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    NCLR-40 Years of Advancing LGBTQ Equality

    More than Resistance: Persistence and LGBTQ Movement-Building

    By Kate Kendell, Esq.

    During a BBC interview ( earlier this year, I stated that San Francisco is leading the resistance. And we are. From challenging this administration’s unlawful immigration policies to rising up on behalf of LGBTQ youth and families, we are speaking up and speaking out. This is a time for action, and we know that we cannot afford to be bystanders.

    Under this administration, it feels like our community is under constant attack. Every day brings forth new executive orders, firings, appointments, and legislation that seek to take our country backward. In fact, Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee, now Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, once chillingly stated that courts should look “backward, not forward.” After decades of hard-won progress, we face constant pushback and repeated attempts to roll back our rights.

    Today, a growing number of states are introducing legislation to chip away at marriage equality. Transgender students face more barriers at school. Many LGBTQ immigrants and their families live in fear. And decades of progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS could soon be undercut by the repeal of a healthcare plan that now insures millions of LGBTQ Americans.

    In the face of these indignities, we have heard many calls from across the country to “resist.”

    We will continue to take a stand, to lead, and to resist—but resistance alone is not enough. We must do more. We not only must defend against attempts to push us back, but also persist in affirmatively building and strengthening our movement, including seizing on new opportunities for creativity and collaboration that are more important than ever before.

    We will not put our work to advance LGBTQ equality and intersectional feminism on pause, or be satisfied with merely holding our ground. We will push forward so that LGBTQ people across the country can live freely and safely—at work, school, and in all aspects of our lives.

    We will ensure that our families are respected and eradicate anti-LGBTQ bias in courtrooms. We will protect more LGBTQ youth across the country from the harmful and unscientific practice of conversion therapy. We will advocate for LGBTQ people in rural communities. We will stand up for LGBTQ immigrants, asylees, and their families. And we will continue to gain ground on addressing the rampant sexism, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia that are still rampant in many sports programs across the country.

    We will do these things, and many more.

    As National Center for Lesbian Rights’ early leaders Donna Hitchens, Nancy Davis, and Roberta Achtenberg can attest, we’ve seen plenty of what look like unwinnable fights over the last 40 years. From securing same-sex parent adoptions to winning marriage equality, we’ve had decades of experience doing what many say could not be done. Throughout those decades, we’ve expanded our team and our toolset to address a range of issues facing the LGBTQ community, including immigration, employment, healthcare, housing, parenting, incarceration, sports, and barriers faced by transgender youth.

    There is so much left to be done to bring true justice and freedom to all in our community. Despite the enormity of the challenges, we will never let up nor stand down until we reach that day.

    Kate Kendell, Esq., is the Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (

    In Our Voices: The Early Years of NCLR

    As part of the National Center for Lesbian Right’s 40th anniversary celebration, the San Francisco Bay Times asked NCLR’s earliest leaders to reflect on how far the organization has come over the years.

    Retired San Francisco Superior Court Judge Donna J. Hitchens founded the Lesbian Rights Project (LRP) in 1977 with the support of Equal Rights Advocates. LRP later became the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). For 24 years, Judge Nancy L. Davis led the Equal Rights Advocates (ERA), a public interest law firm dedicated to equality of rights under law for women and girls. NCLR was first housed at ERA. Former San Francisco Supervisor and Clinton Administration official Roberta Achtenberg served first as a Lesbian Rights Project staff attorney and then served as Executive Director from 1984–1990, overseeing the organization’s transformation into the newly named National Center for Lesbian Rights.

    Below, these three extraordinary women reflect on the early years of NCLR.

    Judge Donna Hitchens:

    40 years ago, upon graduating from UC Berkeley Law School, I looked at the world around me. It was decades before the Supreme Court marriage equality ruling. The Stonewall Riots had occurred only eight years earlier, and our identities were still seen by many as an illness or a crime.

    In 1977, lesbian leadership and advocacy on behalf of lesbians lagged far behind advocacy for gay men. Lesbian issues were too often ignored or pushed aside. As we were working to find our place and to build a movement, it was this disparity that inspired me to work together with Equal Rights Advocates to found the Lesbian Rights Project, now the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

    Our contributions to the LGBTQ movement were not just groundbreaking because of the legal precedents our lawyering helped set for our community, but also because of the intersectional feminist lens we applied to our work—and that is still applied by NCLR today. We came out in front on issues that were being ignored by others, and we built the foundation of the rich body of work NCLR takes on today to protect and strengthen LGBTQ families. We know that our community members are more than their sexual orientations and gender identities, and have evolved to ensure that we have the legal expertise to serve our clients’ complex, intersectional families and lives.

    Judge Nancy L. Davis:
    With the encouragement and support of Equal Rights Advocates Board and Staff, right away, LRP/NCLR took on precedent-setting cases, first in California and then nationally in the areas of family law, employment, and insurance. This casework has continued and grown over the past four decades, during which time the National Center for Lesbian Rights has completely altered the LGBTQ legal landscape.

    Losing child custody or visitation based on sexual orientation or gender identity used to be an everyday occurrence. But thanks in great part to NCLR’s pioneering work on this issue, such injustices are far more rare today. In the earliest cases, we saw LGBTQ and HIV+ parents removed from their children merely because of who they were. LGBTQ families and community members faced undisguised discrimination from the courts, other family members, school officials, employers, health care providers, and others. The LGBTQ community’s legal needs were vast, and we all knew (LRP and ERA) that more than a legal “project” was needed to meet them. What was needed was an entire legal organization.

    Roberta Achtenberg, Esq.:
    As a Lesbian Rights Project staff attorney, I worked closely with Donna and Nancy on cases and strategy. We knew that we couldn’t lose sight of the forest through the trees. Each individual case we took on would become part of the body of a very new area of law, setting the table for how courts in California and across the country would view these issues.

    LGBTQ family law was a new and emerging issue in our legal system. During this time, Donna and I created the Lesbian Mother Litigation Manual. We created this important resource to help private attorneys litigate cases on behalf of lesbian mothers and their children. Courts then were disrupting these parent-child relationships—taking children away from LGBTQ parents during divorce proceedings—because identifying as LGBTQ was thought to be an illness. Homophobia was disrupting these important parent-child relationships.

    Even during those early years, we were aware of the awesome responsibility we faced—not just to represent the needs of our clients to the very best of our abilities, but also to stay responsible to the movement.

    Today that responsibility continues for NCLR. Although Donna, Nancy, and I are no longer at the helm, we’re glad to see leaders like Kate Kendell, Catherine Sakimura, and Shannon Minter take up this mantle. From securing LGBTQ adoption rights to being part of the team of attorneys that won national marriage equality, forty years later, the work of NCLR continues to make us proud.