'Brookings' Of Gay Rights Movement Marks 10 Years As Brains Behind Marriage, DADT Policy Shifts

Williams Institute Told Us How Many Gay People There Are In As Data Backed Up Change

WASHINGTON -- The Census Bureau used its research and sought its help when the Obama administration decided to publicly report same-sex spouses for the first time in the 2010 population count.

The Congressional Budget Office cited its work when it gauged how recognizing gay marriages would impact federal benefits and taxes.

And when a federal judge struck down Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage in California, he based his ruling on expert demographic and economic testimony from its research director and cited its findings more than 30 times in the decision now on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If there has been a single intellectual engine driving the shift in attitudes and laws regarding sexual orientation, it is arguably the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. As it celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, the California think tank has grown into the 'Brookings Institution' of the gay rights movement.

“Objectivity is our modus operandi, the source of our credibility,” said Brad Sears, the institute’s executive director. “Being at an academic institution, connected to a law school and working with faculty from a wide range of disciplines, our research meets the standards of the academy. No matter how a piece of research comes out, that’s how it comes out.”

While it may be little-known outside the gay community, Williams policy studies and law review articles are ubiquitous in scholarly footnotes, friend of the court briefs and congressional testimony. Its influence has far outstripped its small staff, which includes respected demographer Gary Gates, co-author of The Gay and Lesbian Atlas.

Williams analysis was cited in the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell" policy. Advocates for federal hate crimes legislation and workplace anti-bias laws in 21 states and the District of Columbia used (.pdf) its data to bolster their case.

The ongoing efforts to pass the stalled Employment Non-Discrimination Act and repeal the Defense of Marriage Act are relying heavily on Williams research. Indeed, it would be difficult to find an Obama administration policy change affecting gays and lesbians that didn’t cite Williams research.

The institute has also trained more than 2,000 judges on LGBT issues, including domestic violence in same-sex relationships and the problems gay youth face in the juvenile justice system. It also runs a fellowship program that has produced six law professors who focus on gay and lesbian issues.

Williams research has determined that:

* One in five same-sex couples are raising children. Four percent of adopted children in the U.S. are being raised by gay parents and 6 percent in foster care live in homes headed by gay adults. * 71,000 members of the military are gay, lesbian or bisexual. So are more than 1 million veterans. * Poverty rates are higher among gays than the general population. Gay men earn earn 10 to 23 percent less, on average, than straight men. Children of same-sex couples are twice as likely to be poor than those of opposite-sex couples.

Conservative advocates routinely dismiss such findings. Yet, as the think tank marks the end of its first decade -- Census Director Robert Groves is scheduled to give the weekend’s closing keynote speech -- it isn’t universally applauded in the gay community either. Sometimes its findings don't follow the standard gay advocate talking points.

When it began a decade ago, activists routinely insisted that gay men and lesbians made up 10 percent of the population. Research by institute scholars later concluded that just 3.5 percent of Americans, or 9 million people, identify themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual. The percentage rises to 7 percent if those who don’t identify themselves as gay but practice same-sex behavior are included.

The institute’s first report in 2003 was similarly “politically incorrect.” It predicted a loss in state revenues if California passed a domestic partnership bill for same-sex couples, even as it showed that extending benefits would have a positive impact overall. Gov. Gray Davis took the finding into account when he signed a bill legalizing domestic partnership later that year that barred domestic partners from filing state income taxes jointly so as not to negatively impact the state budget.

More recently, Williams released an economic analysis of proposed civil unions in Delaware. It estimated the state would see increased business activity if they were legalized but also said Delaware would net nearly $400,000 less in annual tax revenues.

“You don’t get laws passed or court cases won by just saying it would be nice or it should be or its not right if you don’t change this. You don’t win that way,” said Chuck Williams, the businessman and academic who founded the namesake institute. “You win by presenting objective data.”

A wealthy Malibu philanthropist then teaching business at conservative Pepperdine University, Williams was writing his will when he decided he wanted to use his money to help end discrimination “embedded in our society” against gays and lesbians. Starting with an initial gift of $2.5 million, he approached 15 major research universities before settling on UCLA. Since then, he has given $13 million more to help bring the institute’s endowment to more than $20 million.

The think tank was founded three years before Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. Today, 80,000 gay couples have married and 90,000 more are in legally recognized civil unions or domestic partnerships. But the institute’s founder insists that when he thought up the project, “marriage was not on the radar screen.”

Equality was. “Is that an agenda? Yes,” he said. “But this thing called ‘a gay agenda’? No.”

Conservatives scoff at the notion the think tank is anything more than an arm of the gay rights movement.

“The Williams Institute, with its generic-sounding name and academic affiliation, seeks to give the impression that it is an unbiased source of information regarding issues of sexual orientation,” said Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the conservative Family Research Council. “In truth, it is nothing but an advocacy organization, using its resources to promote elements of the pro-homosexual political agenda.”

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay advocacy group, said it is “always tactical to impeach the messenger or impeach the research.” But he and other gay rights activists say the institute’s research has stood up where pure propaganda has not and has helped convince a growing number of legislators and judges that policies and laws need to change.

“It wouldn’t serve any purpose if their research weren’t objective,” Solmonese said. “From where I sit, it’s been incredibly helpful to have factually based, methodologically sound research to back up the cause.”

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