protect and strengthen the rights of LGBTQ families. And that commitment was never clearer than in our work as a key part of the legal team that secured marriage equality. And in our work every day to protect those rights despite extremist factions that seek to undermine and chip away at these protections.

Please continue to stand with us in our work to oppose legislation across the country that seeks to undermine Obergefell. Although this Supreme Court case is settled law, some state officials falsely state that Obergefell does not require states to treat married same-sex couples equally and are attempting to pass laws in support of that notion. Last month, NCLR filed a petition for writ of certiorari, an official request that a case be heard before the U.S. Supreme Court, on a recent Arkansas Supreme Court decision holding that Obergefell does not require states to treat same-sex parents equally with regard to the issuance of birth certificates for their children. We also recently filed a brief in the Texas Supreme Court, opposing arguments by Texas state officials that Obergefell does not require governments to pay equal employment benefits to same-sex spouses.

At NCLR, we know that we must remain vigilant. Our courts matter, and the judges appointed to preside over those courts matter too. (Read our recent piece in The Advocate, “7th Circuit Victory for Lesbian Worker Shows Why Judges Matter.”) That’s why NCLR’s Washington, D.C. office is on the ground every day educating Congressional staffers, working with other national leaders to fight for a fair and objective Supreme Court, and making sure that your concerns are being heard at the highest levels.

We’re here for you.

If you have legal questions or hear about anything similar happening in your state, call the NCLR Helpline at 1.800.528.6257.

Stay strong,



Rise Up!

Kate Kendell Pic“Perseverance in almost any plan is better than fickleness and fluctuation”—Alexander Hamilton

When we adopted our NCLR tag line—”The audacity to fight for justice, the perseverance to win”—it was before President Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope” and years before the cultural phenomenon that is “Hamilton” ushered in a refreshed examination of Alexander Hamilton’s writings. But now the words of one of our nation’s early founders are particularly powerful and prescient. Never before have the audacity to fight and perseverance to win mattered more.

In the weeks since an election which unmoored many of us from our assumptions and comfort, we have cycled through many emotions. But, at this point, the past and our passages through the stages of grief are unhelpful. Now is the time to lift ourselves up, engage, make a plan and execute how we will resist any move to target or harm the most vulnerable in our community.

Since Election Day, I have struggled. I don’t know all the answers or exactly how we might be challenged, but I know that we do have a plan. The plan is simple to know and perhaps complicated to execute: we will protect, defend, and stand side by side with those who are targeted for harm by this administration.

I admit, I’ve been challenged to remain hopeful and fierce. But embedded in the perspective of history and past movements there is hope and inspiration. In the days after November 8 I watched NAACP Legal Defense Fund Director Sherrilyn Ifill’s video message. As Sherrilyn points out, in the 1950s and ’60s, dozens of black men were being lynched every day and laws in the Jim Crow south demeaned the very existence of Black residents. In the face of such atrocities no arm of government made any move to end the carnage or protect Black citizens. In the face of such malice individual Black folks risked everything to defy white supremacy. The African-American civil rights movement galvanized the nation to act and ushered in sweeping changes in law and daily life for Black Americans and all people of color.

In the 1970s, feminists rose up to protect women who were victims of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence, and created their own shelters and safe houses. There was no public funding for such places of refuge and in some quarters even resistance. In many states it was not a violation of any law for a man to rape his wife. The place of women in family and civic life has changed radically, marked by greater liberation and personal volition and autonomy.

In the 1980s, gay men—by the thousands—were dying from an unknown illness and not only did the administration of President Reagan ignore the rising death toll, Press Secretary Larry Speakes mocked even the idea that the government should care. Out of NOTHING our community created the infrastructure through ACTUP and dozens of HIV/AIDS service organizations to care for the sick and forced the government to finally pay attention and respond. The HIV/AIDS crisis united the LGBTQ community and allies with a ferocity that continues to this day.

There are innumerable examples where against ALL odds those under threat refused to cower, but instead rose up and altered a course bent on destruction. So here we are again. The threat feels vast and existential, and it is. The first line of my favorite quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., sums up our fears: “Power without love is reckless and abusive,” We know the truth of these words, and we feel the recklessness and abuse about to be unleashed. But power alone never succeeds, as the full King quote makes clear:

“Power without love is reckless and abusive. Love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love, implementing the demands of justice, and love at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

In the coming weeks and months you will be called on to be warriors in the fight to correct anything that stands against the demands of justice and love. Sometimes the call will be simple and easily accomplished, like calling your senator and making sure everyone you know does the same in order to resist a particularly odious cabinet nominee. Other times, the call may require high jacking a registry meant to visit stigma and fear on Muslims or to travel to a rural town to defend families targeted for raids by immigration authorities. None of us knows how we will be called to resist. But what matters at this point is that we pledge to answer the call whenever it comes. And make no mistake, it will be more than we’ve ever been called to do before.

Life as we knew it is over. But we’ve seen shades of this before and when we act, we stem the worst of the tide. And we build movements whose power still resonates through history.

And now, we do it again.




We will fight on

persevereBy a slim margin, this nation has elected a demagogue who trafficked in bigotry, stoked racist hatred and normalized misogyny. The election of Donald Trump as President threatens basic principles of human dignity and justice.

Many of our most cherished values—inclusion, honoring difference, embracing equality, dismantling oppressive systems—are in jeopardy, but we will not be deterred.

This is the moment we are called to resist. We are about to be tested as never before, and speaking for myself, and NCLR, we will not stand down, sit idle or be silent in the face of oppression, bullying or threat. This election result is devastating for our nation and especially for the most vulnerable. But with you by our side, we will fight on and will never give up. We must be the ones we are waiting for.

Together, we fight on and we fight back. We must harness our grief, fear and outrage and serve justice.


Kate Kendell, Esq. NCLR Executive Director




The Hyde Amendment Must Go

united-logo-circleAt the very beginning of this year, NCLR filed an amicus brief in one of the most important abortion rights cases to reach the U.S. Supreme Court in decades. We urged the Court to look behind the rhetoric about “protecting women’s health” that Texas used to cloak its onerous abortion restrictions, and to be deeply skeptical when supposed health reasons are used to undermine fundamental constitutional rights, like the right to end a pregnancy. For such reasons have been used, in the past and recently, to hurt our community as well.

We were both thrilled and relieved in June when the Court issued its ruling striking down the Texas abortion restrictions in that case. But the truth is, there is much left to be done. Even if the courts stop states from running clinics out of existence, access to abortion is still out of reach for many who need it due to decades-old restrictions on the use of insurance coverage like Medicaid and other federal programs.

The Hyde Amendment, which turns 40 on Friday and bans the use of federal Medicaid funds for most abortions, as well as copycat policies affecting other health programs like those for women in federal prison or immigration detention centers, cruelly subject those enrolled in those programs to often insurmountable economic barriers if they need to end a pregnancy. Collectively these policies disproportionately affect those who are low-income, people of color, young, immigrants, or live in rural communities. In fact more than half of the women subject to the Hyde Amendment are women of color. When someone is living from paycheck to paycheck, denying coverage for an abortion can push them even deeper into poverty.

Through our #RuralPride campaign, we at NCLR have visited numerous rural LGBT communities over the past two years, to lift up the voices and hear the concerns of those in our community who choose to make their homes in rural America. We hear consistently that health care access is one of the top challenges facing LGBT people in these communities. Those who have to navigate intersecting barriers to economic security, such as poverty, racism and homophobia, should not have additional burdens placed on them through politically motivated intrusions into their health care and their personal and family decisions. Health insurance is vital to everyone’s health and economic security, and coverage should be based on medical needs, not subject to restrictions and limitations based on the ideology of some elected officials.

Rep. Henry Hyde was explicit 40 years ago when he first proposed banning the use of federal Medicaid funds to cover abortion care for women enrolled in the program. While he would have blocked access to abortion for all women were it in his power to do so, he settled for targeting those who depend on our nation’s health insurance program for low-income people, effectively stripping them of a right guaranteed by the Constitution by rendering it financially out of reach. Justice Thurgood Marshall, when he dissented in a U.S. Supreme Court case upholding the Hyde Amendment, said: “In this case, the Federal Government has taken upon itself the burden of financing practically all medically necessary expenditures. One category of medically necessary expenditure has been singled out for exclusion, and the sole basis for the exclusion is a premise repudiated for purposes of constitutional law in Roe v. Wade. The consequence is a devastating impact on the lives and health of poor women. I do not believe that a Constitution committed to the equal protection of the laws can tolerate this result.”

LGBT people know all too well the effects of health care discrimination, having only this year obtained express federal legal protections against many of the practices of health insurers and providers that have denied to us urgently required care. Just as those who cannot obtain Medicaid coverage for a needed abortion will often be unable to get that needed care, so have insurance denials served as barriers to transgender individuals obtaining gender-confirming and other necessary medical care. When health care that is essential to exercising one’s full bodily autonomy and living an authentic life is effectively denied through selective and discriminatory insurance coverage—whether that insurance is obtained in the private market or through a government program for which one qualifies—it is an assault on basic dignity. We in the LGBT movement must work to ensure that one day soon, we can relegate the Hyde Amendment and policies like it to history, when its harmful and discriminatory effects will be but a deeply regrettable memory.




Right-Wing Media in Frenzy over NCLR’s #RuralPride Summits

Lesbian Farmer 4
Click to check out our new #LesbianFarmer merchandise, including t-shirts, baby clothes, and unique gifts.

We all know that LGBTQ people are everywhere, which is why NCLR launched our #RuralPride Campaign, which includes holding day-long summits in rural regions across the country to help LGBTQ folks connect with federal agencies, national organizations, and one another.

For the past two years, we have worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the True Colors Fund to bring 13 summits to towns across the country, listening to the stories, hopes, fears, and needs of families, individuals, and rural LGBTQ advocates. These summits have been a huge hit. Last month, more than 250 people attended a summit in Visalia, CA—our biggest yet—to connect with information, resources, and each other.

Great, right? Apparently, not if you are a right wing anti-LGBTQ hate monger.

Our most recent summit in Des Moines, Iowa last week—with a keynote address by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack—ignited a firestorm of protest from some of the most odious anti-LGBTQ media in the nation. Media Matters catalogued the hysterical, toxic, and unintentionally amusing reactions. You can read it all here. 

We don’t care what Rush Limbaugh and the rest of them think, but we DO care about LGBTQ people who are living outside of our urban centers, and we will continue to reach out and support them. So whether it’s “lesbian farmers,” transgender, gay or bisexual ranchers, or any LGBTQ person living in a rural community without full support and embrace, we will be there.

Will you stand with us in this important work? 

The Obama Administration has been a strong and unflinching partner in #RuralPride. But now our work is on the radar of very powerful opponents. We need your support to fight back and show up for LGBT people wherever they live. We want to be able to keep doing this important work. And to do that we need YOUR help.

If we’ve upset the powerful then we are doing something right. Support NCLR today and champion this groundbreaking work despite, and in fact because of, the haters who would shut us down.