The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) celebrated its 40th birthday in Miami last Saturday with its “Taste of Justice” event.  NCLR is a national legal organization headquartered in San Francisco committed to advancing the civil and human rights of LGBT people and their families through litigation, legislation, policy, and public education.

Originally planned to take place at The Sacred Space in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami, damage caused by Hurricane Irma rerouted the event to the 601 space at the American Airlines Arena in downtown Miami. Executive Vice President and General Manager of the American Airlines Arena, Kim Stone, commented on the relocating of the event, “When the event had to be moved we immediately tried to help. That’s what we do in our community. We help each other.”

Stone proved to be right as the event was well attended by over 150 members of the community.  Throughout the room conversations were had amongst guests ranging from climate change, to existing hurricane relief programs, to immigration, to past and present LGBT legal and political challenges, to more personal conversations, while some sipped on a signature drink called “the Fortytini,” a drink concocted by mixologist, Liz Dolz, and cleverly named to mark the celebration of NCLR’s 40 years in existence. Chefs Todd Erickson, Josie Smith Malave and Robyn Almodovar created gastronomic delights that were presented to guests on plates donated by Front of the House. 

A member of both NCLR’s National Leadership Council and National Family Law Advisory Council, local attorney and author Elizabeth Schwartz stated at the beginning of the program, “Working with NCLR over the years, on cases including challenging the bans against LGBTQ people marrying, adopting and getting birth certificates issued fairly, has been the great privilege of my career. But it’s the less celebrated cases, the critical help under the radar their stellar legal team has provided to many for decades, that has made the biggest impact. To see such a strong turnout to celebrate NCLR’s work, especially in the wake of Irma, is truly gratifying. NCLR has always had Florida’s back and it’s great to know Florida has NCLR’s back.” 

Ruth McFarlane’s Director of Development & Community Engagement, addressed the crowd by stating, “I love coming to Miami. This is where I came out and Miami is where I got engaged.” McFarlane then introduced special guest, tennis star, activist and author, Martina Navratilova to the stage.  Navratilova delivered an inspiring address, stating that the first call she made after the devastating 2016 presidential election was to Executive Director of NCLR, Kate Kendell asking, “What do we do now?” Navratilova reminded the lively crowd: “It is so great that we are here supporting.  We have to work for change daily for 2018 and 2020 and make sure everyone is registered to vote and that they vote.”  Navratilova also reminded the audience that “patriotism can include critique.” 

When Kendell, took the mic, her energy was contagious.  “Fighting for justice is day-in and day-out work,” stated Kendell.  According to Kendell, Miami is an important city for the work being done by NCLR as they have been involved with working in Florida, and specifically Miami for over 30 years. “We've worked with dozens of attorneys, partnered with a number of Florida organizations and advocated for thousands of LGBTQ Floridians. Miami is one of my favorite and one of our most important cities.” 

Kendell elaborated that NCLR has been involved with more litigated cases in Florida than any other state. 

“From the beginning of my 23-years with NCLR, first as Legal Director and then as Executive Director, we have been involved as direct counsel or co-counsel in dozens of cases in Florida. We have also worked behind the scenes with attorneys and advocates on a whole range of issues in Florida that have improved the lives of LGBTQ residents,” Kendell said. 

Three notable NCLR cases Kendell highlighted include that of Mary Ward: the 1995 case involving a lesbian mother who lost the custody of her child when a Florida judge granted custody to the child's father, who was convicted of murdering his first wife.  The case inspired the making of the 2012 documentary, Unfit; Ward v Ward, co-directed by Miami resident Edwin Scharlau III, Katie Carmichael and Penny Edmonston. 

NCLR was also lead counsel on Pareto v Ruvin, a successful challenge to Florida’s marriage ban leading to Pareto and her wife Karla Arguello becoming the first same sex couple to be married in Florida on January 5, 2015. Pareto and Arguello subsequently joined NCLR’s suit against the State of Florida challenging the State’s refusal to name them both as parents on their twins’ birth certificates where the children were born into their legal marriage.  As of May 2016, the Florida Department of Health instructed all hospitals and birthing centers in Florida to begin issuing birth certificates to married same-sex couples. 

On NCLR’s role in Pareto and Arguello’s cases, Arguello stated, “Without NCLR our ability to get married in the State of Florida would not have been possible at the rate that it occurred.”  Pareto added, “The strong leadership and legal prowess of NCLR helped us get right back in the ring.  NCLR has so much impact on communities and is like a 900-pound gorilla!”  On the cases of Ward, and Pareto, Kendell added, “These cases not only made gains for LGBTQ folks in Florida, but the impact of these wins rippled and impacted our work across the nation. In many ways Florida has been at the vanguard of much of our work.” 

When asked how the mission and the goals of NCLR have changed since 1977, Kendell answered, “The issues have evolved as we have gained both rights and visibility, but our central ethos remains that we will not leave anyone behind and will always be there to defend those who do not have resources to defend themselves.” 

According to Kendell, the pressing goals that the LGBTQ community is faced with today are transgender advocacy, protecting immigrants and assuring that the gains that the LGBTQ community has made is not eroded.

The Miami NCLR Taste of Justice event had a goal of raising $40,000 to mark 40 years of NCLR’s groundbreaking advocacy.  By the end of the evening they had raised $54,000 that NCLR says will help continue the organization’s fight for equality, both here in Florida and around the country. To join the Florida effort to support NCLR,  please click here.