Last year must rank as the most difficult in Elizabeth Birch's tenure as Executive Director of the Human Rights Campaign. It almost reminded one of the old vaudeville joke about "when one door shuts another one falls on top of you!" Hardly anything seemed to go right for Birch and the year ended with rumors that she had privately offered her resignation to the board in October, as well as demands from at least one prominent activist that she should resign from her $100,000+ a year post.
What went wrong?
Birch had been brought into the Human Rights Campaign Fund's leadership position to bring the organization up to date. She came to the organization from corporate America where she had worked as a lawyer for Apple Computer. She was seen as savvy, intelligent, with it, and above all a good communicator. Membership of the organization doubled, the name was modified losing "Fund" from its title, an eye catching easily recognizable logo was adopted, the finances were put on a surer footing, Clinton accepted an invitation to speak at a fundraising dinner in D.C. (the first U.S. President ever to attend an HRC function), and Elizabeth Birch's pleasant, earnest face seemed to crop up regularly both on TV and in the print media.
In short, she provided the HRC with an extremely attractive professional public image.
It all seemed to start to fall apart with her decision to go in with the Metropolitan Community Church's Troy Perry, at the urging of Robin Tyler, to announce the Millennium March in D.C. for the year 2000. The idea for the march had been floated earlier but every major gay and lesbian organization had turned it down. Although reasons differed, the consensus seemed to be that it involved the use of resources that could be better spent elsewhere in a presidential election year. Having consulted with few, if any, HRC members in the country at large, the HRC board decided to go ahead with the media chasing Perry. (Someone once joked that the most dangerous place in California was between a camera and Troy Perry!!) Perry likewise had decided to bring his Metropolitan Community Church along again without consulting ordinary members of the church.
When the announcement was made all hell broke loose. Although there seemed to be some back tracking for a while at least, Birch ultimately announced that she was going ahead with the march no matter what. For someone whose alleged strength was her abilities as a communicator this seemed to be a major shot in the foot. Indeed, to be fair to her, later in the year she candidly admitted that mistakes had been made in both the way the decision was reached and then presented. Had she hoped the controversy was going to die away she was to be proven wrong ... the controversy not only continued but it seemed to intensify.
As if this wasn't bad enough, in the late summer and early fall, with the upcoming midterm elections, the HRC floated a trial balloon indicating that they might support the incumbent Republican Senator from New York, Alfonse D'Amato, over his Democratic Party opponent Rep. Charles Schumer. (The Democrat ended up winning with a 10% majority.) Again, gay activists were furious with the organization. Somewhat arrogantly Birch claimed that New York gay activists didn't appreciate D'Amato's record. The reality was that gays and lesbians in New York knew exactly what D'Amato's record was with the result that they voted for the Democrat four to one.
The HRC attempted to defend itself by saying that it had a policy of supporting the incumbent where he or she had shown themselves to be supportive of the gay movement. While certainly D'Amato had in recent years shown himself to be far more open minded on gay issues than the vast majority of his Republican colleagues he had come out in support of gays in the military, was a co sponsor of the Employment Non Discrimination Act, and had a rating of 75% on the HRC's tally card his opponent, Schumer, had a somewhat higher rating (85%) based upon his votes as a Congressman. Had their record over the preceding three years been looked at, Schumer was very clearly the more gay friendly. In addition, D'Amato was firmly anti choice on abortion, a fact that enraged many New York lesbians. One gay activist after the election said that the HRC was as welcome in New York State as anthrax!
The HRC's support of D'Amato led to a significant number of resignations from the organization as well as the resignation of a board member. In addition, after having succeeded in getting Clinton to attend an HRC event, their support of D'Amato can only have damaged what goodwill they had successfully created with the White House. In what was clearly a response to the debacle, the HRC announced that they would review the way in which future endorsements were decided.
Elizabeth Birch, who has a bachelor's degree in oceanography, seems to have found a knack for getting herself into deep water. Her view of her role seems to have been that she was not the "servant of the organization" but rather its leader. In a quote in The Advocate she said "Imagine what you would have done if three years ago you woke up and found that someone had handed you the movement ... ." Of course, as several gay activists pointed out, no one "handed (her) the movement."
During the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Creating Change Conference in November, Birch published an open letter attacking a very prominent New York lesbian activist, Carmen Vasquez. In her letter she compared Vasquez to a maggot. So bizarre and ridiculous was the letter that some even wondered if it wasn't a hoax. The HRC confirmed that the letter indeed was for real. Birch's timing in releasing this letter at a time when there were more gay and lesbian activists gathered together in one place (Pittsburgh) than at any other time during the year was hardly propitious.
There was no way NGLTF's executive director, Kerry Lobel, could avoid answering questions from journalists about the letter, thereby increasing the overage the issue gained. Yet again Birch had to backtrack, claiming that she was referring to a Buddhist metaphor. Whether the maggot in question was Buddhist, Christian or Jewish, the bottom line is that the executive director of the largest gay and lesbian organization brought little credit upon herself or her organization by describing a respected activist as one of the lowest life forms of the animal kingdom.
In terms of media relations, one also has to ask what the Human Rights Campaign's communications directors were doing at the time. Very often it is the role of a communications/media director to save their boss from him or herself when they are in danger of making a fool of themselves which is precisely what happened.
Controversy sadly did not come to an end with the close of the year. It was revealed by the Federal Elections Commission that Ms Birch's partner, Hillary Rosen, the president and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, had donated money to several prominent anti gay Republicans, including the Mormon Sen. Orrin Hatch from Utah. Rosen's $2,000 donation to Hatch made her his single largest individual donor out of 232 contributors. The HRC has rated Hatch extremely low during recent Congresses. In the 105th Congress the HRC gave him a 33 percent rating; in the 104th he got a 33 percent rating; for the 103rd he received a zero rating; and in the 102nd he was rated at 8 percent. In addition, he failed to provide HRC with a written office policy of non discrimination in employment practices inside his own office.
Sadly, Hatch was not an isolated case. The FEC files show Rosen also donated $1,000 to Sen. Spencer Abraham, R Mich. The HRC rating for Abraham during the 105th Congress was 33 percent; and for the 104th he received a zero rating from the HRC. In addition, his office does not have a written non discrimination policy.
Rosen also donated money to the election of Rep. Mary Bono's, R Calif. She too had a low HRC rating for the remainder of her late husband Sonny Bono's term in the 105th Congress 25%. In addition, she does not maintain non discrimination workplace rules inside her own office, in spite of the fact that her step daughter, Chastity, is a lesbian.
After numerous failed attempts to get a comment about this matter, David Smith, HRC's director of communications, could only say "It's not worth commenting on. We're not going to say anything and Elizabeth is not available." Later in the same day Tim Sites of the Recording Industry Association of America made a "damage control call" to me to point out that Rosen has a wide variety of professional and personal interests, and that her donations simply reflected these.
Birch and Rosen have recently adopted twin babies and they were immediately attacked by the right wing Family Research Council for the adoption of the babies, Jacob and Anna, born Jan. 7 in Texas. The children may provide the 42 year old Birch with the excuse to say that she is resigning from her post for "family reasons." Many inside the gay movement would regard it as a blessing.