By Alex Vaughn
Photo: Paula Ettelbrick with Joe Steffan in 1988 : Photo courtesy, Michael Bedwell
Paula L. Ettelbrick, who was a leading legal figure in the lesbian and gay civil rights movement and who focused on defining “family” in the broadest possible way, passed away on Friday in New York. She was 56 and lived in Manhattan and Yonkers. The primary cause of her death was peritoneal cancer, said Suzanne B. Goldberg, her ex-partner, with whom she had been raising two children.
Ettelbrick’s career included leadership positions in some of the most influential LGBT rights groups of the past 25 years: the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Ettelbrick had a prominent voice in pushing the fact that there were many types of families created by homosexuals who all deserved acceptance and protection. However her views had put her at odds on more than one occasion with other lesbian and gay leaders over same-sex marriage and how much political capital should be spent in its pursuit.
“When analyzed from the standpoint of civil rights, certainly lesbians and gay men should have the right to marry,” she wrote in the fall 1989 issue of Out/Look Magazine as part of a debate with Thomas B. Stoddard, a colleague at Lambda who strongly favored same-sex marriage.
“But obtaining a right does not always result in justice.”
Ettelbrick continued, “Justice for gay men and lesbians will be achieved only when we are accepted and supported in this society despite our differences from the dominant culture and the choices we make regarding our relationships.”
“I do not want to be known as ‘Mrs. Attached-to-Somebody-Else,’” she wrote. “Nor do I want to give the state the power to regulate my primary relationship.”
Paula Louise Ettelbrick was born on Oct. 2, 1955, on an Army base in Stuttgart, Germany, to Robert and Judi Ettelbrick.
She graduated from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb in 1978 and received her law degree in 1984 from Wayne State University in Detroit, where she clerked in the law office of the United Auto Workers.
Ms. Ettelbrick spent two years at a large Detroit law firm, before she went to New York to join the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. She remained its legal director from 1988 to 1993.
During her time at Lambda in 1991, New York’s Court of Appeals decided 6 to 1 that a lesbian, known in the case as Alison D., had no legal right to visit the child she had been raising with her former partner, Virginia M., the biological parent. This was a massive loss for Ettlebrick. However, during her long and poignant career, she also experienced important victories. During her five years as legislative counsel to the Empire State Pride Agenda in New York, from 1994 to 1999, she was among those pushing Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to grant domestic partners rights and benefits equal to those of spouses.
The Domestic Partnership Bill was introduced in 1998, at the time she told The New York Times: “If you’re married, you can go to City Hall and file a tax appeal as a couple. Now, we can, too. It’s very meaningful for those of us who live in families not joined by marriage.”
Most recently, she was the executive director of the Stonewall Community Foundation in New York. She also taught law at New York University Law School and at Barnard College.
Her partner was Marianne Haggerty, of Manhattan and Yonkers. Her children – Adam Ettelbrick, 14, and Julia Ettelbrick, 12 – now live with Ms. Goldberg and her partner, Mary Lou Kelley. The four women, and the children, had spent time together in the New York and vacationed together in Provincetown, Mass.
She is survived by her children and her brother, Robert Ettelbrick Jr., of Morgan Hill, Calif., and her sister, Linda Anderes, of Tucson.
When New York State Legislature voted in June to legalize same-sex marriage, Ettelbrick was pleased, although Ms. Goldberg said Ms. Ettelbrick remained concerned that “those celebrations not preclude recognition of families that fall outside marriage’s scope.”
After her passing, The National Gay and Lesbian Task force said she was, “An organizer par excellence”
and that she had “brought many gifts and skills to our movement.” They also posted a tribute to the activist including statements from former co workers.
Rea Care, Executive Director, of the Task force said, “I will truly miss Paula – her sass, her smarts and her smile. She was supportive of me and of other women in leadership positions. In fact, upon becoming the executive director of the Task Force, I received a note card from her along with a contribution to the Task Force in honor of women’s leadership, telling me the story of how when she had become an executive director, another woman executive director had done the same for her. I have continued this tradition by sending a note to some new women executive directors, telling Paula’s story and writing a check to their organization. I know the tradition and her story will continue on.” Sue Hyde, the director of the Task Force’s National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change said, “Paula Ettelbrick brought many gifts and skills to our movement as a litigator and legal scholar, as an organizational leader, and as a U.S.-based activist with a deep grasp of conditions on the ground for LGBT people in countries outside our own. But Paula’s story is incomplete without calling forward her inspiring and visionary work as a community organizer par excellence. She led the first campaign to increase our visibility in the U.S. census, when to do so was regarded as quixotic. She was in the forefront of the movement to grow and strengthen state-level LGBT organizing when statewide organizations were embryonic. Paula brought to life more than 350 actions in states across the country, because she believed that our equality must be secured in our state capitols. With fierce determination, grace and bold curiosity, she allowed us to feel and flex our grassroots strength and power. She had faith in us and we in her.”