The National Center for Lesbian Rights’ (NCLR) mission statement today describes them as “a national legal organization committed to advancing the civil and human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.” In this respect, they are similar to the other major LGBT legal organizations. All of these organizations describe their commitment to addressing issues facing all LGBT people. Despite this mission, many people assume that NCLR is a smaller side-player. They hear “National Center for Lesbian Rights” and assume that NCLR does not have a broader focus. They assume that NCLR is only committed to working on lesbian issues. Of course, people who follow LGBT politics know that NCLR has been a major player in legal advocacy on behalf of all LGBT people.
I’ve been reading through NCLR’s old newsletters to understand how NCLR’s goals have changed over time and how that matters for understanding the organization’s work today. Starting from an almost-exclusive focus on lesbian mothers, NCLR’s work quickly grew. Even as they continued to focus on issues facing lesbians, NCLR progressively expanded their goals. Today, lawyers at NCLR continue to mention their lesbian feminist history. I suggest this still forms a key piece of how the organization approaches a broad agenda. This blog post is a first attempt at tracing the broad contours of how their organizational identity has developed over time.
NCLR was founded as the “Lesbian Rights Project” of Equal Rights Advocates in 1977 to provide legal assistance to low-income lesbians. It was founded out of a concern that, despite some growing work on “gay rights,” lesbians were being left out. In particular, concerns facing lesbians as mothers were not addressed by other organizations at the time. Thus, in its early years, NCLR’s work consisted almost entirely of supporting the interests of lesbian mothers. The first organizational newsletter, published in 1983, explained that “A major goal of the [Lesbian Rights Project] has been to encourage the provision of quality legal assistance for lesbians throughout the country.” In 1984, the Lesbian Rights Project founded the adoption project, cementing their commitment to serving lesbian mothers.
Despite their almost exclusive focus on lesbian rights, even early on NCLR strategically worked on behalf of non-lesbians in cases that would support their core mission. In a key example, NCLR argued in the mid ’80s on behalf of a gay father with AIDS seeking to maintain custody of his children after a divorce from his wife. A custody decision on the father’s behalf would translate more broadly into legal precedent denying the relevance of sexual orientation to child custody decisions. Similarly, in a 1985 conference, the Lesbian Rights Project focused on lesbian and gay employment rights.
By 1989, as the Lesbian Rights Project became the National Center for Lesbian Rights, we see some evidence of this shifting position in their mission statement. In their annual report that year they explained “The National Center operates a unique program of legal representation and community-based legal education to further the rights and defend the dignity of lesbians. Beginning with its work as the Lesbian Rights Project, the National Center for Lesbian Rights has helped forge a legal agenda which has served lesbians, gay men, and their families, as well as the larger community.” They still positioned lesbian rights at the core of their work but explain that the agenda growing out of this core work also serves a broader community.
This specific commitment to lesbian rights continued to form the core of the organization, but we see in their changing mission statement a growing sense of what is required to protect lesbian rights. In a 1992 newsletter, they described their mission as “To promote awareness, respect, and recognition of lesbians and their rights.” Their fall 1993 newsletter expanded on this, describing NCLR as “the only national public interest law firm dedicated to achieving full civil and human rights for all lesbians, through a program of litigation, public policy advocacy, community education, resource publications, and judicial training.” And a 1996 letter from the chair of the board explained, “NCLR is a lesbian, feminist, multicultural legal resource center committed to creating a world where all lesbians can live life fully without fear of discrimination.” By 1996, NCLR had developed significantly from the early days of the Lesbian Rights Project’s exclusive focus on low-income lesbians. NCLR increasingly recognized how achieving full lesbian rights required addressing issues involving poverty, health, education, racial discrimination, and gender discrimination. They increasingly included work on behalf of all LGBT people because it furthered their specific interests in lesbian rights.
Drawing on this lesbian feminist ethic, NCLR was increasingly committed to intersectionality. This commitment guided their expansion of their legal and policy work. In 1989, NCLR launched the Lesbians of Color Project to add more lesbians of color to their board and to identify legal concerns facing lesbians of color. Through this project, NCLR sought to integrate issues of racism, immigration status, and poverty into their idea of what it meant to defend all lesbians. In 1993, NCLR started a lesbian health project and a youth project. Both of these projects similarly sought to expand NCLR’s understanding of what it meant to advocate on behalf of lesbian rights. In addition, their work on youth issues allowed them to more directly align issues facing gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people with their work on lesbian rights.
By 1998, NCLR’s mission statement more fully articulated their broad, intersectional understanding of lesbian rights: “NCLR is the nation’s legal center with a primary commitment to advancing the rights and safety of lesbians and their families through a program of litigation, public policy advocacy, free legal advice and counseling, and public education. In addition, NCLR provides representation and resources to gay men, and bisexual and transgendered individuals on key issues that also significantly advance lesbian rights.” Here we see NCLR remained committed to lesbian rights, but more directly articulated how their work on lesbian rights required addressing other forms of discrimination. Thus, when NCLR launched their elder law project in 1999, their newsletter explained that “As with our work in other program areas, our primary focus will be the needs and legal issues facing lesbians. However, because we well understand that many of our issues and struggles are related, we will also work on behalf of old gay men, bisexuals and transgendered individuals.”
This broad intersectional understanding of lesbian rights supported NCLR’s decision to launch a transgender law project in 2001 (a project that later became the independent Transgender Law Center). Working on transgender rights fit in their broad, “lesbian feminist,” understanding of discrimination. Discrimination against lesbians based on gender and sexuality intersected with similar discrimination against transgender people.
In a spring 2003 newsletter, we see NCLR moving towards a broader LGBT mission stament: “Our work will always be first and foremost about lesbians and our lives. But of course, at its core, that very work is about social, racial and economic justice. We will lend our voice and our passion to the thousands of voices committed to justice for all, secure in the knowledge that real, sustained change only happens when we refuse to remain silent.” Earlier mission statements expanded the scope of NCLR’s work while remaining within the scope of lesbian rights. Now in 2003, lesbian rights remains the critical core of their work, but they move towards expanding beyond the scope of lesbian rights.
In 2005, NCLR completed this move by dropping their self-description as a lesbian feminist organization. Their mission statement now described their goals as “Through impact litigation, public policy advocacy, public education, collaboration with other social justice organizations and activists, and direct legal services, we advance the legal and human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their families across the United States.”
A quick comparison of the mission statements of the major LGBT legal organizations would suggest they all do the same work. And in many ways they do. But this comparison also hides the different ways these organizations have arrived at their goals. Even today, lawyers at NCLR describe the lesbian feminist history of their organization. They continue to describe their commitment to identifying work that no one else is doing. They continue to think in broad intersectional terms about the relationship between lesbian rights and all forms of discrimination. Thus, studying the history of their mission gives us insights into how they think today about what it means to be an LGBT organization.