Ettelbrick, Paula Louise

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Ettelbrick, Paula Louise

Paula Louise Ettelbrick is a lawyer and activist for lesbian and gay rights, and a lifelong advocate of public service. She was the first staff attorney for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, and served as its legal director from 1988 to 1993.

Ettelbrick was born October 2, 1955, on a U.S. Army base in Stuttgart, Germany. Growing up in a devout Catholic family, she was taught by her parents that each person has an obligation to society and to the greater world, and that all people should be treated equally. Ettelbrick's convictions initially led her to social work after she had graduated from Northern Illinois University in 1978 with a bachelor of arts degree in history. She held several social services positions, working primarily for the women's shelter at the Harbor Light Center, in Boston, which assists alcoholic and homeless adults. Through her work, in which she sought public benefits, housing, and employment for low- and no-income women, Ettelbrick came to believe that the system doesn't work for the underrepresented—namely, the poor.

With an interest in labor and Employment Law, Ettelbrick enrolled in law school at Wayne State University, in Detroit, Michigan, where she wrote for the Wayne Law Review and clerked for several legal employers, including the United Auto Workers (UAW) Union. Working for the UAW, Ettelbrick was exposed to a variety of Labor Law and public policy issues, and helped draft a statement from the union's vice president to the U.S. Congress on why the Equal Rights Amendment should be reintroduced to Congress—a meaningful assignment in light of her growing interest in feminist and lesbian issues. In 1984, she graduated cum laude and took an associate position doing commercial litigation at Miller, Canfield, Paddock, and Stone, a large law firm in Detroit.

Two years later, in keeping with her original desire to do public interest work, she left the law firm and joined the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, an organization founded in New York City, in 1973, that advocates gay and lesbian Civil Rights.

Hoping to challenge legal assumptions about gay and lesbian people, Ettelbrick litigated a variety of cases, many related to the heightening legal crisis accompanying AIDS. Within a year, Lambda hired a second staff attorney to do AIDS work, and Ettelbrick was freed up to develop what Lambda called its Sexual Orientation Docket, working with cases involving families, employment, and the military. In 1988, with a staff of seven, she was appointed Lambda's legal director. Soon after, under Ettelbrick's guidance and vision, Lambda opened an office in Los Angeles and created a network of four hundred cooperating attorneys around the United States.

After seven years of high-intensity work at Lambda, Ettelbrick was ready for a change, and in March 1993, she left the organization. Shortly thereafter, the National Center for Lesbian Rights hired her as its director of public policy, where she continued her work on family issues. One of her many accomplishments in this position was helping to draft a new employment discrimination bill introduced in Congress to add sexual orientation to the list of prohibited categories under employment and housing laws. She also worked to develop policies for lesbian health care.

Ettelbrick continued to litigate on behalf of lesbians, and in 1993 and 1994 was involved in the high-profile custody case Bottoms v. Bottoms, 18 Va. App. 481, 444 S.E. 2d 276 (Va. App. Jun 21, 1994). The case involved a lesbian, Sharon Lynne Bottoms, whose mother, Pamela Kay Bottoms, had petitioned for custody of Sharon's child owing to Sharon's admitted homosexuality. After Sharon lost custody of the child at the trial court level, she and Ettelbrick appealed and won custody in the Court of Appeals of Virginia. The appeals court held that the mere fact that Sharon was a lesbian and had a live-in female companion did not render her an unfit parent. In a Split Decision, the Supreme Court of Virginia reversed the court of appeals, reinstating custody in the child's grandmother (457 S.E.2d 102 [1995]).

Beginning in 1990, Ettelbrick taught a course at New York University Law School on sexuality and the law, in addition to continuing her other work. In 1994, she left the National Center for Lesbian Rights to teach at the University of Michigan Law School. There she offered Sexuality and the Law, a survey course that asks questions such as "What are the commonalities between the way the law treats prostitution, rape, and gay and lesbian issues?" and "How far is the government entitled to go to reach into these areas?" The course is designed to bridge the gap between the way Feminist Jurisprudence or women-in-the-law courses are taught and the way sexual orientation in the law is taught. Ettelbrick has also taught at Barnard College, Wayne State University Law School, and Columbia Law School. She commutes from her base in Manhattan.

From 1999 to 2001, Ettelbrick was the family policy director of the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. In March 2003, she became the executive director of the nonprofit International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). The organization was founded in 1990 to address, on an international basis, issues involving discrimination and persecution of gays, lesbians, and persons living with HIV and AIDS.

"We're talking about overhauling a whole system that was based on the 1930s family consisting of a male wage-earner, a nonworking wife, and some kids."
—Paula Ettelbrick

Ettelbrick's professional successes are many, as a teacher, a litigator, and an advocate for a segment of the population that has been historically marginalized and denied rights taken for granted by the rest of society.

Further readings

Berry, Dawn Bradley. 1996. The 50 Most Influential Women in American Law. Los Angeles: Contemporary Books.

Coles, Matt (panelist), et al. 1999. "Roundtable Discussion: Where Do We Go from Here? Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Civil Rights into the Next Millennium." Fordham Urban Law Journal (December)."Domestic Relations Law: Visitation Rights of Lesbian Companion." 1991. New York Law Journal (May 7).

Eskridge, William N. 2001. Equality Practice: Civil Unions and the Future of Gay Rights. New York: Routledge.

Ettelbrick, Paula. 1994. Custody/Visitation Issues (Legal Issues Facing the Non-Traditional Family). Practising Law Institute Tax Law and Estate Planning Course Handbook Series (April–May).

——. 1993. "Who Is a Parent?: The Need to Develop a Lesbian Conscious Family Law." New York Law School Journal of Human Rights 10 (spring).

"Litigating for Lesbian and Gay Rights: A Legal History." 1993. Virginia Law Review 79 (October).

"On the Prudence of Discussing Affirmative Action for Lesbians and Gay Men." 1993. Stanford Law & Policy Review 5 (fall).

"Same-Sex Marriage and the Right of Privacy." 1994. Yale Law Journal 103 (April).

Cross-references

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome; Gay and Lesbian Rights.