Former HRC head Elizabeth Birch honored at diversity event
by Seth Hemmelgarn
The former head of the Human Rights Campaign, who is credited with growing the organization into a powerful national voice for gay rights, was honored last week for her social justice work.
Elizabeth Birch, the HRC's president and executive director from 1995 until January 2004, accepted the Santa Clara University School of Law's inaugural Social Justice and Human Rights Award at its annual diversity gala at San Jose's City Hall Thursday, October 25.
Accepting the award, Birch, 51, who graduated from the law school in 1985, noted the university is located in one of the most innovative and diverse regions of the country. She told the audience of about 200 students, lawyers, and judges that there are many areas where their help is needed.
She said society is currently in the "modern middle ages." For example, she said, the United States "has never been closer to theocracy." She also mentioned human rights abuses in other countries, such as women who are stoned to death in Iran for adultery.
"Something's the matter with this picture," Birch told the audience. "We have to do better. You are among the best ambassadors to help bring about this change."
Prior to leading HRC, Birch served as worldwide director of litigation for Apple Computer Inc. She has helped various companies develop non-discrimination policies and offer domestic partner benefits. She addressed the Democratic National Convention in 2000, becoming the first head of an LGBT group to address a national political convention, according to the university.
After Birch joined HRC, the organization grew from 100,000 to 600,000 members, with another 500,000 online supporters, according to the university. She left the organization in 2004. Since then, she's started a consulting firm, runs Rosie O'Donnell's production company, and hosts a talk show on here!, an LGBT TV network.
In awarding Birch, the school recognized her for boosting HRC's lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill and her "groundbreaking" use of the media. While she was with HRC, she appeared on television shows ranging from Good Morning America to The News Hour with Jim Lehrer at a time when gays were becoming more visible in the national media.
Former Ambassador James Hormel, the first openly gay person to hold the diplomatic post when he served in Luxembourg, presented the award to Birch. Hormel recalled a debate on the News Hour in which Birch appeared with ex-U.S. Representative Bob Barr, who in 1996 authored the Defense of Marriage Act. The act prohibits same-sex marriages from being recognized by the federal government. It was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Birch asked Barr, who at the time had had two divorces, whether he was defending his first, second, or third marriage.
Hormel also recalled Birch started growing HRC at a time when "some Congress people didn't think they had any gay people in their districts."
Diversity appears to be a top goal of Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school that aims to help the legal profession reflect society. The school promotes itself as one of the 10 most ethnically diverse law schools in the country. The school has approximately 1,000 students, and about 45 percent of those come from ethnic or racial minority groups, according to Vicki Hubner, the school's assistant dean for law career services.
This is the fourth year the school has held the diversity gala, which also serves as a fundraiser for the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Scholarship, which helps minority students attend the school. This year's gala raised at least $20,000 for the scholarship, according to Julia Yaffee, the law school's senior assistant dean.
Bradley Jacklin came to the school after working with Birch at HRC and she recommended it to him. Now, he's president of BGLAD – Bi, Gay and Lesbian Advocacy – which he said has 50 to 60 members. Many are alumni and straight allies, he added.
"The administration has been very dedicated to making sure gay and lesbian students feel like they have a safe place to be," Jacklin said. He said the school has sponsored students to go to national lesbian and gay association conferences.
Many of those at the gala said they were unfamiliar with Birch and her work before attending the event, but they liked what they heard there, and they were glad for the opportunity to network.
Arisha Hatch, a recent graduate of the school, is now practicing environmental law in San Francisco. Hatch said she doesn't think she would've made it without the school's help, and now she's come back to support current students.
"It's a fabulous event," she said.