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NCLR earns it's

NCLR earns it's


The 28-year-old National Center for Lesbian Rights and its executive director, Kate Kendell, are building nationwide respect for their work on key legal battles

When Kate Kendell became executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in 1996, the nonprofit's dwindling finances kept her awake at night. "We had a $500,000 budget and not a penny in reserve," she remembers. Kendell had to borrow money from a donor to help pay basic bills. In 2005, Kendell, 45, worries less about the money than about the current battles for gay and lesbian equality--and how her group is increasingly playing a national role in that debate. (NCLR now has a $3.6 million budget and $1.7 million in reserve.) "I can't be sure what next year is going to look like in this movement," she says. "It's that lack of certainty about the future that I think is creating at worst a sense of fear--and in some cases recrimination--in some quarters of the movement, and at best a sense of uneasiness, and maybe even a timidity." The word timid does not describe NCLR's current strategy. After years of steadily building its organization from tiny beginnings in San Francisco, the group has become a key player in critical legal challenges. Several facts exemplify its growth. NCLR has added a communications director and an events assistant. The San Francisco office has moved to a larger space, the Florida office has relocated, and a regional office has opened in Washington, D.C. Perhaps NCLR's most important work is its function as lead counsel in Woo v. Lockyer--the California court case that is seeking to legalize same-sex marriages. Such roles are typically handled by the larger and better-financed Lambda Legal or the American Civil Liberties Union. But NCLR has teamed up with colleagues in the gay legal establishment, and in March the complex proceedings led to a victory for same-sex marriage advocates that is now under appeal. The California case is not the next in line for a high court decision on equal marriage rights. In fact, Washington is ahead in that race, followed by New Jersey, and maybe New York. But the Golden State dominates the fight for marriage in a profound way. It is the most populous state in the union and the fifth largest economy in the world. In 1948, California became the first state to rule that laws against interracial marriage were unconstitutional, and if the California supreme court upholds discrimination in marriage laws this time around, it will be a shocking setback regardless of what transpires elsewhere. Equality Florida executive director Nadine Smith, who has worked closely with the NCLR for the last several years, says it would be "hard to find somebody more well liked or more well respected as a thinker and someone who gets things done" than Kendell. At the wheel longer than most of her counterparts, Kendell straddles the jobs of expanding the NCLR and being a mother. On an average day, she drops off one of her two younger children at school and gets to work at 8:30. "Some days," she says, "I feel like I am nothing more than a glorified administrator, and other days I feel enormously contributing and valuable." Half of Kendell's evenings are taken up with civic events or meetings, but other nights Kendell is the one who does the shopping and makes dinner for her family: partner of 12 years, Sandy Holmes; son Julian, who is almost 9; daughter Ariana, 3; and sometimes her 23-year-old daughter, Emily. "I'm sort of a domestic goddess," she says modestly, adding that Sandy's support allows her to keep up the draining pace of travel that is required for running a community nonprofit. Kendell does not believe the gay rights movement is in crisis but does believe it has entered a period of uncertainty. "I think the greatest challenge is not that we're not going to win, or not that we're not engaged in a moral or proper struggle," she says. "The greatest challenge is that our uneasiness, our timidity, or our outright fear will be permitted to play too great a role in our decision-making." Launched as the Lesbian Rights Project in the feminist heyday of 1977 by Equal Rights Advocates, the project's early focus was lesbian families, particularly those in which newly out mothers had to fight for custody against ex-husbands seeking to undermine their maternal rights. Cofounder Nancy Davis recalls being "hassled" for insisting on the L word in the original Lesbian Rights Project name. "Some people thought I should have called it something less obvious, softer, not throw it in their faces," she said in a silver anniversary interview. "And remember that in those days, the word lesbian--people didn't use that word. I got shit from women, from lesbians, that I was supposed to have called it the 'Gay Women Something or Another' because the word lesbian somehow was too loaded." Perhaps the insistence on the L word indicates a touch of the defiance that followed timorous bygone days. But it should not suggest that the NCLR is less than inclusive. Some of the group's earliest cases involved the legal travails of gay men, who turned to the NCLR at a time when few others in the young movement cared about either gender's parental rights. The group's commitment to gay fathers has never flagged. As for trans rights, the NCLR founded the Transgender Law Center in 2002, while legal director Shannon Minter, a transgender man himself, is considered one of the most respected transgender advocates in the country. In 2004, NCLR also filed a marriage suit in Florida and came to the aid of 64 couples in New Mexico. It defended the California domestic-partnership law against conservative legal groups in a complicated piece of litigation, winning a victory before a state superior court in April. It drafted partnership legislation in New Mexico and Florida. It held a national conference on family issues in Seattle for private attorneys. It lobbied the American Bar Association to issue a resolution against the proposed federal constitutional amendment that would outlaw same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, NCLR litigated 19 partner and parenting rights cases in nine states, and it created the Coalition for Fair Adoption in Florida to regain traction in the fight against adoption discrimination in the Sunshine State after a disappointing court loss. It filed lawsuits and pressed the case for safe schools, for queer youths in general, for older lesbians and gay men, and for victims of homophobia in sports. And it continues to pursue gender identity rights in schools, in the language of statutes, and elsewhere. San Francisco author and activist Jewelle Gomez and her partner of 12 years, Diane Sabin, are one of the same-sex couples who married in that city. They've gotten plenty of help from NCLR--on such issues as legal questions about the case and speaking to the media.

"These are people who are working in the law field, so they're really about dotting the i's and crossing those t's and making things really, really function within the framework of the legal community," Gomez says. "We had e-mail advisories all along the road letting us know where things stood, what we could expect." When newspapers and television stations wanted interviews with the couples, Gomez adds, NCLR helped "demystify the process of what's going to happen to get people in the position to tell their story. Some of the stories were tearful. People were very, very upset, very emotional. And to have them hear back how they can be present and be emotional and still get out what they wanted to say, that was lovely to see."

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