What is the history of the National Center for Lesbian Rights?

Liz Highleyman | June 18, 2007

NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell with Kate Clinton and honorees Martina Navratilova and John Amaechi
The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), which celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2007, has spearheaded numerous precedent-setting legal cases that have improved the lives of LGBT people and their families in the USA.

NCLR began in 1977 as the Lesbian Rights Project (LRP) of Equal Rights Advocates (ERA), a feminist law firm in San Francisco, at a time when many lesbians had left gay organizations to focus on women's issues, and the mainstream women's movement had just begun to take lesbian concerns seriously. With office space donated by ERA and $14,000 in grant funding, three young attorneys – Donna Hitchens, Nancy Davis, and Roberta Achtenberg – began providing legal advice and assistance with litigation.

In 1983, LRP won an early child custody victory for lesbian mother Sharon Johnson. Three years later, it helped Annie Affleck and Rebecca Smith complete the first joint adoption by a same-sex couple. It also enabled Artie Wallace, a gay man with AIDS, to win custody of his son after his fundamentalist ex-wife kidnapped the boy. LRP helped create the second-parent adoption mechanism, gaining legal recognition for non-biological parents. But in the mid-1990s, the group failed to maintain child custody for Sharon Bottoms, a Virginia lesbian whose mother objected to her "immoral" lifestyle, or for a lesbian mother in Florida whose ex-husband had served time in prison for murder.

NCLR incorporated under its new name as a nonprofit public interest law firm in 1989. During the 1991-1996 tenure of executive director Liz Hendrickson, the organization expanded its focus to include employment discrimination, immigration, and equality in sports. In 1993, staff attorney Shannon Minter launched NCLR's Youth Project, and six years later, the group added an Elder Law Project.

Over the years, NCLR became a recognized authority on family law, and its staff was often consulted as experts in LGBT equality cases pursued by outside attorneys. The organization's visibility received a boost in 1997, when newly appointed executive director Kate Kendell debated the Rev. Jerry Falwell as part of a media campaign to bring LGBT issues into the national discussion of "family values."

NCLR made headlines again in 2001, when Kendell helped Sharon Smith become the first same-sex (or unmarried) partner to win the right to sue for wrongful death, after her partner, Diane Whipple, was mauled by her neighbors' dogs. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, NCLR lobbied the Federal Victims Compensation Board to ensure that surviving same-sex partners would receive financial support.

NCLR also became a prominent advocate for transgender rights, encouraged by Minter, who retained his position after his female-to-male transition. In 2002, Christopher Daley and Dylan Vade co-founded the Transgender Law Project, which incorporated as the independent Transgender Law Center three years later.

As it enters its fourth decade, NCLR serves more than 5,000 LGBT people across the United States each year. Although it now represents people of all genders, the group remains grounded in its lesbian-feminist roots, and its board of directors and national advisory board consist solely of women.

"I think that we are all working toward making NCLR obsolete," Kendell said in an interview marking the group's 30th year. "The world we want is the world where sexual orientation and gender identity are completely irrelevant in every sphere of public life. The only person who cares whether you're queer is the person you are sleeping with."

For further information:

  • Cassell, Heather. 2007. "NCLR Still Has an Edge at 30." Bay Area Reporter (April 5).

  • Kendell, Kate. 2002. "NCLR's Founding Mothers on Our First 25 Years." NCLR Newsletter.

  • National Center for Lesbian Rights:

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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