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.”
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.
“What we’re doing is developing ideas that take a long time,” Rubenstein said. “At the same time, the world is changing all around you every minute. So it’s both difficult to know what seed to plant, because they are not going to come up into fruition for a year or two, and it’s difficult to not get dragged into every single thing that’s happening in the world while you’re doing it.”
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.”