Working the System

Andrew Phillips June 5 2000

Working the System

Andrew Phillips June 5 2000

Working the System


A woman from small-town Canada is shaking up Washington as she advances the cause of gay rights

Andrew Phillips

Elizabeth Birch always knew she was different. To all appearances, growing up across Canada as the daughter of an air force officer, she was perfectly “normal.” A high-performing student and superkeen athlete. Elected head of her junior high school in Winnipeg, then student council president of her high school in Oshawa, Ont. But all along, she recalls now, “I hated it, just absolutely hated it. I felt like I was on a foreign planet.” By the time she was 12, shed figured out the reason: she was gay.

It was five more years before she fled—from her family, from Oshawa, from Canada. Up With People, the relentlessly upbeat international song-anddance troupe for young people, came to town. She signed on, and spent a year travelling through Europe, North Africa and the United States. “It was totally schmaltzy,” she says with an embarrassed laugh. Some other members of the group, it turned out, were also gay. For the first time, Birch connected with people like her. “It saved my life.”

A quarter-century later, Birch has done much more than save her own life. At 43, she runs the Human Rights Campaign, the biggest, most effective gay-rights organization in the United States. In five years, she has tripled its staff, its budget and its membership—bringing skills she learned as a Silicon Valley lawyer to a movement better known for social activism. In late April, she helped to stage the biggest-ever gay and lesbian show of strength in Washington: a demonstration, street festival and rock concert that drew hundreds of thousands to the capital. But she has become best known for working the system. She and her partner, 41-year-old Hilary Rosen, head of the Recording Industry Association of America, form one of Washington’s certified power couples, drawing politicians and other movers and shakers to their strikingly modern suburban home in Chevy Chase, Md. “Eve always had an activist spirit,” she says, “but a capitalist heart.”

It hasn’t all been easy. At home with Rosen after a

long day, Birch plays with Jacob and Anna, the twins they adopted at birth 17 months ago. The adoption became public, and Birch and Rosen were attacked by conservatives, including radio commentator Dr. Laura Schlessinger and a group called the Family Research Council. Even as both babies went through life-threatening medical crises, the council accused Birch and Rosen of putting “radical sexual activism” before the children’s happiness. And Schlessinger wrote in her syndicated column: “This has gone too far. We cannot continue to sacrifice our children on the altar of‘freedom’ and ‘diversity.’ ” Even now, Birch chokes up at the memory: “I can’t tell you. It was the worst experience of my life.”

For the most part, though, Birch’s odyssey from bluecollar Oshawa to the Human Rights Campaign’s tony offices just offK Street, home to Washington’s most powerful law firms and lobbyists, has been a story of self-discovery and remarkable achievement. Born on a military base in Dayton, Ohio, where her father, an aeronautical engineer with the Canadian air force, was sent to study in 1956, she was raised on bases across Canada: Camp Borden, Ont., Comox, B.C., and Cold Lake, Alta. Early on, it was clear that she wasn’t going to fit in. At age 13, she remembers running back to Winnipeg from Oshawa to see Anne Murray (an icon for lesbians) signing records there. As student council president

in Oshawa, she abolished the traditional Valentine’s Day dance and organized a rock concert instead.

Up With People came along just as she realized that “if I remained where I was, it would crush me.” When she returned from her year away, she had come out publicly as a lesbian. Her parents, Winston and Elizabeth, initially found that hard to accept. “My mother had pinned a lot of hopes on me,” Birch says. “I was very bright; I was her namesake. It was somewhat devastating. She cried a lot. She consulted a priest, a minister, a social worker, she called her friends across Canada.” Eventually, her mother accepted her as she is—even attending a Human

Rights Campaign gala dinner in Washington and meeting Vice-President AI Gore. Her tolerance was further tested when Birch’s younger sister Jo-Ann revealed that she, too, is gay. (The Birches also have another daughter and two sons.)

Birch moved with a girlfriend to Hawaii, then studied law at Santa Clara University in California. In 1985, she joined one of San Francisco’s top law firms, then became chief litigator for Apple Computer Inc. There she helped to persuade the company’s then-CEO John Sculley to extend benefits to domestic partners of homosexual couples. All along she had been involved with gay causes. When the Human Rights Campaign went looking for a new executive director in 1994, Birch was interested.

The Republicans under Newt Gingrich had just taken over Congress with a radical right agenda, and the Human Rights Campaign wanted a leader who could deal with the new powers in Washington. Birch, with her corporate background and dress-for-success style, fit the bill. She brought in up-to-the-minute communications and marketing techniques. She studied organizational methods pioneered by groups as disparate as the Christian Coalition and the American Association of Retired Persons, regarded as among the most effective Washington lobbies. “What we’re trying to build,” she says, “is a hip, gay AARP”—meaning an organization that knows how to work the levers of power while providing valuable services to its constituency.

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In sheer organizational terms, it has paid off. When Birch arrived in January, 1995, the organization had 28 staffers, a $7.5-million budget and 80,000 members. This year, it has 92 employees, $31.5 million and more than 350,000 paidup members. Much of the money goes towards lobbying Congress, which in recent years has often meant fighting measures proposed by Republicans that homosexuals see as hostile. The Human Rights Campaign has successfully fought off many proposals, but it suffered a major defeat in 1996 when Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman, thus denying gay couples federal benefits. The bill was designed largely to put Democrats on the spot just before that fall’s elections; President Bill Clinton signed it into law, thinking that would make his party less vulnerable with conservative voters. “It’ll be one of his most shameful moments,” Birch says. “They had him over a barrel, or so he thought.”

In fact, Birch has had many meetings with Clinton, who she says has “a fundamentally good heart on these issues.” She persuaded him to attend the campaign’s annual Washington fund-raising dinner in 1997, the first time a sitting president had addressed a gay-rights event. And in her office, along with a playpen for when the twins visit, are photos of Bill and Hillary Clinton with Birch and Hilary Rosen. Together they make a formidable couple: as head of the recording association, Rosen is one of Washington’s top lobbyists, with a salary that Washingtonian magazine recendy put at $900,000 (U.S.). Rosen is to the record industry, The Washington Post once wrote, “what Jack Valenti is to Hollywood —the water carrier, the spin doc, the super-schmoozer.”

Birch’s buttoned-down style isn’t universally popular. Some other homosexual-rights groups criticize the Human Rights Campaign as too staid, too dedicated to working the system rather than changing it. Birch counters that it reflects where most gay people are now—living mostly mainstream lives in mainstream communities. “You can say, ‘Isn’t it all mundane?’ But maybe that’s the point.”

One aspect of this new normality is what Birch calls the “gayby boom”— gay couples raising children through adoption, artificial insemination or from previous marriages. With Jacob and Anna now tearing around their stylish house (complete with indoor pool and a “meditation tower”), Birch and Rosen find themselves living that trend. Another is the drive for so-called gay marriage—or something close to it. In late April, Vermont became the first state to legalize “civil unions” for homosexual couples, giving them a range of benefits and legal rights. But Birch recognizes that going any further will be very difficult. “The whole notion of gay marriage instils everything from anger to mystery to rage,” she says. “It’s the toughest issue, and it will take the longest to resolve.”

For inspiration, Birch sometimes looks north to the country she left behind 26 years ago. As a teenager, she dreamed of becoming a member of Parliament, but thought that would be impossible once she realized she was gay. “Svend Robinson lived out my dream,” she says, referring to the openly gay British Columbia MP “Without a lot of fanfare and fuss, gay people have simply been elected to office in Canada.” In the United States, the presence of a powerful religious right makes the climate for gay rights more hostile. “You have this firebrand, obsessive type of politics that moves out of the realm of the rational into the realm of the hyper-religious,” Birch says. “In Canada, people live and breathe the separation of church and state.” And that, Birch knows now, makes her own story doubly ironic. “Everything I dream of for the United States already exists in Canada, I think, short of [gay] marriage,” she says. “That’s the big paradox of my life, my big journey out of Canada. But I needed to flee—to find myself.”