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.