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National lesbian rights leader’s life story inspires USU audience to ‘fly free’

By Satenik Sargsyan

LOGAN—Kate felt her body shivering when she found her mother’s diary. She knew it contained an entry about her coming out as lesbian. Conquering her fear, she read: “I am so sad that Kathy has been in so much pain, and she couldn’t have told me this earlier and feel like I could understand.”

For Utah native Kate Kendell, that acceptance set her free. The executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) has come a long way since the day she came out to her mother, a devout Mormon.

In a speech at USU Wednesday, Kendell recounted the challenges she confronted on her own path from “good Mormon Utah girl” to “The Queen Lesbian” of the U.S. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement.

“During the 16 years I have been with NCLR, the progress in the LGBT movement has been nothing short of extraordinary,” Kendell said.

While Kendell’s confidence, fun personality and sense of humor fired up the predominantly LGBT audience of about 125 at the Taggart Student Center Ballroom Wednesday evening, her story was about overcoming frustration and creating a change through building bridges and alliances. She has no doubt that the last chapter in the LGBT movement will be titled “Celebration.”

Kendell’s journey started the day she came out to her mother. She learned that conquering her fear and being true to herself matters more than worrying about disappointing loved ones. Her mother’s response both surprised her and “gave me space to fly.”

“She paused for a second,” Kendell said. “I said: ‘I am a little scared about what you are going to say.’ She got a little choked up, and she said: ‘Honey, the most important thing to me is that you are happy.’ And she never left that.

“That made it so possible for me to make choices based on what was really important for me,” Kendell said, “what I wanted to do rather than fearing what the reaction was going to be from the most important people in my life.”

Similar to Kendell’s own experience, the national LGBT movement had its hands tied when Kendell started working for NCLR. Serving first as a staff attorney and later as executive director, she answered hundreds of heartbreaking calls within the first year of her career.

“We were getting calls every day from all over the country,” she said, “from women and men who had just lost custody of their children coming out of a heterosexual marriage, and their spouse was suing them for custody based on their sexual orientation.

“People were losing their jobs with no protection. Kids were mercilessly bullied in schools. Individuals were being afraid of being out in their neighborhoods.”

It seemed like nothing good was happening in the LGBT community. Though heartbroken, Kendell knew that giving up wasn’t an option. Her mother’s example of a person of strong faith who was nevertheless so understanding of her “big-a** lesbian daughter” had taught her that people are willing to listen.

Fifteen years of struggle has now led to changing the landscape of family law, Kendell said.

“Now in this country there is not one state that will deny you custody of your children based on your sexual orientation,” she said. “In at least two dozen states, openly gay and lesbian people can adopt.”

The incoming calls at Kendell’s office also have started to change, she said. “People now call to thank more often than to cry for help.”

While a great legal leap has pushed the LGBT agenda forward, there is still much to be done.

One of the most controversial federal policies, the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell rule, still restrains openly gay individuals from serving in the armed forces. In most states, people still lose jobs based on their sexual orientation because of the lack of double-protection employment laws.

Despite the increased cultural awareness since the earlier stages of the LGBT movement, Kendell told her audience, many hearts and minds remain closed. Merciless bullying earlier this fall led to a number of teenage suicides around the country because tormented young people couldn’t face the reality of the real world.

“Even though winning legal equality is important, what we really need to do is to change attitudes and hearts and minds,” Kendell said. “We have to remember that even after we passed the 14th Amendment and Civil Rights Act, there is still racism.”

In Kendell’s opinion, the last chapter of the LGBT movement will be possible only through cooperation.

“LGBT individuals should be willing and able to reach out to those who seem unreachable,” Kendall said.

One audience member was a flesh-and-blood example of the truth of Kendell’s attitude. Salt Lake City attorney Matthew Hilton, a devout LDS member and Kendell’s opponent in many legal cases, had traveled to Logan to hear Kendell speak. He was there to help build bridges after long years of opposing LGBT cases in court.

Kendell’s visit was sponsored by USU’s  Gay-Straight alliance, L.I.F.E., which educates, serves and promotes LGBTQ issues on campus and in Cache County, said L.I.F.E. public relations chair Seth Jensen.

“In the summer we started contacting several big names in LGBTQ Rights movement,” said L.I.F.E. president Athena Dupont. “Kate Kendell was very receptive, and agreed almost immediately.”

“Her speech was very inspiring and helped us remember why we’re working so hard.”

Kendell, who now lives in San Francisco, said she is always happy to come home to Utah.

“I know living in Utah you may think that San Francisco is the place to be. And it is,” Kendell said. “But when I drive up the canyon into Cache Valley, I have an amazing feeling.

“There is just no place like home.”

TP