By Dawn Wolfe
DETROIT – She has been the legal director at Lambda Legal, the policy director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the legislative counsel for the Empire State Pride Agenda, and the family policy director at the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Currently, as executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, she is an international force for recognition of the human rights of LGBTs.
On March 10, she spoke at the United Nations. And on March 24, Paula Ettelbrick will speak in Detroit.
Asked to explain the focus of her scheduled lecture, titled “More than a trial: Gay and Lesbian Legal Advocacy,” Ettelbrick said, “I have done what we call ‘impact litigation’ on lesbian and gay issues for twenty years. And one feature of my talk will be about how, when we represent our clients from a public interest standpoint, we are also representing – first of all, the interests of the entire community. And that we bear responsibility for providing the court with information and evidence that actually reflects who we are.”
Introducing the cultural and human impact of judges’ potential decisions to them is “an educational process. When I started doing this work in the mid-80s, most courts had never had a case involving a gay person,” Ettelbrick said. “We used to call the amicus briefs our ‘homo 101’ briefs.”
Ettelbrick emphasized the importance of strategizing the best approach to each individual case – not only for the case at hand, but for future cases.
“When we put together an argument or we’re putting together information to support our arguments, we’re looking down the road at the subsequent cases we want to bring as well,” she said. “So, for instance, in the famous case of Bowers v Hardwick, back in 1986, when the U.S. Supreme Court … upheld Georgia’s sodomy law, there was a unified decision to bring to the court only one legal theory – privacy – so if we lost, we didn’t lose [on] equality grounds.”
Though Ettelbrick believes that litigation is “a part of a public educational movement” for LGBT rights, she’d like to see it play a lesser role in the movement.
“I would rather have a more fully engaged political population. I think litigation often becomes our fallback when we are not organized – when we are not doing the public demonstrations, when we are complacent politically,” she said.
“I think that a very engaged populace could win the political battles that we want to win,” she added.
LGBT rights are human rights
Ettelbrick explained that, in some ways, the international community is “a step ahead” of the U.S. in recognizing the human rights of LGBTs.
The first difference is that, on the international scene, LGBT rights are not considered necessarily a matter of government largesse.
“We use the human rights perspective – which distinguishes us from the U.S., which uses the civil rights perspective,” Ettelbrick said. “‘Civil rights’ meaning what government gives us, ‘human rights’ meaning what we are inalienably entitled to.”
Though Ettelbrick admitted that “there are certainly parts of the world that are very difficult [for LGBTs] – Africa, the Middle East, Asia’s very mixed, depending on where you are,” she also said that, “the success [of the struggle for recognition of LGBT rights] has been really increasing.” Ettelbrick cited the widespread acceptance of gays and lesbians in western Europe,”For countries to get into the European Union, now, they have to repeal their sodomy laws and they need to promise not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.” She cited Mexico’s recently passed anti-discrimination law and South Africa’s constitution, which guarantees the rights of lesbians and gay men.
Asked to compare the progress in the U.S. with that of the rest of the world, Ettelbrick said, “We rank – as far as the western world, which is really the only genuine comparison I think that can be made – probably dead last.”