A champion retires: after nearly nine years of putting a human face on gay rights, Elizabeth Birch leaves HRC.
It was Birch who spearheaded the effort to raise close to $25 million to renovate the dilapidated Washington, D.C., property and oversaw the building's completion in 2003. The now-ubiquitous blue-and-yellow equal-sign logo, which Birch, adopted as the group's trademark, burnishes the headquarters' sleek entrance.
"I don't really see the building as my accomplishment," Birch says. "I'm proud of our staff, who worked so hard on getting it off the ground. I'm proud of all of our donors. The great thing about the building is that every donor, no matter how small the contribution, has his or her name engraved in the entrance. There are so many heroes in this movement."
By most measures, Birch is one of those. When she was appointed HRC's executive director in 1995, the group had 109,000 members, an annual operating budget of $6 million, and a staff of 40. Today, HRC is the nation's largest gay rights group, boasting more than 500,000 members, a $22 million budget, and a staff of 100. During the last election cycle, HRC's political action committee doled out $1.1 million to more than 100 candidates, 90% of whom won.
"Elizabeth has a gift for bringing people together in the development of an organization," says Tim McFeeley, who led HRC from 1989 to 1995. "She makes people feel they are part of something unique. I'll never forget, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new building, the number of people who walked through the door, pointed to their name etched in the wall, and had their picture taken. That feeling of ownership, of being part of something bigger than yourself, is not easy to create."
Indeed, critics contend that Birch was too good at development--and that HRC has become the Starbucks of the gay rights movement, gobbling up a disproportionate share of limited political dollars. "Birch has phenomenal marketing mid fund-raising skills," says Rick Garcia, executive director of Equality Illinois, a Chicago-based gay group. "She turned HRC into a cash cow, and a glamorous one at that. But I don't think she put enough energy into grassroots work, into the serious political organizing. An equal-sign logo is great, but we have to actually create equality."
It is true that while HRC's fundraising flourished, legislative victories lagged. "I'm still amazed that we could not pass [the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act] or a hate-crimes bill during the Clinton years and that we still can't today," Birch acknowledges. She pins blame for the failure on "those in control of the Republican Party in Congress." Yet she concedes that President Clinton, a Democrat, did not always deliver on his promises.
Garcia says HRC shares some of the responsibility. "HRC under Birch has been the public relations arm of the Democratic Party. Republicans cough and HRC will jump down their throat," he says. "It endorsed AI Gore right out of the box. So it's not that surprising that it. now finds itself in a difficult position" with the GOP.
Birch responds, "It sometimes seems like conservative Republicans set their priorities in a way that creates more of a barrier [in] understanding the difficult human concerns behind the issues. The mantra of 'lower taxes, smaller government, less regulation' does not leave a lot of room for sympathy for others who don't benefit from that checklist."
Yet it was HRC's alliance with a powerful Republican that produced one of Bitch's most difficult periods. In a 1998 U.S. Senate race, HRC endorsed Alfonse D'Amato, a Republican incumbent and occasional gay rights supporter, over a stalwart gay rights advocate, Democratic challenger Charles Schumer (who ended up winning the race). HRC board member Marylouise Oates resigned in protest. "Overnight, I went from a partisan liberal Democrat to Margaret Thatcher," Birch jokes.
Birch's tenure did see progress, primarily at the state and local levels. Antigay ballot measures, in locations from Miami to Traverse City, Mich., were defeated. And antidiscrimination laws now protect gay residents of every northeastern state except Maine. The leadership of the national Democratic Party embraced gay lights as never before, and President Clinton became the first sitting president to address a gay audience, at an HRC dinner in 1996. Birch is also proud of HRC's FamilyNet and WorkNet, projects that provide resources on parenting and workplace discrimination. "These are the kind of things that don't get a lot of attention but make a big difference on a human level," she says.
Looking back on her tenure, Birch says she stumbled by aggressively backing the April 2000 Millenium March on Washington. "I tried to be careful about ensuring a critical mass of organizations and people-of-color groups," she says now, "but I should have waited until it reached a critical mass so it didn't become viewed as an HRC event. I'm very results-oriented, and I did not respect the process. I know now that it takes time to build trust."
In Washington, where the politics of personal destruction has become an art form, life at the "human level" can often become an ordeal In 1999, when Birch and her partner, Hilary Rosen, adopted twins, Jacob and Anna, in Texas, antigay activists used the couple's notoriety to lobby, unsuccessfully, for a ban on adoption by gays in the state. "What's most difficult is when you feel that you never had a chance [to make your case]," she says today. "The debate over gay parenting is very difficult, because [antigay sentiments] have been used to remove kids from parents. I can't imagine losing my kicks, I just can't Imagine it."
Birch, who declines to share her own future plans, has been busy imagining what's up next for HRC: "We've already put our Campaign 2004 plan in place so that [new executive director] Cheryl [Jacques] can hit the ground running," she explains. "Cheryl can come in and do some course correction if she wants. But I don't think she'll have to. I've tried to think ahead."
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|Title Annotation:||Politics; Human Rights Campaign|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Jan 20, 2004|
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