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Kate Kendell - Lesbian Activist

Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights

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Kate Kendell - National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director

Kate Kendell - National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director

© NCLR
Kate Kendell is the Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, an organization that works for all LGBT Americans. I had the opportunity to sit down with her in September 2009 to learn more about her life growing up Mormon in Utah, her path from the closet to becoming one of the most visible leaders of the LGBT movement and her thoughts on everything from gay marriage to what she likes to do on her day off.

Lesbian Life: So, Kate, you grew up Mormon?

Kate Kendell:I did grow up Mormon. My mother was devout. As was my grandmother. Both my mother and my grandmother were completely embracing when I came out at 20. I told my mother in a moving car. I don't know why I thought that was a good idea at the time. Her reaction was so lovely. I told her I was nervous about her reaction after I said what it was. She looked at me and said, "Honey, all that I care about is that you're happy." And she meant it. She never slipped back from that position. She worried about whether or I would be happy in a culture that says lesbian gay people are not good people. But she did not have a problem with me being a lesbian.

Growing up in Utah, what were your aspirations?

It's interesting how hetero-normative the culture can make you be, even when you know it's not right for you. I think I was in first grade and one of the sheets had what did you want to be when you grew up and I had that I wanted to be a stewardess. Then maybe two years later I wanted to be firefighter. Or policeman. I was the quintessential tomboy. There is a picture of me at eight years old in cowboy boots and shorts and a t-shirt and 6-shooters and this bouffant hairdo that my mother did. I almost feel like now that kind of gender defiance would be more harshly regarded in some households because it's now understood that for many girls it's a precursor to identifying as a lesbian or bisexual woman. Even though, that's not always true. At the time I think my parents thought it charming.

I aspired to be an athlete, but I was never good at it. I just didn't have the coordination to be a good athlete. I played softball. I played basketball but never on a competitive team. I like to cycle a lot. That's my favorite sport. I golf badly. I like to do pretty much anything outdoors. I'm a huge fan of team sports, but I'm not good at it.

You have children with your partner…

My first relationship is with someone who is still one of my dearest friends in the world. She is older than me, also Mormon. My Mormon camp counselor actually. She was married and had kids and so that was a whole drama. But I feel like she probably saved my life. If I hadn't met her I feel like I probably would have gotten married to a man, had children and then ending up needing NCLR because my husband would have sued me for custody when I ended up leaving him when I came out. I'm so glad that I met her because I'm sure I would have made a mess of my life.

So, my ex-partner Laurie had a one-year-old daughter when I got involved with her when I was 22. We were together for 12 years, so the whole point of me going back to then is, to say I have three children. I have a 27-year-old daughter from my relationship with Laurie. And Sandy and I, who have been together 16 years, have two kids. Our son Julian is 13 and our daughter Arianna is seven.

How did you meet your partner?

Sandy and I met when she was a staff attorney for the ACLU in Utah and she was development associate with the ACLU in San Francisco. We met at an ACLU conference in Atlanta. It was very intense interest at first sight, if not love at first sight.

And you were both single?

Ah, you're going to go there, aren't you? What I will say is, she was single, I was not single. To the extent that I have serious regrets in my life it's not having the foresight to recognize when something isn't working. So doing maximum damage in order to figure that out. While Laurie and I are still friends, I did a lot of damage that shouldn't have been done and you learn some of these things the hard way.

Given the distance and all the complications, it's amazing that Sandy and I got together. But I have to say, it's the love of my life.

Are you married?

We got married and we still are married. California is in that bizarre situation where there was a six month window [when same-sex marriage was legal] and we got married in that period of time

Did you get married the first time it was legal in 2004?

No, when Newsom started issuing marriage licenses the first time, a lot of people asked us if we were getting married because about 4,000 couples did. I have to say, it was such an incredible experience to go through, but we were so involved as the lawyers, it felt weird at that time. We knew there would be a lawsuit, so it was like you would be the client and the lawyer at the same time.

Four years later when the Supreme court ruled [that to deny marriage was unconstitutional], that day when we won, other than my children being born was the most glorious day of my life. I remember coming back to my office toward the end of the day. Sandy and I had not talked all day, but of course there was a media firestorm and just huge ecstatic reaction all over the country and I came back to my office about 3:30 and called her and I just blurted out, "Will you marry me?" and she says, "Hold on just a second and she puts me on speaker phone and I hear her calling for her colleagues to come into her office and so by this time because I'm laughing and hollering myself, my staff is starting to come out of their offices and stand outside my office and I hear her get everybody gathered and I hear her say, "Okay, say it again." So of course I did and she said yes.

So we did, we got married on July 9th. It was an amazing thing for us to publicly say vows, in front of our children, who got to witness it, and who were elated. It is a very powerful ceremony. I guess I had undervalued the power of ceremony. That was an incredible day. And then to have it lost in November. I mean, we're still married, but that's cold comfort. To have so many couples who weren't able to get in for so many reasons. I feel like we can't rest until we win marriage back in California.

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