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The Williams Project has already looked at what difference gay marriage would make in California, and found that there would be a net gain for the state budget, thanks to savings in means-tested public benefit programs. The think tank found that if even one-fourth of recipients of state aid who are currently living with same-sex partners got married, thereby making them ineligible for benefits, California could save more than $23 million a year.
The Williams Project is something of a thoughtful David among a world of reactionary Goliaths, considering the funding of groups as varied as the Heritage and Castle Rock foundations, which have helped drive politics to the right for decades. “The right caught onto that 30 years ago, and now it is spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year in terms of knowledge production,” Sears explained. “Funding professors in universities, fellowships, all of the think tanks that you see quoted in the paper, every time one of our issues comes up, we haven’t really had a response to that. Chuck’s great innovation was [understanding] we needed this think tank, and we needed it in an environment where there would be academic rigor and respect for the work that we would do.”
Sears himself has been playing David lately, when he and a colleague responded to right-wing charges that gays and lesbians didn’t need marriage equality, since they were all white, rich and childless. Sears’ comprehensive study of 2000 Census data showed that between 60,000 and 70,000 kids in California were being raised in households run by same-sex couples, and that households run by same-sex parents have median incomes $10,000 less than the median incomes of married couples. And while 15 percent of married couples are biracial, 24 percent of same-sex couples are made up of people of different races. “Not the popular images of gay and lesbian people,” Sears noted dryly.
Rubenstein, who spent years at the ACLU before becoming a law professor, sees the Williams Project’s separation from advocacy groups as a crucial step in providing quality research. “What we’ve done differently, which I think is critical, is isolate the intellectual endeavor from a political base, so you really have the freedom of thought, and it’s not tied to any political end,” he said. For Rubenstein, UCLA was an inherently good fit not just because Williams is an alumnus, but because of the school’s own history. In the 1950s, psychologist Evelyn Hooker did her then-controversial studies on the Westwood campus, showing that gay men weren’t abnormal and were no more likely to suffer from depression or mental illness than straight men. Her work was the beginning of the paradigm shift that removed homosexuality from the list of recognized mental disorders. UCLA was also the home of writer Christopher Isherwood, a close friend of Hooker’s and one of the 20th century’s more distinguished gay men of letters (his memoirs of life in Berlin inspired the musical Cabaret).
LGBT advocacy groups have welcomed the Williams Project’s research and support. “They are doing very rigorous analytical investigations of issues we need to have answered,” said Courtney Joslin, senior staff attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a San Francisco–based group that offers free legal advice and counseling to the LGBT community. “Whatever result they come to, they release. It’s so important that they are doing this work and producing very unbiased reports on these issues.”
In fact, the Williams Project may be more unbiased than some gay-rights advocates would like. Last year, during the legislative debate over AB 205, the sweeping extension of California’s domestic-partnership program, the Williams Project found that there was a higher negative tax consequence than anyone initially expected, including the California Franchise Tax Board, which had come up with more rosy figures. When AB 205 was finally signed by Governor Gray Davis, filing state taxes jointly was a benefit left off the table. “You can blame that on our study or on a governor who was a little uneasy,” Sears said, noting that Davis tinkered with the bill before signing it into law. “But we never altered our study or thought about changing our analysis based on what was politically expedient. The advocates were very unhappy about that, but we felt we had the right analysis and the best analysis.”
Williams, who plays an active role in his creation and is working to raise more money to expand the project’s faculty, scholarship and programming, doesn’t seem too concerned about ruffling gay political feathers or about the possibility that the institution might get caught up in the twists and turns of the daily debate. If anything, the Williams Project is focused on making the daily conversation less shrill and more informed. “The single most important reason is moving ahead to end discrimination,” he explained. “That is our goal, that is our strategy, that is our mission. And it’s important now because it’s happening.”