The LGBT Nerds Who Could & Can & Will
One part of bringing on change like the defeat of DOMA and Prop 8 is incessant activism and a constant barrage of journalist and politician, issues voter and party constituent. Another part is much less sexy: It involves sifting through reports, conducting research, answering hard questions, and reading - a lot.
But someone’s gotta do it.
Enter the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles. Its experts have written dozens of policy studies and law review articles, they’ve filed amicus briefs for cases like Prop 8, they’ve testified to political bodies like Congress, and they’ve gotten cited all over the board by newspapers and magazines (like this one).
The twelve-year-old group was founded in the 2001-2002 school year by its current executive director Brad Sears. The vastly accomplished UCLA professor -- along with the rest of the staff at the institute -- has dedicated a major part of himself to the dryer, nerdier, and penultimate role of figuring out the science and truth behind the LGBT topics that you read about almost every single day.
Sears is a Yale University alum and a Harvard Law School alum. He founded the HIV Legal Checkup Project, a legal services program dedicated to empowering people living with HIV, and served as the discrimination & confidentiality attorney for the HIV/AIDS Legal Services Alliance of Los Angeles (HALSA). In 2009, Advocate Magazine put him on its "40 under 40" list.
Williams launched in 2001-2002, and was "the creation of the philanthropy of Chuck Williams," as Sears puts it. With an accepted critical need for LGBT-focused research, it was clear that a think group was necessary to fill an important void. Williams gave the group $2.5 million to kick things off, and another $13 million since then.
And why invest so much in a research firm?
"The debate would turn to claims that could be proven or disproven with research," Sears told the Mirror about the more modern LGBT movement and its opponents. From cost to business to political capital, the discussion landed in a valley, which the institute felt it could flood with the legitimate research.
And the institute’s growth reflects its work. When it was born in 2001, Sears was the only staff member and the institute had a budget of $100,000, and an endowment of $2.5 million. Today, the institute employs 16 faculty and staff members, a budget of over $1.8 million, and an endowment of more than $17 million.
"In issue after issue, we’ve been able to input data and expertise in arenas that have been largely dominated by prejudice," Sears said.
That’s not to say prejudice doesn’t continue to play a stubborn and frustrating role in the national LGBT debate, even if hard research is put on the table and its truths can’t be argued. There’s that Kinsey Report, for example, claiming that one in ten people in the country are LGBT, which the Williams Institute has rebuked with its own research, showing that just under 4 percent of American adults identify themselves as LGBT - a far cry from the Kinsey claim.
"It’s not unique to public debate considerations of LGBT rights that research is just one piece. A lot of these beliefs are deeply held and held for a while. The information is relatively new. All we can do is keep improving the data we have," Sears said. "In the absence of information, myths about LGBT people developed on both sides. The LGBT community has free reign in making up mythologies."
But if you want to talk mythology, you have to talk to Lee Badgett, the institute’s Williams Distinguished Scholar. She is also the director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, as well as a professor of economics there. In 2008, Curve Magazine named Badgett one of the twenty most powerful lesbians in academia. The Advocate magazine named her one of "Our Best and Brightest Activists" in 1999 for founding the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies (it merged with the Williams Institute in 2006).
Badgett received a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California-Berkeley in 1990, and has a BA in economics from the University of Chicago. She studied race and sex discrimination as a grad student. A few years after her dissertation, she read an article about the LGBT "dream market" in the Wall Street Journal, which she felt wasn’t very true - discrimination, according to her past research, led more to poverty rather than affluence.
That got her interested in the topic. After all, it couldn’t be that the popular notion about gay people was true, the one that said they were mostly white, mostly old, mostly rich, mostly willing to spend lots of cash - could it?