Just a year after the Supreme Court decided in favor of gay marriage, its justices decided in favor of gay families. In the latter case—decided in summary disposition—the Supreme Court overturned an Alabama decision to affirm the rights of nonbiological parents.
Cathy Sakimura (’06), who represented the nonbiological parent in the appeal before the Alabama courts (admitted pro hac vice) and before SCOTUS, has long devoted herself to making the law fairer and more accessible for LGBTQ+ parents and their children. In recognition of her contributions to the field, the National LGBTQ+ Bar Association has awarded Sakimura with its highest honor, the Dan Bradley Award. “Cathy has worked tirelessly her entire career for equality for LGBTQ+ people, especially for LGBTQ+ families and communities of color,” says Judi O’Kelley, the organization’s chief program officer. “She is the very essence of what it means to be the best in our profession and to carve a path so that others may follow.”
Navigating the labyrinthine laws that govern the processes for adoption, assisted reproduction, custody, parentage, public benefits, and relationship recognition can be extraordinarily complex, confusing, and costly. For instance, “people are often surprised to learn that, even if your name is on your child’s birth certificate, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a parent legally,” Sakimura says. As such, she often advises LGBTQ+ parents pursue an adoption or obtain a court judgment as a protection, so their parental rights will be secure in the event they separate or divorce.
Sakimura, who currently serves as the deputy director and family law director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), has brought numerous impact cases to advance the rights of LGBTQ+ parents and their children. “The couples and people who have shared their stories through us are just incredible,” Sakimura says. “Without their openness and vulnerability, without everyone who has taken that risk, we never would have come as far as we have.”
She has also worked to develop policy that would increase conformity among the states. Sakimura helped draft the Uniform Parentage Act (UPA) of 2017, a uniform legal framework for establishing parent-child relationships. That act, which includes crucial provisions to protect LGBTQ+ parents and their children, has been enacted in six states, including California, and is pending in three others. She coauthored Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Family Law, published by Thomson Reuters.
Sakimura is passionate about helping low-income LGBTQ+ families understand the law, as even general guidance can be prohibitively expensive. She founded NCLR’s Family Protection Project, which provides free legal information to low-income LGBTQ+ parents and their children; trains and supports 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.
Sakimura’s advocacy predates her legal training. Youth and family issues were dinner-table conversation in her home, as her mother is a special education teacher and her older sister is a pediatrician. After earning her undergraduate degree from Stanford, Sakimura worked in programmatic roles at Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere (COLAGE) and the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Network. At GSA Network, she worked to implement the California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000, which prohibited discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in California public schools. The lawyers she worked alongside inspired her to pursue social justice as an attorney rather than an organizer.
While at UC Hastings, she served in the school’s storied Individual Representation Clinic, in which students litigate cases on behalf of low- and moderate-income clients. Sakimura says the clinic’s professional responsibility course, Professor H.G. Prince’s critical race theory course, and the school’s Moot Court program were critical in readying her for a career as a public interest attorney.
“What jumps out at everyone about Cathy is her kindness, her big-heartedness, her brilliance, and the super-strong relationships she built with her clients,” UC Hastings Professor Ascanio Piomelli says. “Right out of law school, she applied for and received an Equal Justice Works fellowship, basically starting the family fairness work that she continues today at NCLR.” Sakimura stays connected to Hastings by mentoring students who clerk at the center, helping to cultivate the next generation of social justice lawyers.
“There is still so, so much left to do, but the LGBTQ+ legal movement has come such a long way,” she says. “Doing this work has been the honor and privilege of my life.”