Elizabeth Birch

Elizabeth Birch HRC event

As a lawyer, corporate executive and open lesbian, Elizabeth Birch helped coordinate LGBT company policies and guide cultural perspectives of the queer community on a national scale throughout the 1980s and 90s. 

While activists and LGBTQ+ workers pushed for civil rights, she used her legal expertise to solidify changes and acceptance during six years at Apple and nearly a decade with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the United States’ largest LGBT organization. 

Elizabeth first arrived in the South Bay to attend Santa Clara University School of Law, where she graduated in 1985. She was previously living out of her home at the age of 17 as an open lesbian, moving around the United States. She credits those experiences and struggles for her ability to advocate within both a legal and corporate structure. 

While still a student, Elizabeth brazenly called the head of Apple’s legal department asking for her dream job. To her surprise she was told she could work there—once she got a few years of experience practicing law under her belt. She joined McCutcheon, Doyle, Brown, and Enersen after graduation, where she help found AIDS legal services in San Jose, and left in 1989. She entered the political arena as a member of the San Jose-based Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee. 

She was one of the lawyers representing BAYMEC in a case against the Macy’s located at Valley Fair Shopping Mall in 1988. They successfully argued for the First Amendment right to campaign against Prop 102, which would have required people who tested positive for HIV/AIDS to be reported to health authorities. 

Elizabeth was thrust into the high-tech world when she joined Apple in 1989, where she directed international litigation. After LGBTQ+ employees formed Apple Lambda and pushed for non-discrimination policies earlier, her influence and rank as Senior Counsel for the company’s Human Resources department essentially ran interference for their continued efforts. 

She decided her duty as a lawyer was to break through cultural barriers and make the company even better for LGBTQ employees. The advent of employee resource groups provided both a sanctuary within corporate companies, as well as an organizing platform to accomplish goals and change. 

Whether that meant providing contacts, advice, or green-lighting ideas like making shirts with the Apple logo – an ask that initially made Apple Lambda members shiver – she helped garner support and benefits from the inside out. 

Most notably, she spent time with then-Apple CEO John Scully, arguing for these changes, especially for a company using a rainbow-colored logo at the time. 

Management often brushed off offering benefits, claiming they posed a financial burden. Elizabeth argued equality policies were breakthroughs to productivity, creativity and innovation—all coveted by high tech companies in competition with each other—in addition to offering to cover any costs from her own salary. 

If one employer didn’t offer benefits, talent could move to the next town over or across the street to places that did, which led to a wave of change in Silicon Valley. 

Scully eventually kicked off a 100-employee meeting by committing to domestic partner benefits by that January. This was the third attempt of Apple Lambda, after previous rejections. 

“Every member of the board, you just saw the outpouring of emotion. There were tears,” Elizabeth said. “I saw the cascading through the culture, and that was a big lesson for me up up to and including Apple.”

Former Apple employees and South Bay activists have credited Elizabeth with the decision to work with businesses before politicians; her pragmatic approach to make incremental policy changes proved successful, as opposed to solely pursuing slow, polarizing legislation. 

While on business trips for Apple, Elizabeth said she would travel to nearby companies, such as Kodak, Chevron, McDonald’s and General Mills, to speak with employee resource groups and CEOs. These heartfelt, genuine and trusting conversations about personal experiences are what she says allowed people to learn about and become comfortable with the LGTBQ community. 

Despite a few holdouts, including Perot Systems and Exxon Mobil, as those companies passed more progressive policies, more liberal people went to work for those companies—not exclusive to LGBTQ people.

Elizabeth’s work in Silicon Valley was just the tip of the iceberg of her legal and political career. 

She was the co-chair of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force from 1992 to 1994. Around that same time, Elizabeth sat on the board of Digital Queers, a Castro-based activist group founded to bring LGBTQ+ organizations across the country up-to-speed online, in part through organizations like NGLTF. 

“By the time I leave the San Jose area, I’m now thinking big,” Elizabeth said. “How do we really use corporate America to help revolutionize progress?”

By January 1995, she accepted the position of president and executive director of HRC, where she spent nearly a decade working to stem discrimination of LGBTQ+ people by sharing their stories, struggles and successes within society. 

She helped acquire, rewrite and implement the Corporate Equality Index for LGBTQ employees–which she retroactively sees as her best contribution to the organization–in addition to helping form the Human Rights Business Council, which brought together gay executives across industries, from airlines to entertainment. Together, they figured out who to talk to within top management to have their friends and competitors fall in line.

Elizabeth continued efforts to change how people across the United States viewed the LGBTQ+ community through programming on Good Morning America, the Today Show and NewsHour, as well as an entire rebranding of HRC. 

She also revisited her Silicon Valley roots in company-driven policy making when the HRC formed its Business Council in 1997, which brought together dozens of LGBT employees—including those at Apple—who already had on-the-ground experience making policy changes. They leveraged internal knowledge, such as budgetary timelines and proposal requirements, to craft best practices for other hopeful LGBT employees nationwide.

Some have estimated that the HRC Business Council helped around 100 companies across different industries earn nondiscrimination and domestic partner benefits by 2002.

Digital Queers

If the South Bay was home to changing internal policies, San Francisco became the hub for disseminating those ideas beyond Silicon Valley. Larger conventions and gatherings emerged in the early 1990s, including the first Out and Equal workplace conference in October 1991. From there, collectives like the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force (NLGTF) emerged from this community in 1992.

The need to communicate en-mass grew as the inter-corporate networks grew.

That year, software marketer Tom Reilly and writer and editor Karen Wickre co-founded Digital Queers—a Castro-based activist group that worked to bring gay-oriented nonprofits up-to-speed online through modems, PowerMacs, AOL software discs and email tutorials.

Named as a funny, more modern evolution from High Tech Gays, they worked tech show floors such art the Macworld Expo in San Francisco, talking to friends, colleagues and strangers who would agree to donate equipment, time and money to organizations across the United States.

The idea easily struck a chord with developers, with Tom and Karen at one point collecting $75,000 in software, $75,000 in consulting services and $50,000 in cash, which was later presented at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

As the technology grew, the need to stay up-to-date continued. Three years into business, DQ had 1,000 members and served 30 nonprofits, including the NLGTF and Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), which boasted speakers bureau members like Bennet and Kim in the South Bay.

This fortunately happened at the same time personal computers became cheaper and more ubiquitous, so the gay and lesbian employee events grew more active. Recruiters for Microsoft and Apple had started posting jobs throughout the organization.

In the years after the first party in January 1993, word of mouth eventually led to these Digital Queers benefits became a socially hot ticket, bringing thousands of gay, lesbian and allies together in one social network.

“(Looking) at how many people were there could be very empowering,” Karen said, adding that people were often generous with trading email addresses and in-person introductions.

One of these connections was Tom talking to Apple CEO John Sculley about domestic partner benefits, which lagged seven years behind its nondiscrimination policy implementation, in part due to an incrementalist approach from its employees.

Tom told the Los Angeles Times he briefed the issue with the top Apple executive, who later breezily welcomed the idea at a meeting with Apple Lambda in 1993, eliciting tears and a standing ovation from staff.

The need for gay employee groups started to dwindle as newer organizations came on the scene with nondiscrimination policies and domestic partner benefits already in place. And as nonprofits became more digitally self-sufficient, Digital Queers and its email address book effectively dissolved into GLAAD by 1998.

Read more here.

Kim Harris and Bennet Marks

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Kim Harris is a computer scientist and gay rights activist based out of Sunnyvale, California. 

Born in 1946, he studied physics at Louisiana State University, later earning his masters in computer science at Purdue. The Texas native moved to the Bay Area in 1974 to work on a super computer for NASA. He was not yet openly gay. 

As Kim incrementally came out to friends and colleagues, he joined a gay men’s discussion group at Stanford where he met Bennet Marks, with whom he started a relationship in 1982 and married in September 2008. He also began attending High-Tech Gays meetings by 1983.

Kim joined Hewlett-Packard in 1984, where he joined unofficial gay employee groups like Friends of Dorothy and the Gay and Lesbian Employee Network (GLEN). From there, he helped get the ball rolling at HP to implement nondiscrimination policies and expand diversity training and AIDS-related health care coverage. He retired in 2001 at the age of 55.

During the 1990s, he joined groups like the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays speakers bureau, Peninsula Business and Professional Association, Billy DeFrank LGBT Community Center Board of Directors and the HRC Business Council in 1998.

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    Bennet Marks & Kim Harris
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    Bennet Marks & Kim Harris
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    Bennet Marks & Kim Harris at Google
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    Bennet Marks & Kim Harris

Bennet Marks

He also was involved with support and advocacy groups like Silicon Valley Gay Men’s Chorus, Outlet and Outlook TV.

Bennet Marks is a software engineer and gay rights activist based in Sunnyvale, California. 

Born in 1954 in Long Island, he studied at Brown University before starting a graduate math program at Stanford. He ultimately left before presenting his final thesis, earning a masters degree.

Bennet got a job at Ford Aerospace in 1981, where he obtained a security clearance, in part, due to not yet being openly gay to himself or others. Beginning to come out, he met Kim Harris at a Stanford gay men’s discussion group. The two have been in a relationship since November 1982, and married in September 2008, before California’s Prop 8 initially passed later that year. 

Bennet later moved onto a job at Apple, where he started a gay employee group named Apple Lambda in 1986. That group sparked nondiscrimination policies and domestic partner benefits at Apple. Not long after he joined the BAYMEC board in 1986 and Outlet TV.

He transitioned to working at Google in 2004, where he created the Gayglers in 2006. Bennet retired in 2011, and continues to live with Kim in the South Bay.

LGBTQ+ Tech Employees

mega lunch sign 1991

The diverse, liberal work climates touted by Silicon Valley’s high-tech companies first began with a push for increased civil rights by gay and lesbian employees in the 1980s. As companies like Apple and HP advocated for internal nondiscrimination policies and domestic partner benefits, news spread through the software, hardware and conventions created by the tech industry itself. Gay employee groups and business collectives led to expanded networks of in-person, internal and inter-corporate communication, which directly helped disseminate increased protections inside company walls and national politics.


The liberally diverse culture within Silicon Valley’s high-tech companies was sparked by an employee-led push for increased civil rights for gay and lesbian employees in the mid-1980s.

At a time when California politics, like Propositions 6 and 64, pushed ideas of removing gay teachers from classrooms and quarantining people with AIDS altogether, South Bay companies from Apple to Hewlett-Packard approved internal nondiscrimination policies, with domestic partner benefits following throughout the next decade.

In the high-tech industry—where Silicon Valley employers battled each other for a stiffly competitive pool of talent—more LGBTQ people flocked to jobs where protections increased. This snowballed into a cultural shift that eventually applauded diversity, moving away from tech’s more conservative roots.

But at the same time, the AIDS crisis was devastating the LGBTQ community. While it forced many people to come out to family, friends and coworkers, being out at work was terrifying as the lack of safety in the corporate world left workers vulnerable to lose everything: jobs, families and homes.

Some came out by necessity, others as an attempt to humanize the disease and advocate for change. Many employees, however, stayed closeted out of retribution or being passed up for promotions, especially in high-tech government jobs that demanded security clearances.

Employees pushed back in 1983, when the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office was sued by the South Bay-based group High Tech Gays (HTG) for subjecting gay and lesbian employees to more intense scrutiny and investigation for secret and top-secret clearances because of sexual orientation. A judge eventually sided with the Sunnyvale-based plaintiffs in 1990, closing the iconically named federal court case High Tech Gays v. DISCO.

The existence of HTG and conversation between gay people not only opened up a vision of possibility for other groups to start but also raised awareness with such a brazen name that was unable to be ignored.

Other unofficial gay employee social groups were established—such as Friends of Dorothy and the Gay and Lesbian Employee Network—which stretched across Silicon Valley corporations like HP, Sun Microsystems and Oracle.

Beginning as communities for connection, camaraderie and a dating pool, these gatherings soon led to redacted membership directories and discreet newsletters, which helped crowdsource knowledge of internal business practices across the high-tech sector to secure protections in workplaces at a time when no state or federal protections existed.

After a stint in political activism, Bennet Marks, a former Apple software manager inspired by stories from HTG and his experience on the company’s AIDS Response Committee, wanted to work directly with the company to develop staff policy.

He formed Apple Lambda in August 1986, and came out to the entire company in the process. Named after the Greek letter that had quietly emerged as a gay symbol at the time, the group welcomed in employees by word-of-mouth, even those otherwise afraid of retaliation.

Bennet said their work was the driving force behind Apple adopting nondiscrimination policies—the first Silicon Valley company believed to do so—and pushed others to follow.

By 1987, Apple Lambda marched in the San Francisco Pride Parade and started publicly shifting what was acceptable in the high-tech workplace.

But not all Silicon Valley companies welcomed these policies with open arms out of the gate. Older, more conservative companies took longer to welcome these employee protections.

Kim Harris, a manager at HP, learned from previous successes and failures in organization and advocacy from Bennet, with whom he was (and still is) in a relationship starting in 1982. Together, they eventually became known as the Silicon Valley poster boys.

Despite having one of the first unofficial gay employee groups, HP was hesitant to offer direct company resources. Kim began by stealthily parsing out company health plans, eventually calling out the denial of AIDS treatments for former staff.

“I marched right into HR and benefits, and I said, ‘Is this the kind of company you run? Is this the kind of company you’re proud of?’ Kim said. “All of a sudden it was approved.”

This got the ball moving at HP in working toward nondiscrimination and diversity education policies across the global company. After a unanimous “no” vote, Kim organized reader’s theater performances to dozens of executive staff, featuring personal stories from employees who dealt with internal harassment, jokes and the AIDS epidemic.

One year after the initial denial, an unanimous “yes” arrived in the late 1980s. Despite fears of negative reactions from the press and public, HP’s decision made only whispers in the local news. Combined with Apple’s work, however, the news started circulating regionally.

“Apple then was Apple; Apple now is Apple,” Bennet said. “It was my very strong opinion that anything we did at Apple would have ripple effects throughout Silicon Valley and throughout the country.”

It did ripple. The start of internal policies for gay and lesbian employees at Apple arrived not only before California state law, but also before federal precedent.

In September 1992, California Gov. Pete Wilson signed non-discrimination protections for sexual orientation into the state’s Labor Code—an effort first vetoed eight years prior. By 1993, there were around eight Fortune 500 companies that provided domestic partner benefits. The number was more than 100 by 2001.

This work was continued through external groups like the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee (BAYMEC), Peninsula Business and Professional Association, and the invite-only HRC Business Council, as members met with hundreds of other gay employees and learned how internal business hierarchies and organization could advance approval of nondiscrimination policies.

Google, which was established in 1998, did not have any formal group until the Apple Lambda founder also helped create the Gayglers group in 2006.

That group continued to push for more civil rights for gay and lesbian employees, advocating in 2010 for “grossing up,” which increased compensation to offset unequal taxes for same-sex partners, and kicking off the nationwide “It Gets Better” project through Google subsidiary YouTube.

As LGBTQ issues continue to arise to the forefront, the work of gay employee groups remains vital to furthering liberal expectations for the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and across the country, especially as they worked to create new expectations of office life.

“I think every generation paves the way for the next generation,” Bennet said. “I believe that the Silicon Valley corporations had a direct impact on (protections) going through the legislature.”

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Rick Rudy

rick-rudy

Today, the tech industry is hailed as a model of inclusiveness. It is considered to be one of the most LGBTQ-friendly industries in the U.S. The CEO of the world’s most valuable tech company, Apple, is gay.

This reputation did not happen naturally or overnight. It took years of struggle by LGBTQ engineers, programmers, and other tech workers. The late Rick Rudy played a key role in that struggle.

Rick was born and raised in New York City. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from MIT and afterwards began a career in the tech industry that brought him to San Jose in the early 1970s.

In June 1982, more than two years before BAYMEC was founded, Rick was one of a handful of tech industry workers who met in San Jose to form a South Bay chapter of the San Francisco-based Lesbian and Gay Associated Engineers and Scientists. By the following February, the organization had separated from San Francisco and was renamed High Tech Gays. Rick would be its first president and help write its by-laws.

Rick was a board member of BAYMEC from the very beginning. He hosted some of the earliest meetings at his house, helped write their by-laws, and provided them with early publicity in the High Tech Gays newsletter. Rick made the time for BAYMEC when he was busier than ever. He had gotten involved in gay rights at a national level, joining the board of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 1985. This led to interviews both locally in the Mercury News and nationally in the Advocate and the Wall Street Journal.

Sadly, Rick was one of the more than 2,000 Santa Clara County victims of the AIDS epidemic. His life was tragically cut short in 1990 at age 44.