Friday, October 7, 2011

Paula Ettelbrick dies after a life of service to LGBT rights; NY Times obit emphasizes her skepticism about marriage

After battling cancer for over a year, Paula Ettelbrick died this morning in New York. She was 56.

I met Paula when she joined Lambda Legal in the 1980's. In the group of gay rights lawyers from around the country that met regularly at the time, we both opposed prioritizing marriage. She and I shared an expansive definition of family and a broad vision of social justice. I remember when she called me to discuss an essay she was writing defending her (our) position on marriage. It was to appear in (the now defunct) Out/Look magazine in tandem with a piece by Tom Stoddard, Lambda's executive director, who held the opposing view. Little did we know that the Stoddard/Ettelbrick debate on marriage would become the iconic articulation of the different visions about the proper place of marriage within our movement.

Tom died of AIDS in 1997, also at far too young an age.

The Stoddard/Ettelbrick essays have been reprinted in many textbooks and essay collections.

While at Lambda, Paula also represented Alison D., a nonbiological mother who was denied access to the child she had raised with her partner. In spite of her superb advocacy, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that Alison D. was nothing more than a stranger to her child and could not obtain court-ordered visitation. The same court, two years earlier, had expansively defined family to allow the partner of a deceased New York City tenant to remain in the rent-controlled apartment the couple had lived in together, even though only the deceased partner's name was on the lease. Paula told me she thought the court wasn't willing to deliver a second gay rights win in such a short period of time. Unfortunately, and to Paula's deep dismay, the same court upheld Alison D. in a 2010 case.

Paula was a deeply engaged, optimistic, and loving person. After Lambda, she held other important positions in gay rights organizations. When she was executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, she told me how great it felt to work on sexual liberation in countries around the world.

After her diagnosis last year, Paula wrote many people, including me, described her status, and told us that what she wanted was to see us. Over brunch last November, she was as full of life and positive as ever. She will be honored later this month by SAGE. I'm sorry she did not live to receive the award in person.

May her memory be a blessing.

I'm amending this post to link to the New York Times obituary on October 8. The obituary highlights her family -- a partner, two children by a former partner (gay rights law professor Suzanne Goldberg), and a life that included Suzanne and her new partner. It also highlights her skepticism about marriage equality and quotes from the essay I referred to above.

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