The National Center for Lesbian Rights may be one of the most effective national LGBT movement organizations few people have heard of. That's most likely a result of their 35-year old philosophy to "not direct but be supportive," as NCLR's brilliant and renowned trans Legal Director Shannon Minter puts it.
"I think NCLR is the heart and conscience of the movement," says Board co-chair Donna Ryu in a video celebrating NCLR's 30th anniversary in 2007. "Our community has poor people among us, has older people, has young people, has people who don't have the benefit of a US passport. And we are not leaving anybody behind." Author Jewelle Gomez, an NCLR client with her wife Diane Sabin, adds: "NCLR is built on a feminist base which means all of the struggles are inter-related."
NCLR was founded in 1977 by attorneys Donna Hitchens and Roberta Achtenberg to help lesbian mothers keep custody of their kids. But since then the organization has expanded into a national, comprehensive LGBT legal advocacy organization - Minter argued the California marriage cases before the California Supreme Court, for instance.
And perhaps unbeknownst to many in the LGBT community, NCLR also has two dedicated staffers – State Legislative Director Connie Utada and Federal Policy Director Maya Rupert - who quietly work with state and local organizations to draft laws and policies in support of their local initiatives. But there is often a gap between supportively drafting legislation and actually getting it passed, Minter said in a Monday phoner. It was a subject NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell and her old friend Geoff Kors, former executive director for Equality California, discussed one day recently after Kors and his fiancé James Williamson returned from traveling, which they have done off and on since Kors left EQCA in March 2011. Kendell and Kors were brainstorming about NCLR legislation around the country when suddenly a light-bulb went off: why couldn't Kors join NCLR as a legislative strategist to help local and state groups with the campaign-style elements of passing their legislation? After all, during his nine-year tenure at EQCA, Kors had worked with legislators and coalition partners to enact an historic 71 pieces of pro-LGBT legislation and raise the bar so support for full equality became the litmus test for all politicians seeking EQCA's help or endorsement. Kendell, Minter and Kors thought it could be real benefit for the movement. Others might consider it a game-changer.
For several years now, we've been working closely with the Equality Federation and with our other national colleagues – but also directly with state and local groups providing whatever kind of support they need. That's very much our philosophy: we are not here to direct, we are here to provide support to state and local groups. They're the ones who know what their needs are and where they want to go. We're all about supporting whatever efforts and decisions the state and local leaders make.
So what we've been able to do - what we're doing now - we help people draft legislation, doing legal research, providing legal memos, providing policy memos. But what we have not been able to do to the level we would like - and this is where Geoff comes in and really adds a whole new dimension to this work - is helping with the nuts and bolts of getting a law or policy passed or implemented.
So the kinds of things Geoff will be able to help folks do is really analyze where are the votes, for example, really think about what kind community education and public education we are going to need to get this law passed. Here's where groups don't need to use up their invaluable time re-inventing the wheel in terms of action alerts or drafting certain kids of messaging around certain types of issues. But it's really hard for state and local leaders to have the bandwidth to get their hands on the best information about that. And Geoff is so plugged in already and has so much experience himself passing these types of laws, that that will be a really valuable service that we'll now be able to provide.
Or identifying coalition partners. If there's a wavering legislator or a vote that's really needed – thinking about which coalition partners we should be reaching out to help educate that legislator. So that's the kind of nuts and bolts strategic implementing strategy and plan to get things passed. We do some of that now. But Geoff is very significantly going to expand our ability to do that in a much broader, much more amplified way. But it will be building on relationships and work that's already established and ongoing.
(Geoff Kors and NCLR ED Kate Kendell)
Kors was also on the phoner with Minter and said he was thrilled to be able to help state and local groups pass policy and legislation:
I'm really excited to be joining the NCLR team. I've worked with NCLR over the past decade and they've been doing this work even longer than that. It's just a great opportunity to work primarily with state and local groups who are so often under-resourced to provide additional support. NCLR does a lot of work now drafting legislation, drafting policy for state and local groups and what I hope to be able to do is to add some value on the strategy side - looking at what needs to happen in order to get these laws and policies actually enacted.
One of the things is to come up with some blueprints. So often state and local groups have to re-invent the wheel and I think one of the things we're looking to do - whether it's a non-discrimination bill, a parenting bill, whatever it may be - to be able to take draft legislation and come up with draft statements from allies and experts in the field and draft emails and action alerts that we can give to a state or local group so they can focus their attention on the day-to-day lobbying on the ground and not have to re-create drafting legislation, etc.
I said it sounded as if Kors might be setting up a kind of permanent campaign that could be localized if and when needed. Kors said:
That's part of it. We will be doing that because often legislation that a state or local group wants to do has been done somewhere else. So, to the extent we can help pull that together for state and local groups, I think that could be a real valued added proposition. In addition to be available to consult on strategy, we can brainstorm issues that come up. Having worked with state and local groups now starting in the late 1980s, I know a lot of the people who are doing the work and have seen a lot of the issues that come up over and over again. So to the extent that NCLR can be helpful in brainstorming with those groups and thinking ahead to what the issues might be so they so they can be addressed before they arrive, I think that can be very beneficial.
For instance, so many groups are focused on the elections right now - but some also have legal packages for the next session. And NCLR help them do that work so they can focus their resources where they need to right now.
Equality Florida Executive Director Nadine Smith is pleased with the announcement, which NCLR announced Tuesday:
(Equality Florida Executive Director Nadine Smith)
This is great news. Geoff is not just smart and strategic, he’s fearless and innovative and unconstrained by conventional wisdom. He’s exactly what we need at this historic tipping point moment when so much is possible.
In Florida there are more than two dozen communities around the state where local ordinance battles are beginning or are fully underway. We will benefit from having Geoff’s sharp political insights as part of those efforts.
In fact, this spirit of collaboration may be part of a larger zeitgeist happening in the LGBT community right now, along with the fresh leadership at the Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD. For years, organizers of the various marches on Washington have urged participants to come out, tell their own stories and become involved in the LGBT movement in their hometowns. The Task Force's Creating Change teaches how to become an activist; the Victory Fund teaches how to become a candidate and a campaign staffer. But Minter said it is "troubling" that there remain many parts of the country where "people are struggling" with the impact of anti-LGBT discrimination. Non-competitive "new thinking" is needed to help places hard hit – and, Minter said – it's in the local city councils and state legislatures where "the rubber meets the road:"
We can do a really great job now of providing legal research and memos and helping with drafting and gosh, that's really critical. We need that and we will certainly continue to do that. But where we have not been able to provide as much support as we would like to is on the strategic side of things – how to actually get bills passed and implement policies. It just seems like it's a perfect match because Geoff's experience and skill set on those set of issues is so deep. It would be hard to think of any other leader in the country that has more experience doing those very things - really just thinking about how to implement and pass legislation.
I think folks are going to be very excited about this. We just want to add value to state and local leaders to make progress, particularly in places where that is really hard. I firmly believe that the state and local groups are the backbone of our movement. That is where the rubber meets the road and that's where real, meaningful, lasting change happens - community-by-community, state-by-state. That's why we have prioritized supporting that state and local work so much in the past few years and are expanding the resources we're putting into that work. We hope this will be a really good way to do it.