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A Think Tank for Gays 

The Williams Project is at the center of sexual-orientation law

Thursday, Jun 17 2004
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Chuck Williams is a man who is among the most successful of his generation. Smart and industrious, he made a name for himself in the world of business without his sexuality getting in the way. “I certainly got involved in all kinds of issues that relate to gay rights, but I would never call myself an advocate,” he said. “Basically, it all started after working on my will.”

What began with some estate planning turned into a $2.5 million pledge in 2001 to the UCLA School of Law to found the Williams Project, the only academic think tank dedicated to the field of sexual-orientation law and public policy. Williams, a vice president for the Sperry Corp. in the 1980s who is now president of his own consulting firm, has established an institution that may not be a household name to most wide-eyed gay-rights activists or newly married lesbian couples, but is playing a crucial role in pushing forward a better understanding of the law surrounding sexual-orientation discrimination.

“We looked around and said, ‘Where do we put it?’” he explained. “And originally we were talking about enhancing someone else’s existing think tank. Well, there weren’t any. On the general question of why a think tank, I said we need to bring together great minds, whether they are economists, or sociologists, or attorneys and judges. We need to bring them together and focus on issues and try to bring up a consensus on what to do and how to do it. If you’re going to win a court case, you don’t win it by walking in and saying, ‘It’s a nice day and we have rights.’ You have to have a lot of work to support that.”

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With a few offices in the UCLA School of Law building, the Williams Project is hardly top-heavy. Run by law professor R. Bradley Sears, the think tank has a faculty chair, William B. Rubenstein, a doctoral-research associate and a yearly visiting scholar. The project’s faculty advisory committee includes UCLA women’s-studies chairwoman Christine Littleton and constitutional and racial-discrimination law expert Devon Carbado.

Sears oversees the public symposiums, faculty fellowships, lawyer training sessions and student internships that make up the bulk of the Williams Project’s programming activities. The project has also established the Dukeminier Awards Journal, which has law students compiling the most notable legal articles written on the subject of sexual-orientation law. More than 4,000 copies a year are distributed to judges, clerks and lawyers. This past academic year, the Williams Project did everything from offering an analysis of hate-crime statistics in the U.S. to hosting a University of Vermont professor who studied the effect of legal recognition for gay and lesbian couples in her home state. Although some of the subject matter may seem a bit dry, Sears argues that the Williams Project fills an important role in terms of the larger fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality.

He notes that LGBT advocacy in the U.S. grew out of grassroots organizations that got their start in the late 1950s and 1960s. The ’70s and ’80s saw the movement go professional, as lawyers and social-service workers built organizations that did everything from fighting for more AIDS dollars to offering legal aid. But in the midst of organizing the troops and putting out all those anti-gay fires, a long-term approach that focused on pure study was always lacking. “What was missing is this third kind of arm, the brains of the movement, a place outside of the direct-advocacy movement where [people] come together and think about issues, and develop the ideas — the long-term ideas — that are going to create major change,” he explained.

One instance in which many credit the Williams Project with bringing about change is the 2003 Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down laws that prohibited private, consensual non-commercial sex acts between two adults. In an amicus brief Rubenstein co-authored on behalf of 18 constitutional-law professors, he argued that sodomy laws violate the Constitution’s equal-protection clause. The case went Rubenstein’s way on a 6-3 vote, with the majority ruling on a right-to-privacy argument. However, in a concurring opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor cited Rubenstein’s argument, even if she didn’t mention him by name. Although she denied it in her opinion, Rubenstein’s argument is considered by many legal scholars (including an angry Justice Antonin Scalia) as the first step toward building a legal case for same-sex marriage.

Invariably, the Williams Project has gotten sucked up into the growing marriage maelstrom. Sears and Rubenstein are working on launching studies that look at what the financial effect would be for states like Massachusetts, Ohio and New Jersey, as well as for the federal government. But considering the speed at which same-sex marriage is flying through the courts and state legislatures, organizations like the Williams Project that are charged with taking a long-term view of things face a challenge.

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