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Kate Kendell Interview - Page 2

Kate Kendell Personal Interview


Kate Kendell

Kate Kendell


Where was your wedding ceremony, did you do it at City Hall?

We did not do a big wedding. By this time, Prop 8 had qualified for the ballot and we were in full campaign mode. So we did a very small ceremony in the Mayor’s office officiated by Donna Hitchens, who is a superior court judge and founded the National Center for Lesbian Rights 33 years ago and is a dear friend of ours. Then had a reception for 40 friends at a friend’s house. We took a one night honeymoon up in Napa and that was fine because it wasn’t really about that. It was about being able to make this commitment, to do it publicly and then getting back to the work of trying to defend it.

How did you get this job? What was your path?

I’m living in Utah, working for the ACLU, which I love. The ACLU is often described as the most hated organization in Utah because it fights church/state stuff, it’s pro women’s right to choose, it’s pro gay rights. It essentially stands against every thing the Mormon church stands for. But I loved working there. It was wonderful to be able to come from my background as a Mormon and to really try to find common ground. You can’t be angry and hostile in a place like Utah. You really have to be conciliatory and firm.

So I loved my job, but once I fell in love with Sandy and we were doing long distance. I started thinking about a job in San Francisco. She faxed me the job description for what was then the Legal Director position for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. I read it and thought, “Oh my God, I’ve got to have this job.”

And so it was this amazing synergy of being able to be in the place I wanted to be, with the person I wanted to be with, and doing a job that I would have applied for no matter what. I got the position and started as Legal Director in 1994 and then became Executive Director about a year and a half later.

What was your path to being a lawyer in the first place?

I wanted to be a lawyer since I was a teenager. After the policeman, firefighter, stewardess, ran its course. (laughs) I don’t know exactly why, except maybe I had a couple of teachers in junior high.

After law school I went to a firm in Salt Lake. I was not out. I was not out in law school. I was out in college to people who knew me well, but I never came out as being a lesbian. The friends who knew kept it quiet too. This was not that long ago. I graduated from college in 1985. I was in a relationship and I had a kid, and yet, I wasn’t out. It’s inconceivable. I wasn’t out in my firm. Out of 110 lawyers in the firm, there was not one openly gay attorney or support person. I got the message loud and clear that it was not going to be okay. In fact for the firm’s Christmas party, I took a gay boyfriend. I had a beard. And I look back on that now and think wow. Now I get paid for being a lesbian.

What that experience did for me in this job is made me appreciate how hard it is for people to come out. I try not to make judgment about people who make the decision not to, even as I push people to do it. I think part of the reason I left the firm after three years, I took a significant pay cut to work for the ACLU was because I just couldn’t live like that any more. At the ACLU from the first day on the job, I was out.

What’s the accomplishment you’re most proud of?

The most obvious answer is winning the marriage case before the California Supreme Court. And even though Prop 8 eliminated the right to the word marriage, much of that ruling, ending the exclusion from the right to marry, still stands. For example sexual orientation is treated as a suspect class and what that means for legal talk in layman’s terms is that you cannot discriminate against same-sex people or couples unless you can show a compelling reason for why you’re engaging in discrimination as a government. So that is still something that I’m proud of.

But I wouldn’t say it’s the most significant. The thing that I think is the most significant is leading NCLR from a very small organization that didn’t do a lot of direct litigation, didn’t have much of a voice in the movement, to an organization that is six times the size that it was, with a much bigger staff and a much bigger reach and a real voice in the movement. We had the first transgender staff person. We talk about race and class and poverty issues. We really do occupy a unique niche in the movement. And while there are many people who have never heard of us, we are very strong and stable and play a meaningful role in terms of thinking about LGBT issues as part of a larger social justice movement.

Is there one disappointment? Something you wished had gone differently?

Well, yeah, Prop 8. There are certainly cases that we lost that I feel that I will always carry with me, or clients who didn’t live to see their rights vindicated, but losing on Prop 8 is a scar that I will always bear. I don’t know that there’s any more that NCLR could have done, or that I could have done. We worked 24/7.
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