Kate Kendell, 57, has spent the past 24 yearsnearly two-thirds of her lifeat National Center for Lesbian Rights ( NCLR ). This December she'll depart her esteemed post as executive director to balance some new opportunitiesand pass the torch.
The decision to switch gears is both a personal decision, as well as a professional one for Kendell.
"It feels right that a month away from turning 58, I make a move to something else and make way for a new leader at NCLR," Kendell said.
The juxtaposition of positive and negative in the news during a time of terrific turmoil in the nation also factored into the timing.
"We are in such a time of peril and opportunity. I do not have the corner on how to navigate this moment and I think an undoubtedly younger person, perhaps a leader of color with a different lived experience can be just what is called for at this time," Kendell admitted. "NCLR is positioned to be at the forefront of the coming fights and I think a new leader will only enhance our strategy and vision."
That's not to say she won't miss her post or the organization to which she gave her heart, her youth, her fight, and drive to for so many years.
"This job has been the honor and privilege of my life," Kendell shared. "I, myself, have been inspired every day by our staff and the clients and community we work with. When I first came to NCLR, in 1994, I was shocked at the harm and damage being done to far too many LGBTQ people in this country. Coming from Utah, where I grew up Mormon, I believed I had seen the worst. Not even close. From losing jobs, custody of kids, family acceptance, self-worth, religious community, hope, we heard from dozens of queer people every day who struggled against what felt like a tidal wave of homophobia and stigma."
The LGBTQ landscape is far different than when Kendell began her career with NCLR.
"Now, within the lifetime of a college graduate, we have witnessed a sea change," she said. "From out celebrities, openly LGBTQ elected officials, fierce and unbowed allies, legal and policy wins. The place of LGBTQ individuals and families is cemented in our culture. We still see the lethality of anti-LGBTQ bigotry, but the ethos in our nation is that such bigotry is wrong and unacceptable. More importantly, we know it is wrong and unacceptable. There is nothing wrong with us. We do not need to be fixed. We are beautiful, gifted and worthy. All this. In 24 years. It is breathtaking. I know we have much more to do. But damn, there is no way to not feel good about our odds."
And odds are Kendell will be actively involved in the LGBTQ community even after her high-profile departure from NCLR.
"I expect to be doing a mix of consulting, teaching, speaking, board service, and writing," Kendell said. "I plan to take a sabbatical in July and August to drill down on exactly what this looks like. I'll still go at 100% and will hope to help other leaders and organizations be at their best…I'm hoping my future work will include a good amount of time in the LGBTQ space. These are my people. This is my home."
The incoming executive director has not been announced yet, but Kendell is ready for wise insight when the time is right.
"Your staff is brilliant, your donors are generous and open-hearted, your community is vibrant, resilient, and will hold you up," Kendell said. "This will be the greatest job of your life. Give it your all."
Kendell has committed to being involved in NCLRfrom a different perspective.
"Much will stay the same - cutting edge legal and policy work on behalf of the most vulnerable in our community," she said. "To the extent there are new program areas or initiatives, that will be the lucky work of my successor with me as a huge fan, supporter and donor."
As for a favorite memory of her tenure with the organization, Kendell recalled: "This is like choosing my favorite child. But when we won marriage in California in May 2008, it seemed like a door opening to so much more. The entire city was electric, it was a true, full-on community celebration everywhere you went. I don't think I ever stopped smiling. Even our kids were so into it. We had worked so hard on that, Shannon, our Legal Director, had brilliantly argued the case before the California State Supreme Court. It was the sort of day every lawyer dreams of."
Asked what she would miss most about her family at NCLR, she quipped: "The ridiculously witty e-mails, the random food people bring in, the often hilarious conversations in our staff meetings, the screaming in the halls when we win big, the evident passion and heart they bring to all they do…basically…everything."
Personally, Kendell has another family as well. Her partner Sandy have three children and have been together 25 years.
The lesson she hopes to pass on to newcomers is straightforward, much like Kendell: "Humility, humility, humility."
Praise is often offered when you're up, but what happens when you fall down? Like, flat on your face down?
"I'm pretty passionate and profane," Kendell said. "People who know me know that. After the win at the U.S. Supreme Court striking down Prop 8, [Olson/Boies team legal win], I was asked to moderate the press conference. It was at City Hall; the decision had just been announced. The place was packed. A million cameras that apparently, I thought were props, because I opened the press conference by saying 'Fuck You Prop 8.' On national television. Stations cut away, Matt Lauer and other morning anchors were issuing flustered apologies. I had no idea until much later that we were live. So stupid of me. A chance to speak to millions and I just blurted that out. Obviously a lot of pent of rage over the passage of Prop 8, which eliminated our right to marry just six months after we won in California. Lesson: it's fine to be passionate and profane - but time and place is everything."
For Kendell at this point in her trajectory, timing is indeedeverything.
Keep in touch with Kate Kendell by visiting twitter.com/KateKendell. National Center for Lesbian Rights ( NCLR ) updates can be followed here: www.nclrights.org .
Earlier coverage here: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Kendell-stepping-away-from-NCLR-leadership/62255.html .