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Paula Ettelbrick: A Friend Remembers

by Guest Author on October 14, 2011

in News

Post image for Paula Ettelbrick: A Friend Remembers

By Cary Johnson, Executive Director, International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission


Paula and I were never 100% clear on where we had first met.  We only knew that we both had known of each other for years before we came to work together at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). While I had worked primarily in the Black gay community in New York City, and social and economic development issues in Africa, Paula had been a maverick lawyer, challenging LGBT oppression throughout the United States with her own fierce brand of politics, strategem, and chutzpah.

Paula was IGLHRC’s third Executive Director, and took our organization to new places in terms of capacity and depth. Under her leadership, our budget nearly doubled, our engagement with activists and movements in Africa and the Middle East increased tremendously. Thanks to her skills as a lawyer, we became more firmly grounded in international and domestic legal principles. She brought gravitas, humor and spunk to our organization.

Paula was so many things to so many people– the movement, the New York City and global queer communities. I was always the most impressed by her commitment to family. She had a big self-defined family, that included two wonderful kids whom she adored, a warm family of origin, and a beautiful collection of friends, former life partner, and girlfriend. Yes, as Urvashi Vaid said  in her blog—Paula was a hot, sexy woman, an inspiration to those of us entering and living in our fifties.

Paula was unfalteringly committed to our liberation as lesbian, gay ,bisexual and transgender people.  She also had a deep respect for all progressive movements and causes. She was one of the most sophisticated strategists I’ve ever met.  Yes, we sometimes disagreed, but I always took her advice around politics and practice very seriously. Paula was more about goals than she was about personalities–she forgave and forgot and got busy with the work at hand.

One of my fondest memories of Paula is the overnight we did at the Hobbit Guest House in Bloemfontein, the Free State, South Africa. We had driven all day from Johannesburg to have the most inspiring dinner with then Supreme Court Judge Edwin Cameroon (now Constitutional Court Judge).  Judge Cameroon, was as enthralled with Paula as she with him. And in our conversation we made real progress.  Paula and I returned to our lodgings high on the day, the surroundings, a few glasses of South African chardonnay and our extreme luck at being right here, right now.

Many in the coming weeks will say more about Paula, as we have lost a force, an icon of our movement. ….A luta continue, Paula. Rest in Peace.

Learn about the Paula Ettelbrick Internship Fund.

Paula Ettelbrick,  an attorney who brought an uncompromisingly feminist perspective to policy and social justice advocacy in leadership roles at half a dozen top LGBT advocacy organizations, died of cancer on the morning of October 7. She was 56 years old.

In a career spanning  a quarter of a century, Ettelbrick worked at Lambda Legal, as first staff attorney and later as legal director (1986 -1993); at the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), as policy director,  (1993 -1994); at the Empire State Pride Agenda, as legislative counsel, (1994-1999); at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, as director of family policy, (1999 -2001); as executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) (2003 – 2009); and  since then, as the first woman to lead the Stonewall Community Foundation.

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