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Kendell confident in NCLR's future

by Heather Cassell

Kate Kendell spoke at this year's Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club Pride Breakfast, where she received the Jim Foster Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Kate Kendell spoke at this year's Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club Pride Breakfast, where she received the Jim Foster Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

It's been nearly a year of celebration, heartfelt gratitude, and sadness as the National Center for Lesbian Right's longtime leader Kate Kendell has been saying her goodbyes.

On March 15, Kendell announced she was leaving the nonprofit after 22 years at the helm of the organization that has been advocating to LGBT legal rights for four decades. Her last day is December 31.

"I will miss NCLR every single day and so much about this job," said Kendell in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "I'm reconciled to the fact that I will miss this job and I'm resolute that it is the right time for me and for the organization.

"I will be forever grateful to the San Francisco LGBT community for making it possible for me to have a life that I never could have imagined," she added.

Kendell, 58, first arrived at NCLR as its legal director in 1994 before stepping into her role as executive director two years later, serving a total of 24 years at the agency.

For many, Kendell was a national leader and spokeswoman as NCLR shone a legal light on the most vulnerable in the LGBT community, particularly transgender individuals and people of color.

Her departure announcement sent shockwaves through the LGBT community, where many questioned, "What would NCLR be without Kate?"

"They said that about me," said lesbian former San Francisco supervisor Roberta Achtenberg, who served as the organization's second executive director and is Kendell's predecessor. "The organization thrived, was healthy, and went into directions that none of us could have ever imagined.

"I think that we are destined for the same kind of growth, improvement, and forward projectory that we enjoyed under Kate's leadership. Our next leader will take us to the places that we need to go with a feminist leadership style," Achtenberg added.

Kendell is the organization's third leader since it's founding in 1977 by Donna Hitchens, now a retired San Francisco Superior Court judge. Hitchens started NCLR as a project of Equal Rights Advocates, a San Francisco-based women's rights legal advocacy organization.

NCLR's board launched the search for a new executive director April 1.

Earlier this month, Kendell announced in an email to donors that the organization appointed Cindy Myers, a lesbian and seasoned nonprofit administration expert, as interim executive director.

Myers, 61, said that taking this role was the "most significant thing I will have done in my professional life because of the impact NCLR has had on the world."

She noted Kendell's accomplishments and called her one of the LGBT movement's "most prominent queer women leaders."

"I'm honoring her legacy with a steady hand at the head of NCLR until we bring on NCLR's next dynamic leader to change the world for our community," Myers said.

In the spotlight
Kendell was at the forefront of the fight for same-sex marriage with then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and was one of his key advisers for the "Winter of Love," which vaulted the issue into the spotlight in 2004. Newsom had returned from watching then-President George W. Bush's State of the Union speech in Washington, D.C., where Bush talked about a federal amendment banning same-sex marriage, and ordered city officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The battle ensued for more than a decade. It was finally won in California in 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Proposition 8, the state's same-sex marriage ban, on a technicality. Two years later Kendell led NCLR as part of the team that brought Obergefell v. Hodges before the U.S. Supreme Court. That case legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

Between January 2012 and February 2014, plaintiffs in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee filed federal district court cases that culminated in Obergefell v. Hodges. NCLR represented the couples from Tennessee.

"Kate was a force whose advocacy and leadership gave us the courage to marry over 4,000 same-sex couples [in 2004]," Newsom, now the California's governor-elect, said in a statement when Kendell announced her departure from NCLR.

He noted marriage equality as just one item on a long list of Kendell and NCLR's accomplishments.

"I am grateful for her counsel and friendship, and for her decades of bold leadership at the forefront of the movement for equality," Newsom added.

The legal fight involved same-sex couples who wanted to marry.

"We just felt that we should have the right to do what other adults get to do in the culture," said Diane Sabin, 66, about why she and her wife, author Jewelle Gomez, 70, joined the In re Marriage Case as one of 12 plaintiff couples.

Sabin was a longtime NCLR board member.

The In re Marriage Case led to the California Supreme Court overturning Proposition 22, which banned same-sex marriage in the state's constitution, in 2008. That paved the way for same-sex couples to marry in the Golden State, beginning in June. The passage of Prop 8 that November, however, halted the weddings and ensured the legal fight would continue.

"It was probably one of the deepest honors that I've had in my life to be able to be a part of that particular lawsuit," Sabin said of In re Marriage, calling the experience working with Kendell and NCLR's legal director Shannon Minter "magnificent."

Minter credited Kendell with being a "dream boss."

"It's just been a joy. I feel like I'm the luckiest person in the whole movement. We had just an amazing partnership," said Minter, who is a trans man. "She's been a dream boss in every way.

"Whoever comes along next will have some big shoes to fill, but I think the person will also get the benefit of an enormous reservoir of good will that she has built up," he added.

Minter said Kendell has left a strong foundation for the nonprofit.

"We feel very confident moving forward," he said. "We are all very committed to honoring her legacy and her vision."


Kate Kendell took part in the Womens March in Washington, D.C. in January. Photo: Courtesy NCLR  

Significant cases
Other significant cases NCLR was involved with focused on the rights of families and free speech issues.

Pavan v. Smith was about a married Arkansas same-sex couple's denial of their right to have both parents' names on their children's birth certificates, regardless of biological connection. In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of NCLR and the couple, citing that the Arkansas Supreme Court "directly flouted Obergefell," Kendell wrote in a NCLR blog post.

E.L. v. V.L. involved a former couple's fight over child visitation. When the women broke up, the biological mother, E.L., kept V.L. from seeing the children. V.L. sought visitation in Alabama, where the family lived. E.L. opposed her request, arguing that the Georgia adoption was invalid in Alabama. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed Alabama's Supreme Court, which had issued an order refusing to recognize V.L.'s Georgia adoption, and declared that it is "void."

In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the Christian group filed a lawsuit against UC Hastings College of the Law, arguing that its non-discrimination policy violated the group's First Amendment right to discriminate against LGBT and non-Christian students. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the challenge to Hastings' policy of requiring all funded student groups to be open to all students.

Dog mauling case
The case of Diane Whipple, a lesbian who lived in Pacific Heights and was mauled to death by her neighbor's dog in 2001, dominated news coverage in San Francisco for years.

Kendell aided Sharon Smith, who at the time was Whipple's partner, in the aftermath. It was a media circus as Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, a married couple who owned two dogs, one of which attacked Whipple, faced criminal charges and a trial in Los Angeles.

Aside from the criminal prosecution, the case made LGBT history when Smith was allowed to proceed with a wrongful death civil suit as a domestic partner. NCLR joined attorney Michael Cardoza to fight for Smith's right to sue. (Noel, convicted along with Knoller, for the fatal dog mauling of Whipple, died June 22 on his 77th birthday.)

"She is a real hero," Smith said of Kendell. "She has this great combination of strength, knowledge, and compassion. I just felt like we are going to get this done and we did."

Knoller, who was with the dogs during the hallway attack, was convicted of second-degree murder. Now 63, Knoller is up for parole next year after having served more than 17 years in jail and state prison.

"In 2001, there were hardly any protections for our relationships under state law," Kendell wrote in 2011 on the organization's blog memorializing Whipple and praising Smith's courage on the 10-year anniversary of Whipple's death.

More recently, NCLR has fought President Donald Trump's attacks on the LGBT community, including suing the president over his trans military ban.

There are many legal fights for queer immigrant rights, family rights, youth, elders, sports, and transgender rights the agency has taken on.

"Those projects were launched in response to seeing a need that needed to be met and power that needed to be created or needed to be made space for in those communities," said Kendell, noting that it was the foundational approach the organization took before she got there. She built upon that, she said, asking questions: "Who is at risk for being left behind? Whose issues need to be pushed to the forefront? Who do we need to empower?"

Then she and her team took those questions and put them into action through projects and litigation.

Prop 8 disappointment
The passage of Prop 8 10 years ago was a bitter blow for the LGBT community and Kendell personally. She served on the No on 8 campaign's executive committee and was one of the public faces of the campaign.

"We were able to turn that around," she said of the years after the loss. "In some ways, I think Prop 8 galvanized a whole new generation of LGBTQ people to engage in the movement who thought that fight had already been won."

Additionally, she isn't sure "we would have won marriage as quickly as [we] did," but she still wishes the community didn't have to go through that devastation, which she felt acutely.

There are issues she regrets she did not fully address during her tenure. She wishes she could have done more for immigration rights and protecting people of color, particularly transgender women of color, she told the B.A.R.

Despite these disappointments, she remains in awe of the major cultural shift she's lived through and contributed to changing.

"I could not have imagined that we would have had as much forward movement as we had, particularly around issues like marriage, or just in the place of the culture as LGBTQ people," said Kendell, reflecting on 1994 when she landed at NCLR.

Gay characters on TV were a rarity. Today, more entertainers are out and there are a wide range of LGBT characters on TV, some played by LGBTs themselves.

In real life, Kendell's still amazed how quickly marriage equality happened and the awareness and conversation around transgender issues, especially among transgender youth, who are often, but not always, fully able to express their gender identity, she said.

"I am stunned every day at how lucky I am," said Kendell. "What a place of privilege it has been to have had this role and to have had a front row seat to not only witness the amazing changes but bringing those changes into life."

The making of Kendell
Kendell discovered law with a Time-Life book that showed up in her parent's mailbox when she was a pre-teen.

"I just devoured it," she said. "I was fascinated by it."

It was the spark that was fanned by Mrs. Miller, her current events teacher in the eighth or ninth grade, who taught her about abolitionists, feminists, and civil rights leaders, she said.

Mrs. Miller was "quite a radical for Ogden, Utah" recalled Kendell. "She was not Mormon. She was clearly a little bit wild. She was fantastic.

"She introduced me to Sojourner Truth, Cesar Chavez, Malcolm X, and Frederick Douglass," she continued. "I just remember thinking, 'Oh my God, these people can do this. You can actually use the law and your passion for justice to help change people's futures.'"

Kendell didn't know how to achieve her dream. Her parents couldn't guide her. She was the first in her family to go to college, much less law school.

"I never saw my mother or my father read a book of any import or even a newspaper," Kendell told an audience at a farewell event at the Women's Building on November 16, according to a recording of the event provided by NCLR. "It was a very anti-intellectual household."

Kendell was interviewed by lesbian retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell.

Kendell grew up as the eldest of three siblings — her sister and her half-brother — with her mother and stepfather. Her father died when she was 1 and a half years old.

She was raised Mormon, which she credited for providing excellent leadership training in her formative years, but she knew she was different.

"I felt like my parents tried to do their best even though they felt like, 'Oh, we have a giraffe. We don't know how to raise a giraffe, but we are going to try our very best,'" she told the crowd, laughing.

She put herself through college and law school at the University of Utah in the 1980s, where she was one of three closeted lesbians who were out only to each other.

"I was no profile in courage in law school," Kendell told the audience.

After law school, she landed at Utah's biggest corporate law firm. Kendell, who wasn't out for fear of what it would do to her career, worked for the firm for about three years but hated it.

"Being at a private firm provided me with the foundation for me to be an effective legal director at NCLR," she said.

Eventually, she found exactly what she was looking for in the back of a law magazine: an employment advertisement for Utah's first American Civil Liberties Union office.

The first day Kendell walked into the office, Carol Gnade, who was the development director and later the executive director of the Utah ACLU, exchanged pleasantries and cut to the chase, "So, Kate, are you a lesbian?" she asked.

Freaked out, Kendell meekly said, "Yes," she told the audience.

"I was like, holy shit now what?" she said. "But it was so liberating to be in that kind of environment."

Taking on the right-wing
Over the years, Achtenberg has been impressed by Kendell's ability to face-off with right-wing leaders.

During Kendell's early tenure at NCLR she went toe-to-toe with the late conservative Southern Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell on national TV about lesbian comedian Ellen DeGeneres, who came out on her sitcom "Ellen" in 1997.

"She was very, very good at doing battle with the right wing," said Achtenberg. "She's made numerous television appearances that made me very, very proud of her and proud of us."

The ACLU also brought Kendell together with her wife of 25 years, Sandy Holmes, at one of its conferences.

Kendell is a mother to three children, including her eldest daughter from her first relationship and two children with Holmes. She is also a grandmother.

The future
Kendell isn't sure what the future holds for her at the moment, but it's certainly not retirement.

"Whatever I do it will be full-time employment," she said. "That's just the gear that I run in and seek to do."

Kendell leaves NCLR on solid ground financially. During her tenure, its annual budget grew from $500,000 to more than $5 million, according to the organization's March 15 news release announcing her departure.

The organization has a nearly 30-person staff with offices in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. It has a 12-member board, two advisory councils, and an advisory committee.

Kendell's proud that NCLR has grown into a "national legal powerhouse that really works for an intersectional and deeply collaborative perspective to really improve and change the futures for some of the most vulnerable in our community," she said.

Sabin believes that Kendell is leaving with one last lesson. One to figure out "planning, legacy, and honoring people who have done ... magnificent work," she said.

Achtenberg said NCLR will carry on the work.

"She understood the institutional imperative. At the same time, she led with personal charm, extraordinary charisma, and wise leadership," she said.

When she closes the door behind her on New Year's Eve day, she is leaving a clear path for NCLR's next executive director to take the organization to new heights.

"I am confident in much of the same way I'm sure Donna and Roberta decided to roll the dice and give me the benefit of the doubt. I'll do the same for the next person," said Kendell. "I expect that they will both honor the legacy of everyone who has come before [them] and they will also in their own way build on that legacy and make their mark."

Much work will need to be done as hard-won rights are being dismantled by Trump and his administration.

"I think the big issues for the LGBTQ community going forward will be the issues that we are seeing nationally playing out," said Kendell, talking about the intersectionality of race with every aspect of the LGBT community from gender to poverty. "If we as a nation do not come to terms with our history ... not only will LGBTQ people not succeed and arguably fall short, but the future of all of us is at risk."

Contact the reporter at heather@heathercassell.com.


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