National Gay and Lesbian Task Force mourns the passing of LGBT rights leader Paula L. Ettelbrick

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force mourns the passing of Paula L. Ettelbrick, a lifelong activist for LGBT rights and former Task Force family policy director, who died today of cancer. The Task Force honors and remembers Paula’s significant contributions to our movement.

Statement by Rea Carey, executive director, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force:

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.

Statement by Sue Hyde, director, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change:

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.

More about Paula Ettelbrick and the Task Force:

Paula punctuated her life with groundbreaking organizing that paved the way for the forceful advocacy projects that followed. Paula served as the Task Force’s director of family policy from 1999-2001. While in this post, she launched the first-ever public education campaign to encourage same-sex couples to self-report on the 2000 U.S. census. Working with the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies, she delivered a simple message, “Our families exist and must be counted.”

During spring 2000, Paula launched a nationwide advertising and education campaign that reached 18 million newspaper readers and resulted in a 314 percent increase in the “unmarried partner” household tally from 1990, the first year that same-sex partner households could report. The 2000 census showed that same-sex couples lived in 99.3 percent of all counties in the United States; with a total of 601,209 households reporting.

As Paula noted at the time, “These statistics document better than ever before the existence of same-sex families. However they only tell part of the story. Imagine how high the numbers would be if single gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were counted.”

Paula was a co-founder and the first co-chair of the Federation of Statewide Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Political Organizations, the forerunner to the Equality Federation.

At a founding meeting in summer 1997, Paula said, “We have known for many years that the real battles facing our communities would be fought in state houses across the country. It is essential that we create an organizing structure that helps us to strategize as a national network of lesbians and gay men in order to support each other, share resources, and fight our common enemy of homophobia.”

In March 1999, she took the fight against homophobia to state capitols during Equality Begins at Home, a grassroots mobilization that organized more than 350 events in one week’s time.

Equality Begins at Home was a project of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force that Paula coordinated and oversaw. Equality Begins at Home granted $5000 to each statewide LGBT political organization to support activities in each of the 50 states during an unprecedented wave of anti-LGBT legislative, media and ballot initiative attacks. Said Paula: “We are throwing down the gauntlet and demanding that state officials resist the right wing’s efforts to deny us our basic rights as citizens.”

As a litigator and an organizer, she recognized immediately that the historic 1999 decision by the Vermont Supreme Court outlawing fundamental discrimination against same-sex couples who sought to marry was both unique and flawed. “By stopping short of fully recognizing the freedom to marry, the court has opened the door to complete equality, but has not constitutionally guaranteed it.” She astutely predicted that the Vermont decision would provoke a backlash by extremists in states across the country.

Paula blessed and bestowed many LGBT organizations with her dazzling vision of freedom and equality, including Lambda Legal, Empire State Pride Agenda, National Center for Lesbian Rights, International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and most recently, the Stonewall Community Foundation in New York City. At the Task Force, we will always honor and remember her as a wise and caring colleague and friend.