CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Appearing at a lecture at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte on Tuesday, former Human Rights Campaign (HRC) executive director and former Sen. Hillary Clinton supporter Elizabeth Birch praised the leadership abilities of Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and blasted the Republican presidential ticket.
Sitting down with Q-Notes prior to her speech, she also took the time to delve into her thoughts on HRC’s current direction, last year’s controversy over transgender inclusion in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, her thoughts on openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) and her past support of Sen. Clinton.
“Obama is a gifted man,” Birch told a crowd of approximately 200 people. “He is wise, intelligent and gifted.”
Birch told Q-Notes that Obama’s upbringing in Hawaii has prepared him to be a leader who knows how to relate to a global and diverse community.
“One of the things shaping Barack Obama was the fact that he did grow up in Hawaii,” Birch said. “The exposure to those values and that Pacific Rim exposure helped to shape him and that will make him a great global leader.”
Birch told the college audience she was “terrified not only as a woman, but as a human being” by Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) vice presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Taking a page from history to comment on the possible ascendancy of Palin, Birch spoke of the almost-appointed Lord Halifax as Britain’s prime minister in the 1940s and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s running mate Henry Wallace.
“Can you imagine how vastly different our would would be if we would have had to depend on great leaders like Lord Halifax, who wanted to cut a deal with the Nazis, and, of course, the very famous Henry Wallace,” Birch asked, referring to Winston Churchill’s 1931 near-death run-in with a New York City taxi and the 1933 assassination attempt on then President-Elect Roosevelt.
Birch, who led the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group from 1995 to 2004, worked closely with dozens of Capitol Hill lawmakers, including McCain, during her tenure as head of HRC.
“John McCain is not the man I met in the mid-’90s,” she said. “He’s turned into a born-again pretzel. Every position is floating now. I really admired him because he always had both legs in buckets of cement. You couldn’t move him. He was who he was and he believed what he believed. That’s all up for grabs now.”
Birch said she is in a “sheer panic about what could happen,” as a result of an Obama-Biden loss on Nov. 4.
Addressing HRC and its current well-being, Birch commended current president Joe Solmonese and the build up of the organization’s media and activism resources.
“I invented Youth College because I felt strongly that young people should get excellent training,” Birch said. “Frankly, Joe had a lot more electoral experience [than I did. He’s turned it into voter camps and training camps all over the country.”
She lauded HRC’s outreach to religious and faith leaders. “[The religion project] has been incredibly effective in terms of bringing religious and spiritual leaders to the nations capital.”
ENDA and trans inclusion
During her tenure at the helm of HRC, Birch said she fought to get the transgender community into the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and into the “forefront of HRC’s institutional world.”
“I feel like we worked very hard at it,” she recalled. “We didn’t just slap the label on the organization. The boards worked through it.”
Birch said “everyone was upset about how [ENDA] played out,” including many HRC members. She cautioned HRC, saying the organization needed to do a better job of “translating the reality of the play-by-play blows and decisions and the various junctures that they confront” on Capitol Hill.
She also encourages more education for members of Congress, as well.
People need “to really convey to members of Congress that the language [in an inclusive ENDA] is not just good for transgender people, but also good for gay people,” she said. “It is not the kind of ones that conform to the conventional image that end up getting fired, but in fact it is the off-beat ones. It is the males who appear more feminine and the women who appear more male.”
Birch said she doesn’t question the sincerity of HRC’s leadership. “I think HRC truly believes that it can move back to an integrated bill or move faster with two bills, but they don’t want to leave people behind.”
Birch reserved no judgment when it came to what she thought of openly gay, Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank and the role he played in the 2007 ENDA controversy.
“There is no question in my mind that the minute Barney Frank decided there was going to be two bills there wasn’t a thing anybody could do about it,” she said. “That put HRC in the position of either backing away from a piece of Civil Rights legislation that affected GLB people or walking on the whole thing. It was not a good choice, but Joe Solmonese had to make the decision.”
She added, “When you have someone as powerful as Barney Frank calling the shots — he’s sort of the go-to guy in the House on anything LGBT — in those crunch moments, Nancy Pelosi is going to look to Barney Frank.”
Birch said House leadership on LGBT issues should be “shared more robustly.”
At the same time, Birch said her “proudest Barney Frank moment” was his actions in steering the completion of the more than $800 billion financial bailout passed by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush.
“Do you think anyone who watched Barney Frank run the banking bill…cared if he was gay?” Birch asked. “He was amazingly brilliant.”
Birch was an early and avid supporter of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s bid for the White House. Although she is now outspoken with her support of Obama, Birch said it was the “12-year-old kid” inside her that originally drew her to the former first lady.
“Like a lot of women, it was the 12-year-old kid who thought we’d run the world,” she said. “People my age grew up in an era where we truly believed we could be anybody and do anything. We were going to take the world by storm.”
She said Clinton was the “first, intelligent, driven and passionate candidate who just happened to be a woman running for all the right reasons.”
Birch said that in her home there was never a disparaging message about Obama, for the sake of her two bi-racial twins.
“We thought this message was extremely important for our son and daughter — that Barack Obama was also a strong candidate,” she said. “In many ways, I fell in love with him on the campaign trail.”
To Clinton supporters still clinging to their candidate, Birch asks a strong question: “What could you possibly gain by voting against your own interests?”
She said she believes the majority of Clinton supporters have healed from the primary battle and are now supporting Obama, but that “there are still a number of white women in America…that are, frankly, being stubborn and holding out.”
Birch said she thinks there will be a day when an openly gay candidate will be able to make a serious run for the White House. “By the time they run we won’t think of them as the gay candidate,” she hopes. “We’ll think of them as a strong candidate who happens to be gay.”