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    Forty Years Later, NCLR’s Work Still Honors Its Family Law Beginnings

    By Catherine Sakimura

    The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) was founded in 1977 to help mothers who were losing their children when they came out as lesbian or bisexual. NCLR quickly expanded its work to focus on all LGBT parents and the full range of issues affecting LGBT people and their families, but throughout the last four decades, family law has remained a core part of NCLR’s work.

    In the 1980s, NCLR helped to pioneer second parent adoptions to protect the families of unmarried same-sex parents. In the 1990s, NCLR litigated cases across the country urging courts to protect non-biological parents, permitting them to seek custody or visitation. And in the early 2000s, NCLR began a nationwide campaign to win full parental rights for non-biological LGBT parents and, in particular, to protect the rights of transgender parents, who still often lose custody of their children.

    In the last decade, NCLR was counsel in one of the Obergefell cases, which established that same-sex couples have a right to marry with all of the benefits of marriage in every state. At the same time, we continued and grew our work on behalf of transgender children, bringing the first successful custody cases on behalf of affirming parents of transgender and gender nonconforming children.

    Today we continue to work on all of these issues, because although we have come a long way in establishing that LGBT families have the same right to dignity and respect under the law as other families, LGBT families continue to face serious barriers to full equality. In the past year, NCLR helped to win an important case in the Washington Supreme Court, reversing a lower court decision that had denied custody to a mother because she was in a same-sex relationship.

    On our current docket, we are representing a lesbian mother in Arizona who is fighting for her marriage and parental rights to be recognized, a mother who lost custody of her children because she affirmed her gender non-conforming child, and an unmarried, non-biological lesbian mother in Idaho who was denied even visitation with children she has raised since birth. We are also asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a blatantly discriminatory decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court. It held that Obergefell does not require states to name married same-sex parents on their children’s birth certificates, as it does for married opposite-sex parents.

    In addition to continuing this work, NCLR is also always looking for the families and issues that have not been in the spotlight and are in desperate need of assistance. We began the first national project focused on the needs of low-income LGBT families, and are expanding our work advocating for young children who are transgender or gender non-conforming. We started a national network of LGBT family law attorneys, who previously worked in isolation without sharing strategies for advancing this work. And we helped pass the first comprehensive laws explicitly recognizing that children can have more than two legal parents in some circumstances.

    In this time of increased attacks on LGBT people and our families, we must focus both on defending the rights we have already gained and advancing the right of all families to be recognized and respected. More than ever, LGBT families need strong advocates, and every LGBT person needs to ensure that they have done all that they can to protect their families. Through our national helpline, we provide information and assistance to thousands of people every year. If you or anyone you know has any questions about the security of their family relationships, please contact us at

    NCLR will be here fighting for LGBT people and their families until every family can live freely and with dignity.

    Catherine Sakimura is the Family Law Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.