“The case that really made me say, ‘I’m not stopping until I can see the end in sight’ happened early in my career when I was still the legal director,” says Kate Kendell about her work with the National Center of Lesbian Rights (NCLR). On a late evening at the office, Kate received a call from a woman with a gentle southern accent named Mary who had lost custody of her 8-year-old daughter to her ex-husband. Mary had been the primary caretaker since their separation five years prior, and her ex-husband had very little involvement with their daughter.
“I had heard this story dozens of times since I started working here,” Kate continues, “but then Mary throws in the kicker and says ‘Well you know, he’s a murderer’.” Mary’s ex-husband, it turned out, had been convicted of murdering his first wife. Yet in spite of this, Mary lost custody to him in the Florida courts. Kate flew down to Tallahassee to argue the case, but “I was two minutes into my argument, and I knew we were going to lose.”
“They did not care that John Ward was a convicted murderer, or that John did not even know where the kid went to school. They only cared about the fact that Mary was a lesbian,” Kate tells us. When Mary died of a heart attack in the middle of their appeal, Kate recalls saying to herself “I’m not stopping until I can be absolutely certain that something like this would never happen again.”
Now 15 years in, Kate Kendell is the executive director of NCLR, a national legal organization dedicated to promoting LGBTQ civil rights through litigation, advocacy, and education. Lisa and I sat down with Kate in her office last week for a candid conversation on her life and work.
VIDEO: Kate grew up Mormon, and Lisa asks what her advice is to queer people who have to work with their families through religious issues. Kate shares her thoughts, including how people don’t necessarily follow her advice about coming out…but sometimes for the better.
VIDEO: When Lisa asks Kate about her family, she talks about how she sometimes feels like she’s “hoarding way too much good stuff.”
VIDEO: Kate talks about traveling outside of the bay area as a two-mom biracial family and the stories that other people have concocted to explain their unique family.
VIDEO: As a stand against the lack of marriage equality, Kate and her wife filed their taxes jointly as part of the “We Won’t Lie” campaign in spite of their accountant’s protests. Did the IRS go ahead and take their money? Find out the answer…
As we leave the downtown office after the interview, we pledge to make a donation to the NCLR every year. Kate tells us that unlike many non-profit organizations, the majority of funding for the NCLR comes from individual donors. These small and large donations have allowed the organization to thrive. Soliciting these donations also created a fierce community of women who feel part of the NCLR. Of course we’ve both enjoyed attending the “lesbian prom” as we call it, the NCLR Anniversary Celebration in San Francisco. But beyond the parties, we know that there is an organization that we can all go to that has our back. With Kate leading the charge, our future looks quite bright.