Trans Advocate & Chief Policy Officer Denise Brogan-Kator Reflects on Her Tenure in the Movement

For nearly a decade, Denise Brogan-Kator has been central to the work of Family Equality, advocating for lived and legal equality for LGBTQ+ families from the steps of the Supreme Court to the halls of the Capitol Building. As she prepares for her well-earned retirement, she’s taking a moment to look back on the people she’s worked with and the progress this movement has made as a result of her efforts. Family Equality is endlessly grateful for her tireless work in this community.

Here’s my big news: After 20+ years in business, and nearly three decades of activism and advocacy for the LBGTQ/2S+ community, it is time for me to retire! I plan to enjoy more time with my grandchildren, play more tennis and take a lot of road trips with my long-suffering wife.  And, possibly, I’ll also help out more around the house (you should see that Honey-Do list!).  Of course, I also look forward to serving the community in new ways—just at a more leisurely pace!

Although I’ve been planning my retirement for several years, I’ve waited until now to announce it because I wanted to know that I was leaving Family Equality in good hands. I’m excited to say that with our recent announcement of a new CEO, the awesome Stacey Stevenson, I am very confident that this organization will continue to thrive, as it advocates for and supports our families.

My Early Days at Family Equality

I joined Family Equality as the first-ever full-time Senior Legislative Counsel, focused exclusively on state-based policy work.  Here, I express my gratitude and admiration for my friend and former boss, Emily Hecht-McGowan, who hired me and allowed me to combine my passion for LGBTQ+ rights with my abiding love of family. As Senior Legislative Counsel, I worked with state partners—my fellow “Fed-Heads”— on legislation and policies that deeply impacted our families. During that time, we:

  • Campaigned for marriage equality, even earning an historic first at the ballot box in Maine thanks, in part, to our phone-banking;
  • Fought state-based license to discriminate laws, turning back several with personal and written testimony and direct advocacy;
  • Trained dozens of attorneys on how to provide culturally-competent legal services to our families;
  • Started the Law Clinic program for underserved LGBTQ+ families in the Deep South;
  • Collected family stories for our extraordinarily successful friend-of-the-court briefs, one of which was mentioned by Justice Kennedy from the bench;
  • Developed our popular State Law Guides, which are now available for a dozen states;
  • Helped states update their laws, policies, and procedures after gaining marriage equality to ensure that the law in every state recognized our families;
  • Took to the courts and won when states were recalcitrant, finally overturning Mississippi’s law—the last state holdout—prohibiting same-sex couples from adopting

Leading Our Policy Efforts

For the past four years, I served as the Chief Policy Officer, overseeing the entire policy department at Family Equality. Together with my team, we:

  • Developed and launched the Every Child Deserves a Family Campaign;
  • Reimagined and rewrote the Every Child Deserves a Family Act so that it prohibits discrimination at all levels of engagement with the child welfare system— protecting youth in care, same-sex prospective parents, and, especially, same-sex parents of color who have their children removed by the system four times more often;
  • Defeated multiple license to discriminate laws in various states;
  • Conducted a Congressional briefing on the Every Child Deserves a Family Act with John Lewis and Danny Davis, two civil rights heroes. Representative Lewis (may he Rest In Peace) even thanked Family Equality and me, personally, in his impassioned plea to his colleagues to pass this vital legislation;
  • Lead efforts to draft and pass the Child-Parent Security Act in New York, overturning the state’s draconian ban on gestational surrogacy and making it cheaper and easier for same-sex headed families to secure legal ties to their children;
  • Filed amicus briefs with the US Supreme Court in key cases that have had —or will have—profound impacts on our families ability to form, including:
    • Masterpiece Cakeshop, where I also spoke on the steps of the Supreme Court,
    • Bostock, a personally gratifying win, as I spent the better part of my career advocating for workplace protections for LGBTQ/2S+ people,
    • And Fulton, which could determine whether taxpayer-funded adoption and foster-care agencies have a right to discriminate.
  • Working alongside dedicated colleagues in other state, regional, and national organizations whom I greatly admire and am honored to call friends

Of course, in my time at Family Equality, together with the amazing team of policy advocates—Shelbi, Julie, and Mary—, we’ve accomplished so much more than my brief highlights could convey. As I leave this organization, I am filled with memories of work well done.

Getting to know you

It’s not all work, either! As anyone will tell you, the first indication that I’ve entered a room is my loud, distinctive laugh—proof that I’m always having fun when I’m working with friends and colleagues in queer space. Whether with my amazing co-workers, Board members, generous donors, or fabulous celebrities like Marcia Gay Harden, Karamo Brown, Alec Mapa, Rosie O’Donnell, and so many other supportive media personalities, working at Family Equality has been a joy. I’ve most enjoyed getting to know the real, down-to-earth families that I’ve met over these years, particularly at Family Week, the largest annual gathering of LGBTQ+ families in the world. In journeying to Provincetown every year, I’ve watched so many families grow up over the years. The young people in our families fill me with hope for a better, more loving and accepting future.

I also want to acknowledge a group of people that I’ve had the opportunity and pleasure to work with: our Board members, past and present. Our Board consists of people who are so passionate about Family Equality’s work that they volunteer their valuable time to guide and fund this organization. They give of themselves in ways that too often go unnoticed: They give their time (without pay), their talent (working on board committees specific to their area of expertise), and their treasure (raising critical funds that allow us to execute on our mission). To every Board member, past and present, I am deeply grateful to you.

My Time as Interim CEO

I capped off my tenure at Family Equality by leading this amazing organization as Chief Executive Officer for the past eight months while we conducted a nationwide search for our new, permanent CEO. (Again, welcome to our new and wonderful CEO, Stacey Stevenson!).

The past year has been trying for everyone—Family Equality included. The COVID-19 pandemic eliminated our ability to do in-person fundraising and policy advocacy. The need for community and virtual connection grew. We responded to our families’ needs by developing amazing resources and virtual gatherings (including, of course, our first all-virtual Family Week). We also joined the country in committing to anti-racism by interrupting white supremacy both in our organization and in our work as a whole. If this past year has taught us anything, it’s that Family Equality will always continue to find new, creative ways to serve and advocate for our families.

Given the past year, I am leaving this organization in an exceptional position. We have developed greater financial stability, and we stand strong with a core group of extraordinary team members. We are where we are today, after such a trying time, because of the team of dedicated professionals and supporters I work alongside every day. I am honored beyond words to have had the privilege of leading them.

Saying Goodbye

With this, I announce my retirement effective May 31, 2021. We are immediately beginning the search process for my replacement as Chief Policy Officer, as I hope to spend time with that person before I leave.

Of course, it’s bittersweet to leave an organization that I love so much. There is so much more work we need to do as a movement, and I will miss being a direct part of it.  However, I will continue to cheer from the sidelines and will always be a supporter and a donor. 

Thank you.

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