Ettelbrick learned from her Catholic parents that each person has an obligation to society and to the greater world, and that all people should be treated equally… After she graduated from Northern Illinois University in 1978 with a bachelor of arts degree in history, She held several social services positions, working primarily for the women’s shelter at the Harbor Light Center, in Boston, which assists alcoholic and homeless adults. Through her work, in which she sought public benefits, housing, and employment for low- and no-income women, Ettelbrick came to believe that the system doesn’t work for the underrepresented—namely, the poor.
She enrolled in law school at Wayne State University and later did legal work in labor law with the United Auto Workers Union including drafting a statement from the union’s vice president to the U.S. Congress on why the Equal Rights Amendment for gender-equal pay should be reintroduced.
In 1986 she joined the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund where she litigated a variety of cases, many related to the heightening legal crisis accompanying AIDS… In 1988, with a staff of seven, she got appointed Lambda’s legal director. Soon after, under Ettelbrick’s guidance and vision, Lambda opened an office in Los Angeles and created a network of four hundred cooperating attorneys around the United States.
In 1993, she became director of public policy at the National Center for Lesbian Rights where she helped draft a new Congressional employment discrimination bill that added sexual orientation to the list of prohibited categories under employment and housing laws and helped develop policies for lesbian health care.
In 1994, she left the National Center for Lesbian Rights to teach at the University of Michigan Law School where she offered Sexuality and the Law, a survey course to bridge the gap between women-in-the-law courses and way sexual orientation law courses were taught.
From 1999 to 2001, Ettelbrick served as the family policy director of the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Then, in March 2003, she became the executive director of the nonprofit International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) to work on issues involving discrimination and persecution of gays, lesbians, and persons living with HIV and AIDS.
The Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City said of her passing, “Beautiful, articulate, smart and hard-hitting, Paula was a force to be reckoned with. We will miss her fierceness, eloquence and graciousness.”