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National Center for Lesbian Rights

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[Re-published with permission from Gay Parent Magazine | July-August 2021 | Issue #137]

Catherine “Cathy” Sakimura, Esq. is the Deputy Director & Family Law Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). Cathy identifies as queer, using she/her pronouns, while her spouse, Melia, identifies as non-binary, using they/them pronouns. Cathy and Melia live just outside of San Francisco, California with their two children, ages 2 and 4. Cathy asked that her children’s names not be used to protect their privacy.

Cathy was born and raised in Hawaii then moved to California to attend Stanford University. From there, she attended law school at UC Hastings College and graduated in 2006. She met Melia through online dating and they have been married for six years. Cathy explained that her sister was already in medical school when she came to California for college and her mom moved there shortly after. She also has another sister in the area. Although Melia is from Oklahoma, their younger brother lives near them in California. So many of Cathy’s and Melia’s family members live nearby.

Both Cathy and Melia have been fortunate to be able to work from home during the pandemic. However, Cathy explained that in the beginning, it was quite stressful trying to both work from home while having two little children running around. Thankfully, Cathy’s mom moved in which she said has been great. Of course, things have been a little cramped since everyone is living in close quarters without anywhere to go, but they are working through it and doing well. Overall, Cathy said it’s been great having her mom living with them. They are hopeful that in the fall, their oldest child will be able to start Kindergarten and the youngest will go to preschool. They are grateful that all of the adults in the house have been able to get vaccinated.

After Cathy graduated college, she began to do work that supported the LGBTQ community. This led to her working with an attorney at NCLR which inspired her to go to law school. In addition, while attending law school, she did an internship with NCLR. Prior to graduating in 2006, she applied for and received a funded fellowship with NCLR to start a project focused on low-income families of color called, Family Protection Project, which was funded by Equal Justice Works. According to the NCLR website, the project improves access to family law services for low-income LGBTQ parents and their children with a focus on families of color. The project provides free legal information to low-income LGBTQ parents and their children. The program provides training and technical assistance to attorneys providing free and low-cost services to these families and works in coalition with organizations serving communities of color to provide culturally competent services to families of color. For more information about the Family Protection Project go to https://bit.ly/3xNcVdH.

It’s nearly fifteen years since Cathy started with NCLR, working her way through various roles. She remarked it has been an amazing journey and says she has gotten to work on wonderful projects. “In 2006 when I started,” says Cathy, “there was very little attention to poverty in the LGBTQ community and the legal advocacy world, so it was a great sort of beginning of a movement to have poverty services, and anti-poverty groups and LGBTQ groups work together more to address the effects of poverty among LGBTQ people and their families.” Currently, Cathy works on a mix of mainly appellate cases and a lot of policy and legislative work. She also works on publications, does public speaking engagements, and training for attorneys in family law. She explained that their family law work is pretty expansive and can include pretty much anything where a family relationship is a legal issue. For example, it can be anything from public benefits to wrongful death cases to child welfare cases. Prior to the pandemic, Cathy traveled quite a bit for cases and arguments, presenting at conferences and training and belonging to different coalitions. She says a lot of the focus of her work has been trying to bring movements together, looking at all the different kinds of oppression that people face, and try to be more coordinated about how we look at the experiences that people and families are having.

“In 2006 when I started, there was very little attention to poverty in the LGBTQ community and the legal advocacy world, so it was a great sort of beginning of a movement to have poverty services, and anti-poverty groups and LGBTQ groups work together more to address the effects of poverty among LGBTQ people and their families.”

Cathy Sakimura, NCLR Deputy Director and Family Law Director

According to NCLR’s website, they are the “first national LGBTQ legal organization founded by women.” The organization’s founder, the Honorable Donna Hitchens, “saw the courtroom as a way to change the world.” Their website reads, “Since 1977 NCLR has been at the forefront of advancing the civil and human rights of our full LGBTQ community and their families through impact litigation, public policy, and public education.” The website further explains that NCLR is a “non-profit public interest law firm that litigates precedent-setting cases at the trial and appellate court levels; advocates for equitable public policies affecting the LGBTQ community; provides free legal assistance to LGBTQ people and their legal advocates; and conducts community education on LGBTQ issues.” The NCLR website describes Cathy as “a national expert in LGBTQ family law, and in her role as Family Law Director, works on a range of issues including parentage, custody, adoption, assisted reproduction, relationship recognition, and public benefits. In 2012, she was named one of the Best LGBTQ Lawyers under 40 by the National LGBTQ Bar Association.”

Additionally, Cathy is one of the authors of the book, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Family Law, published by Thomson Reuters with original coauthors Courtney G. Joslin and Shannon Price Minter.  Cathy explained that she wasn’t one of the original authors on it but was asked in later years to participate and contribute as an author. This is a legal book updated annually that has chapters addressing different aspects of Family Law for LGBTQ people; as coauthors, they write different chapters based on what needs to be added. Every year they try to include new precedential cases or statutes that have changed or added something surrounding LGBTQ laws and add those into the book. This book offers an analysis of these issues and provides a table of LGBTQ cases for reference and discussion. This book is helpful not only to attorneys but those needing legal guidance.

NCLR is also involved with the Lavender Law Conference and Career Fair, a conference for LGBTQ attorneys. Cathy explained, “The Family Law Institute is connected to Lavender Law which is a joint venture with NCLR and the LGBT Bar Association which is a group of private practitioners who do LGBTQ-focused family Law across the country.” Every year at the Lavender Law Conference, attorneys gather to discuss new developments, strategies, and how to advance and continue this work. Cathy will be speaking in a few of the sessions of the conference, all held virtually both last year and this year. The conference is scheduled July 28 – 30, 2021, for more information visit, www.lgbtbar.org.

When asked about the current violence against Asians, Cathy said, “It’s not new to have race-based violence against Asian people and obviously many communities of color. These incidents have certainly opened people’s eyes to what people are facing. Throughout the pandemic, there have been so many stories especially with our Asian elders being attacked in race-based violence as a result of fear about the coronavirus. Seeing the culmination of all the race rhetoric at the beginning of the pandemic and throughout highlights how all people of color are targets for different kinds of racial violence and discrimination. It’s all sort of rooted in this need to perpetuate the white supremacist structure. Although different communities of color experience racism in different places and ways, it’s all rooted in kind of maintaining the structure that we have.”

Without a doubt, the work that Cathy and her team are doing at the National Center for Lesbian Rights is changing countless lives every day. There is no telling where LGBTQ rights would be without them, and thankfully we don’t have to find that out. Thank you NCLR for continuing to help make life even just a little bit easier for us all!

More information on the National Center for Lesbian Rights can be found at www.nclrights.org.

Deadra Albrecht-Frasch lives in the Chicagoland area with her wife Alice and twin daughters Shay and Devlin. Deadra has a degree in Psychology from UNC-Charlotte and works in the healthcare field. In her free time, she enjoys writing and playing the piano and trumpet.

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