October 7, 2011 at 2:38 pm EDT | by Phil Reese
Longtime LGBT activist Paula Ettelbrick passes away
Paula Ettelbrick

Paula Ettelbrick. (Photo by Rex Wockner)

Paula Ettlebrick, former Lambda Legal legal director and International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission executive director passed away at the age of 56 today. Ettelbrick held the top spot at IGLHRC from 2003-2009 and helped build the organization into a visible force around the world.

In July Ettlebrick had been named Executive Director of the New York based Stonewall Community Foundation, which funds grants to LGBT community organizations. She stepped down a month later due to an ongoing battle with cancer.

In addition to her work at Lambda Legal, IGLHRC and Stonewall Community Foundation, Ettelbrick had also served as policy director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Legislative Counsel at Empire State Pride Agenda.

“While Legislative Counsel for the Empire State Pride Agenda she negotiated New York City’s landmark 1997 domestic partnership law with then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani,” said former Empire State Pride Agenda executive director, Matt Foreman. “At the time, it was the nation’s most comprehensive measure in this area, extending to domestic partners all the same rights and benefits offered to spouses under City law.”

Ettlebrick is remembered by many as an important force behind the scenes in many of the LGBT rights movement’s most visible institutions.

“Paula’s extraordinary service to the movement included senior-level posts at Lambda Legal, NCLR, the Task Force Policy Institute, the Empire State Pride Agenda, IGLHRC and Stonewall Community Foundation,” said Andrew Lane, Executive Director of the Johnson Family Foundation. “She also taught on sexuality and gender at the undergraduate, graduate and law school levels. Her contributions to law and policy affecting LGBT lives across the past three decades are simply immeasurable.”

Aside from her advocacy work, Ettelbrick lectured on Sexuality and the Law at New York University Law School as an adjunct professor, and served as lecturer in the Women’s Studies Department of Barnard College, according to the Stonewall Community Foundation.

Ettelbrick was also the mother of three, and served as Family Policy Director at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Policy Institute.

“Paula was possessed of singular intelligence, integrity, ferocity and wit,” said Kate Kendall, Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “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.”

Lambda Legal released the following about their former legal director:

Lambda Legal Mourns the Passing of Former Legal Director, Paula Ettelbrick

Paula Ettelbrick

Paula Ettelbrick in an undated photo. (Photo by Rex Wockner)

(New York, October 7, 2011) – Paula Ettelbrick, former Legal Director at Lambda Legal and lifelong activist for LGBT equality and social justice, died today, after a long battle with cancer. Ettelbrick was the first staff attorney at Lambda Legal in 1986 and served as its Legal Director from 1988 to 1993.

Kevin Cathcart, Lambda Legal’s Executive Director, 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 twenty-five 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.

“She was among a generation of lawyers, feminists and activists that helped to shape our movement. At Lambda Legal, she fought for the rights of lesbian and gay parents and lesbian and gay students, and helped to shape the strategy that eventually overturned sodomy laws. She continued working for LGBT equality and social justice, serving in many leadership positions after she left Lambda Legal.

“Our thoughts and condolences are with her family and loved ones. We have lost a leader, colleague and friend. We will honor her memory by continuing to work for equality.”

Stonewall Community Foundation released the following statement:

Stonewall Community Foundation Remembers
Paula Louise Ettelbrick

Paula Ettelbrick, a pioneering LGBTQ rights crusader and immediate past Executive Director of the Stonewall Community Foundation, died this morning, Friday, October 7, 2011 surrounded by friends and family after a heroic battle with ovarian cancer.

As a lifelong advocate for LGBTQ people across the globe, Paula will always be remembered for her leadership roles at Lambda Legal, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the Stonewall Community Foundation.

Paula, Stonewall’s first female Executive Director, launched Out In Front New York, a comprehensive training initiative for LGBTQ non-profit leaders and board members, and laid the groundwork for the Foundation’s newest giving circle, Stonewall Professional Alliance, a program which combines monthly giving with community service. Paula championed expanding programming and reaffirming the role of the Stonewall Community Foundation as a thought leader for New York City’s LGBTQ community. In the words of Matthew Ryan, Stonewall Community Foundation President of the Board of Directors, “Paula Ettlebrick has been a champion for our community for decades. Stonewall benefitted tremendously over the past year from her historic perspective and her unique talent in bringing people together. Both the Stonewall membership and the New York City LGBTQ organizations that Stonewall supports offer our deepest condolences to her family and friends.”

Paula spent her life working to address the critical issues facing the LGBTQ community. From 1986 through 1993, Paula was an early staff attorney and Legal Director at Lambda Legal. Paula’s leadership in working to reform family policy law led to significant strides for LGBTQ families across the country and helped make Lambda Legal the nation’s leading LGBTQ legal advocacy group. After Lambda Legal, Paula held positions at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Empire State Pride Agenda and the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force. At the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Paula served as Executive Director from 2003 to 2009 and challenged human rights abuses and discrimination worldwide. Paula taught courses on the law and sexuality at Barnard, Columbia Law School, the University of Michigan Law School, New York University School of Law and Wayne State University. As a professor and widely cited author, Paula’s significant contribution to feminist and queer academia promises to continue inspiring students for generations to come.

In late August, Paula announced she’d be stepping down from her post as Executive Director at Stonewall due to her ongoing battle with cancer. In the words of Interim Executive Director, Richard Burns, “There are countless LGBTQ citizens around the world whose lives are better today because of Paula. Paula was a passionate and powerful advocate for all LGBTQ New Yorkers and a true friend. At Stonewall, we’re grateful for all she did for the foundation and we’ll miss her greatly.”

A memorial service will be announced at a later date.


  • Paula was a visionary in our movement. We met her 25 years ago while the marriage movement was in its most nascent form: a dream. While we all went to work at our day jobs, Paula found a way to make our civil rights her life passion. I have always had a deep respect for her commitment, and to her sweet and inspiring personality.

  • This is a harsch loss for all of us, LGBTIQ Activists around the world. I had not the luck of meet her, but her work is a brilliant example of what we can reach with enthousiasm, energy and compromise.

© Copyright Brown, Naff, Pitts Omnimedia, Inc. 2020. All rights reserved.