NCLR gala returns for 45th anniversary

The National Center for Lesbian Rights will celebrate its 45th anniversary Friday, November 11 — its first in-person gala since the beginning of the COVID pandemic.

NCLR’s Executive Director Imani Rupert-Gordon is thrilled by the prospect.

“I’m incredibly excited for the 45th anniversary,” Rupert-Gordon, 43, said. “This will be the first NCLR gala that I will attend as the executive director.”

Since taking the helm of the $6 million organization at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, Rupert-Gordon has hosted the gala virtually. In the past, she attended the gala as a supporter, she said.

Rupert-Gordon, a queer woman, plans to unveil the vision for NCLR’s future at the “Champions for Justice” dinner and party at San Francisco’s Marriott Marquis Hotel and Metreon featuring performance artist Cameron Esposito. Esposito is a Los Angeles-based standup comic, actor, and writer best known for her podcast, “Queery,” and Starz’s “Take My Wife,” a show she co-created and co-stars in.

“It’s a really important time,” Rupert-Gordon said. “We have an opportunity to think about the beginning and how far we’ve come.

“I’m really thinking about what’s next for NCLR, the ways that we were brave in the beginning, the ways that we sincerely changed the way that the world works, [and] what we’re going to be doing in 25 years from now,” she added.

NCLR has been at the forefront of many of the LGBTQ movement’s key battles. From the beginning, the San Francisco-based public interest legal agency has led with a lesbian-feminist lens, advocating for the underrepresented, tackling multiple issues, and racking up major wins. Beyond the cases and courtrooms, NCLR has spearheaded advocacy education and built ally relationships.

In 1977, Donna Hitchens founded NCLR as the Lesbian Rights Project at Equal Rights Advocates, a women’s rights legal advocacy organization. Hitchens, and her wife, Nancy Davis, were both law students at the UC Berkeley Law, and law clerks at ERA.

The struggle was very real for lesbians at the time. “Lesbian chic” wasn’t on the horizon. The late feminist Betty Friedan slapped lesbians with the “Lavender Menace” label in the women’s rights movement, and the gay rights movement barely, if at all, recognized queer women’s place in the fight for rights.

Hitchens, 75, saw a need and an opportunity, she told the Bay Area Reporter in a previous interview.

“It seemed like … for those of us at the time [that] the term ‘lesbian’ really denoted being both a feminist and a gay person,” said Hitchens. “I saw a real need for a feminist organization that promoted the rights of lesbians … but also always in collaboration with other civil rights efforts.”

Roberta Achtenberg was NCLR’S first legal director. Photo: Courtesy LGBTQ Victory Fund  

There were few LGBTQ legal advocacy organizations in the 1970s. Those that existed mostly focused on criminal statutes such as sodomy laws, but not on other issues such as custody, employment, and housing. NCLR went after those issues and things like public accommodations, insurance, military, and law enforcement.

“NCLR was always a multi-trick pony,” said NCLR’s first legal director, Roberta Achtenberg, a lesbian. “We were not ever thinking that impact litigation was the only tool we needed to use to try to address legal rights we were always into organizing [and] educating.”

“We don’t get to LGBTQ equality if LGBTQ people are still experiencing racism or sexism or heterosexism,” added Hitchens. “Those things don’t work separately. They all work together.”

Rupert-Gordon said, “What we’re trying to do is not to get someone represented, but rather create a culture, an environment where folks can see themselves, can see multiple parts of their identity represented all through the organization.”

ERA provided office space, staff, and a $15,000 grant from the Berkeley Law Foundation. Fundraisers raised a couple of thousand dollars here and there, Hitchens said. The staff’s youthful idealism, passion, and clients fueled the rest even in the face of losing many early cases.

The first court victory came in 1983, when Sharon Johnson, a Black lesbian mother, won custody of her son, Daimein. The organization published, “The Lesbian Mother Litigation Manual,” its first guide for lawyers working with lesbian mothers on their custody cases in the 1970s and 1980s.

NCLR followed up that success by establishing a groundbreaking second-parent adoption precedent in 1986 and winning a partner guardianship case in 1991. That case inspired NCLR’s partner protection education campaign teaching couples how to protect their relationships.

Achtenberg, 72, said she, Hitchens, and other NCLR staff were fueled by inspiration from their clients’ courage. It gave them the energy to push forward through the bootstrapping and losses to the wins and the financial support that came with it.

“Watching their courage in the face of these losses gives you the energy to continue,” Achtenberg said.

In 1989, the project left ERA and became its own entity. A decade later, NCLR transformed into one of the nation’s leading legal organizations fighting for LGBTQ rights.

Hitchens and Achtenberg also left NCLR to pursue other goals. Davis and Hitchens, both now retired, went on to become San Francisco Superior Court judges.

Achtenberg was a San Francisco supervisor who later served in the administrations of former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, among other accomplishments. She currently is a partner at ABK City Advisors and vice chairman of the board of directors at Bank of San Francisco.

Achtenberg and Hitchens continue to be active with NCLR, but they won’t be attending the 45th anniversary gala due to personal health concerns with COVID, they said.

The Kendell effect
In 1996, lesbian Kate Kendell became NCLR’s third executive director. She joined the organization as legal director in 1994. Kendell resigned in 2018, passing the baton after chalking up a dizzying array of accomplishments.

Prior to Rupert-Gordon being hired, former longtime NCLR deputy director and Family Law Project director Cathy Sakimura served as interim executive director in 2018. Sakimura now leads San Francisco’s Legal Services for Children. In 2019, nonprofit veteran Cindy Myers, Ph.D., temporarily stepped into the role of leading NCLR.

NCLR continued to be on the cutting edge under Kendell’s leadership. It was a leader in the battle for same-sex marriage and it won a legal precedent in the infamous dog mauling case where San Francisco lesbian Diane Whipple was killed. Her partner, Sharon Smith, was able to obtain a civil judgment recognizing her as a surviving partner and family member. The agency also won four groundbreaking custody cases: three in California and one in Florida.

Kendell also proved to be an effective face of the LGBTQ movement and fundraiser, bringing in millions of dollars as it took on the issues in the courtroom, educational campaigns, and working with allies.

During Kendell’s 22-year tenure, NCLR continued transforming family law as a priority for the organization. It also took on other issues, establishing projects addressing different segments of the community, such as the Youth Project and the Elder Project. The organization aggressively advocated for transgender representation and tackled homophobia in athletics with its Sports Project. NCLR was one of the first to take on LGBTQ immigration with the Immigration and Asylum Project and rural queers with its Rural Pride campaign.

The organization also fostered the Transgender Law Center before it incorporated as its own nonprofit in 2002. NCLR’s Proyecto Poderoso project grew into the LGBTQ program at California Rural Legal Assistance Inc.

Today, NCLR continues to operate out of San Francisco. According to the organization it has 25 employees, along with three contractors and two law clerks. It has 12 board members and 13 members on its national advisory council. It receives up to 1,500 calls for help a year.

New leader, new challenges
Rupert-Gordon stepped into the role of heading NCLR at a historic moment two years ago — the pandemic and a racial reckoning. She is now one of three Black queer women heading some of the LGBTQ community’s top organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign’s incoming president, Kelley Robinson, and the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Kierra Johnson.

Rupert-Gordon said Black queer women leading these major organizations is “enormously important” because “representation matters, but it’s not everything.” Just because someone who looks like you is at the helm or in the room doesn’t mean the system isn’t still there.

“Being someone from an underrepresented identity does not make the organization anti-racist, it doesn’t make the organization inherently more feminist,” she said.

However, seeing someone who looks like you or seeing barriers being broken, starts conversations about racism, and gives an organization a different starting point than before, which “often is enough to get us some very different outcomes,” she added.

Achtenberg and Hitchens said it was important for a Black queer woman to lead NCLR.

“I like to think she’s in the rich tradition of NCLR,” Achtenberg said.

“It’s the leadership of African American women in the lesbian rights movement [and] in progressive movements [that] has been always a bedrock of the movement,” she continued, adding, “it couldn’t be more important” to have Rupert-Gordon leading the organization now.

NCLR’s feminist roots are not lost on Rupert-Gordon, she said, “it is at the heart of who we are” and it is the organization’s “superpower.”

“Our feminist founding being founded by both experienced marginalization on multiple levels, that is the reason NCLR has been successful in our work,” she said, explaining the organization thinks about people at the “highest levels of marginalization and finds ways to fix those.”

“We don’t get to LGBTQ equality if LGBTQ people are still experiencing racism or sexism or heterosexism,” she said. “Those things don’t work separately. They all work together.”

One of the ways NCLR is thinking out of the box is by working with conservative and religious groups who are willing to find a common ground.

In 2007, Achtenberg told the B.A.R. that she was most surprised by “the virulence and the sheer irrationality of homophobia. You have to be eternally vigilant.”

Asked the same question 15 years later, Achtenberg responded, “I’m no longer surprised.”

She said right-wing conservatives and nationalists are doing everything they can “to essentially destroy not just the community, but now it’s clear that we are inextricably linked to democracy.”

“If we get picked off and we get destroyed, so many important elements of the democracy go down with us,” she said, noting the LGBTQ community isn’t the only community linked to democracy. “I think others are seeing the relationship.”

NCLR is still fighting for LGBTQ family rights, but today the organization is also fighting for economic justice with its National LGBTQ Anti-Poverty Action Network and space for LGBTQ college athletes to play sports homophobic and transphobic free with the Common Ground project with the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Transgender issues are more than ever front and center, with transgender youth and their parents under attack due to dozens of anti-transgender laws targeting health care, identification documents, access to restrooms and other public facilities, and school sports.

“Many of the current challenges that we’re facing are so much about gender stereotyping,” said NCLR’s longtime legal director Shannon Minter. “It seems to force people back into very narrow gender roles and gender norms.”

Minter, a 61-year-old transgender man, pointed to attacks on transgender young people and their families and health care, like abortion rights, “which is of great significance to many people in the LGBT community,” he said.

Lizette Trujillo, 42, an Arizona mother of a transgender teenage son, is one of the families NCLR recently helped. She is grateful the organization was there for her son and family along with other parents of transgender youth in Arizona.

Trujillo was one of the three initial litigants in a federal court case against the Arizona Department of Health Services demanding Arizona allow them to change their children’s gender on their birth certificates without having gender-affirming surgery. Currently, the law requires proof of sex change surgery to change the gender marker on a birth certificate.

“It’s been great to have an organization really champion our children and believe that their rights are worth fighting for,” said Trujillo.

Arizona allowed Trujillo to change her son’s birth certificate in 2021. She’s no longer a part of the case that is ongoing, she said.

“My kid was thrilled,” Trujillo said, declining to state her son’s name to protect his privacy. “Obviously, there’s nothing more meaningful than having your identity documents match your gender.”

NCLR’s fight for same-sex marriage and families is why 37-year-old gay dads Sean McBride and his husband, Steve Cary, who have a 1-year-old son, have donated to the organization since 2010.

“They have always been focused on foundational rights, maintaining and increasing our rights as human beings and U.S. citizens,” said Cary. “They’re involved with the really important and challenging things that are happening right now.”

The spotlight is currently on transgender youth rights and conversion therapy, which is the widely debunked practice of trying to get LGBTQ people to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Minter started at NCLR in 1993 with a fellowship specifically to work on conversion therapy. One of his first cases was fighting for then-queer teen Lynn Duff’s emancipation from her parents who sent her to a camp for troubled teens that ended up being a conversion therapy camp. Duff was emancipated and taken in by a lesbian couple in Berkeley. Nearly 30 years later, Minter is still working on conversion therapy and fighting to shut down the “troubled teen” industry, battling the same owners of the camp Duff was in for a new client. Minter could not elaborate due to the active case.

NCLR’s anti-conversion therapy program, Born Perfect, has been the organization’s most successful campaign ever, Minter said.

“I’m so proud of that,” he said, stating that the campaign supported the passage of more than 20 state laws banning conversion therapy for minors, including California; more than 120 localities, and in Washington, D.C. in 10 years, and the number is still growing. The call to ban conversion therapy has spread around the world, with countries like Germany banning the practice mostly for minors, and reaching the United Nations.

“The organization has a culture of transforming itself in order to do whatever it takes to make the maximum impact and confer the most benefit to the community,” said Achtenberg. “I know that that tradition is being continued through Imani’s leadership.”

Rupert-Gordon said that NCLR is working on creating a culture and environment “where folks can see themselves, can see multiple parts of their identity represented all through the organization.

“We’re in a place right now where we are going to be working to win some of our rights back,” she continued, “but this time, we’re going to do it better and we’re going to be stronger in doing that.”

Hitchens told the B.A.R. of NCLR’s current leadership, “I certainly think they’re on the right trajectory.”

She hopes NCLR will continue to receive the “resources they need to fight the battles that are most important.”

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