Paula Ettelbrick, Lesbian Feminist and LGBT Activist, Dies at 56

Posted on October 10th, 2011 by Vina Tran

Tanya L. Domi is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University who teaches about human rights in Eurasia and is a Harriman Institute affiliated faculty member. Prior to teaching at Columbia, Domi worked internationally for more than a decade on issues related to democratic transitional development, including political and media development, human rights, gender issues, sex trafficking, and media freedom. Originally posted on The New Civil Rights Movement:

Paula Ettelbrick, the former legal director of Lambda Legal, the former executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and a heralded LGBT activist of more than 25 years, passed away Friday at the age of 56, after a battle with aggressive ovarian cancer.

Ettlebrick was a fiery activist who took many fights to the court room and won. She pushed and prodded government officials for every inch of equality she could extract, and often gave much better than she received. Paula Ettelbrick was always tilting at windmills and meeting new horizons, as recently as 2003 when she moved into international gay human rights, having spent the majority of her career in domestic gay politics. She was as comfortable in the classroom teaching students as she was taking on homophobes at the barricades; she worked as an executive in the board room and battled federal and state representatives. Sadly, Ettelbrick has lost a life-​ending battle and the LGBT community will be much poorer for her absence.

During her career, Ettlebrick served as the first lawyer at Lambda Legal Defense, she was policy director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, director of family policy at National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, as well as legislative counsel at Empire State Pride Agenda in 1997, when she negotiated a domestic partnership law with then-​New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. At the time of its adoption, it was considered the top model law in the United States.

Paula assumed her last effort in September 2010 when she became the executive director of the Stonewall Community Foundation, based in New York City. Shortly after she began her duties at Stonewall, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which led to her resignation on July 28, 2011, when she announced she was stepping down to address her health issues and planned to begin work as a senior fellow to expand the programmatic work of the Stonewall Foundation Institute.

During Yom Kippur services at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the LGBT synagogue in New York City last night, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum remembered Paula Ettelbrick for her groundbreaking career as a LGBT activist who she said “fought with every fiber of her being.”

Urvashi Vaid, former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, published an eloquent tribute to Paula’s leadership, accompanied with a call to action “to make a commitment to raise the broad progressive agenda, to make the difficult critique, to pose and champion the inclusive and often unpopular question; in short, to be feminists, as men, women, and gender nonconforming people, and through that to make a commitment to increase the leadership voice and power of lesbians everywhere.”

Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal Defense, issued the following statement:

“We mourn the loss of one of the pioneers of our movement for equality under the law and a woman who never stopped fighting for social justice. When Paula Ettelbrick came to Lambda Legal 25 years ago to fight for the rights of gay men and lesbians, it took not only vision and a passion for justice — it also took courage to stand up in court and in the public eye during that earlier time in our history. Paula was fearless.”

Kate Kendall, the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights said:

“Paula was possessed of singular intelligence, integrity, ferocity and wit. She was also unfailingly generous and open-​hearted. She will be missed as a tireless advocate of the most disenfranchised. But at this moment what I miss most is her passionate and inspiring friendship. We wish her family, especially Marianne, Suzanne, Adam, and Julia, much love and comfort at this very difficult time.”

Peri Jude Radecic, former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, provided the following statement to the New Civil Rights Movement:

“Paula is a legendary figure. She was an passionate organizer, a smart lawyer, an incredibly astute lobbyist and a fighter to the end. Paula was one of the leading legal minds in our community that inspired many of us, including myself, to attend law school.”

This author had the pleasure of hosting Paula as a guest lecturer at Columbia University two years ago, when she addressed international LGBT human rights with a graduate student audience. It was the first time LGBT rights had been included in the syllabus for graduate level course on human rights in post-​Communist Eurasia space. Paula’s articulation of international human rights principles and their application to gay human rights was more than evident during her lecture.

Ettelbrick also lectured at Barnard College in women’s rights, and at New York University Law School as an adjunct professor of law.

Paula is survived by her partner Marianne Haggerty of San Francisco, her former partner Suzanne Goldberg and their children Adam and Julia, of New York City. Details on a memorial service are forthcoming from the Stonewall Community Foundation.

(Image: Paula Ettlebrick with Joe Steffan, 1988, courtesy of Michael Bedwell.)


  1. Tanya L. Domi's touching obit on the life and work of Lesbian Feminist and LGBT Activist Paula Ettelbrick

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