On October 7, 2011, the progressive, feminist and queer movements lost a brilliant leader and tireless activist when Paula Ettelbrick succumbed to a year-long battle with cancer. Paula’s career, from her graduation from Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, to her tenure with numerous LGBT organizations and projects, was a testament to her dedication and her moral, feminist vision. Among other projects, Paula worked with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund (as staff attorney and legal director), the Empire State Pride Agenda, the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (as its Family Policy Project Director), the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (as its Executive Director), and the Stonewall Community Foundation (as Executive Director).
She was a close colleague for more than 25 years, a ferociously principled woman, a stubborn and determined campaigner for the perspectives she believed in, a beautiful and sexy dyke, and a loving, good natured woman who loved her kids, her partners (current and ex) and enjoyed good food, nature, love and pleasure.
Most of all, Paula was a strong, outspoken and brilliant feminist — something I respected deeply about her. She had an unapologetic faith in the inclusive vision of LGBT liberation; a commitment to economic and racial justice and an optimism about the ability of women and men to transform themselves and our worlds. At the most bleak moments in our lives, Paula was positive, practical, good-humored and unapologetically critical in her thinking.
Her passing makes me think more broadly of lesbian feminist leadership both within the LGBT movement and outside.
Despite the truth that many lesbians (bi, trans inclusive here) who are or have been leaders (grassroots, institutional or otherwise) in the LGBT movement hold feminist politics, it’s hard to characterize lesbian leadership inside and beyond the LGBT movement as feminist. A gender-based analysis and creative thinking about how to solve economic, social and political barriers to queer and female lives, has been replaced by the goal of fitting into the patriarchal institutions around us. Lesbians inside the LGBT movement are largely silent on gender-based economic and political disparities. Queer men and women rarely examine the forms of sexism we still encounter within our communities. And lesbian leaders who work outside the LGBT movement are, overwhelmingly, largely silent about being lesbians.
According to the November 2009 benchmarking report issued by The White House Project, women on average make about 78 cents to the dollar made by a man (a fact that I suspect is true within the LGBT movement institutions as well as beyond) and women of color make much less (64 cents for black women and 52 cents to the dollar for hispanic women). The White House Project’s indicators of women leaders progress reveals that across 10 leadership sectors (politics, business, entertainment, academia among others) women hold 18% of top leadership positions; although 48% of law school graduates are women, only 18% of partners in law firms are female and only about 25% of judges are women. The US ranked 71st out of 189 countries in the representation of women in state and national legislatures. (See White House Project Report: Benchmarking Women’s Leadership, November 2009, http://www.thewhitehouseproject.org/documents/Report.pdf).
Like our brothers, lesbians today do not seek to disturb the peace, we seek to keep it. Marriage is an obvious example, and Paula will be long-remembered (and in some corners derided) for her critical questioning of marriage (in her much-cited article, “Since When Is Marriage A Path To Liberation?”). But there are other examples– the LGBT movement’s political abstention from and abandonment of the ongoing fight for reproductive freedom (as if control of our sexual and reproductive lives was not a centrally queer concern); the absence of the needs of economically struggling queers from the mainstream movement agenda (why can’t HRC provide some leadership on behalf of poor and low income LGBT folks?); the dearth of queer voices condemning the racism of the so-called Tea Party and the Republican Party; our abandonment of sexual freedom and choice as non-negotiable aspirations of our movement, in favor of normalization.
I do want it all: to maximize freedom and self-determination for each queer person (and straight person); to achieve full human rights without qualification; to maximize opportunities to achieve and realize the good life for each of us. What I am struck by as I grapple with losing Paula’s ethical and staunchly feminist voice is how few of us, including me at times, push for that broad a goal.
Perhaps that is the tribute we could give to the more than 25 years Paula Ettelbrick put into the LGBT movement — 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.