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.

John Laird

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John Laird grew up in Vallejo and had come to Santa Cruz in 1968 to attend UCSC. In 1974, he began working for Santa Cruz County as a budget analyst. He ran for Santa Cruz City Council in 1981 and was the leading vote getter that year. In 1983, he was selected by his council colleagues to serve as mayor for a one-year term. That year he would receive national media attention as one of the first openly gay mayors in the U.S. He would serve a second term as mayor in 1987-88.

During his time on the city council, John led Santa Cruz to become the third city in the nation—after West Hollywood and Berkeley—to offer domestic partner benefits to its employees. He also advocated for the designation of Monterey Bay as a national marine sanctuary. John joined the BAYMEC board in early 1985, significantly increasing our visibility and presence in Santa Cruz County.

After being termed out of the city council, John served as executive director of the Santa Cruz AIDS Project from 1991-94. He was then elected to the Cabrillo Community College board for two terms from 1994-2002 .In 2002, John won a seat in the State Assembly representing a district that included parts of Monterey, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties. That year, he and San Francisco’s Mark Leno became the first two openly gay men to be elected to the state legislature in California.

John continued to be a strong advocate for the environment in the Assembly. He was one of the co-authors of AB 32, the landmark 2006 state law that regulated greenhouse gases and established California’s cap and trade program. He also authored the bill that established the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency focused on protecting and preserving the environment in the Sierra Nevada mountains. He also had a major influence on the state’s finances during his four years as chair of the Assembly Budget Committee from 2004 to 2008. He was termed out of the Assembly at the end of 2008, but that was not the end to John’s career in public service.

In 2011, newly elected Governor Jerry Brown named him California’s Secretary for Natural Resources. In 2013, he was one of 10 LGBTQ public officials who were honored by the Obama Administration as a “Harvey Milk Champion of Change” at a White House ceremony. He is currently running for State Senate in the greater Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay area.

Ken Yeager

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Ken had come to San Jose when he was 18 to start a new life away from conservative Riverside, where he knew he could not be openly gay. He graduated from San Jose State University with a degree in political science and held numerous jobs working on public policies to improve his adopted city.

It was in early 1984 when he picked up the Sunday San Jose Mercury News and read an opinion piece by a local state Assembly member Alister McAlister stating that homosexuals should have no legal, social, or political standing in society.

It was a remarkable statement. The Assemblyman, Alister McAlister, was urging then-Governor George Deukmejian (R) to veto Assembly Bill 1, the law passed by the Legislature that would make it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation. If such laws were passed, he argued, LGBTQ people would become a legitimate class deserving of legal protection. (Deukmejian did, in fact, veto the bill.)

Ken was well aware of the hatred and persecution that gay people faced but this was the first time someone had phrased it so bluntly: You are undeserving of the benefits provided by society. Putting the paper down, he said to himself: “Ken, if you don’t fight for your rights to be a part of this community then no one else will.” He came out publicly a week later in a Mercury News opinion piece denouncing McAlister and arguing for acceptance of gays and lesbians (the term that was used then) as full participants in society.

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Thereafter, Ken co-founded BAYMEC—the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee—with Wiggsy Sivertsen. This political experience and work allowed Ken to run for San Jose/Evergreen Community College Board in 1992 and become the first openly gay elected official in Santa Clara County. In 2000, Ken ran for San Jose City Council and was elected. After winning reelection in 2004, he ran for Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in 2006 and won. He was reelected in 2010 and 2014.

During his time on the Board of Supervisors, Ken would create the Office of LGBTQ Affairs, the first such county office in the nation. With a staff of 7, the office has taken on a wide spectrum of issues to improve services to the LGBTQ community. After reaching term-limits, Ken has turned his attention back to BAYMEC through its Community Foundation.

Rick Rudy

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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.

Wiggsy Sivertsen

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Born Aimee Devereaux Sivertsen in Southern California, she has gone by Wiggsy since early childhood, after her sister mispronounced “wiggles” to describe her rambunctiousness. She graduated from San Jose State University in 1962, and later received a master’s degree in social work from Tulane University in New Orleans.

Wiggsy’s career as an activist and community leader began after she was outed and then fired while working as a counselor at the Peninsula Children’s Center in Palo Alto. This traumatizing event would later push her to get involved with community organizing.She had already been working part-time at San Jose State’s counseling center so she was able to join the university’s staff full time in 1968. She was SJSU’s first openly gay employee.

While Wiggsy was out at San Jose State, she was not active politically until 1977 when State Senator John Briggs authored an initiative that would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in California public schools. She took an active part in the campaign to defeat the Briggs Initiative, which was on the November 1978 ballot as Proposition 6, making appearances on both radio and television.

As a result of the Briggs Initiative, Wiggsy’s public profile began to steadily rise. Over the next two decades she would become one of the most visible members of the Silicon Valley’s LGBTQ community.

One night in the summer of 1984 at the Toyon bar in San Jose, Wiggsy and Ken Yeager talked about the need for an LGBTQ political group. The two of them devised the outlines of a regional LGBTQ political action committee focused on Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz counties. The committee would eventually be known as the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee (BAYMEC), modeled after a similar organization in Southern California known as the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles (MECLA).

Wiggsy heavily shaped how BAYMEC operated. She helped prepare their initial budget, was one of the signers of the first checks, and the architect of their endorsement policy for political candidates.

As a professor and counselor at San Jose State University, she campaigned against ROTC programs on campus because of the Defense Department’s discriminatory policies toward lesbians and gays. She was active in other ways on campus, too, including as a faculty advisor to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance and the Women’s Center. It was in these roles she counseled hundreds of students in the coming out process.

Wiggsy has been a tireless advocate, teaching classes to San Jose police officers about LGBTQ lifestyles, fighting for more programs for those who experienced domestic violence, advocating for LGBTQ seniors, being president of the California Faculty Union, and serving on the county’s Commission on the Status of Women, the Senior Commission, and the Human Rights Commission, to name a few. In 1988, she began teaching a sociology class at SJSU on gay and lesbian issues. In 1994, the university would establish a scholarship in her honor that focused on students who worked to support LGBTQ rights.

In short, there hasn’t been a single human rights issue that she hasn’t been involved in for the last half century.

Rich Gordon

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Rich spent his childhood on the Peninsula before moving to Orange County for high school. He stayed in Southern California for college, at USC, before moving to the Midwest to attend divinity school at Northwestern. He was ordained as a Methodist minister and began working with homeless youth in inner city Chicago. He left the ministry rather than accept a transfer to a church near San Diego County’s massive Marine base at Camp Pendleton where he would mostly minister to suburban military families.

By this time, Rich knew his passion lay in helping those most in need, especially young people. He found a job doing social work through the YMCA, first in Orange County and then back on the Peninsula in Redwood City. He eventually formed a nonprofit group in San Mateo County—Youth and Family Assistance—that grew to have 60 employees and a $5 million annual budget.

Rich dated girls in high school and women in college. He would get married in 1974 to a woman he had met at a Methodist church in Southern California and who he had lived with for two years before marriage. However, by the time he was in his mid-30s he was ready to accept who he was. He undertook the difficult process of ending his marriage and coming out in 1982.

Rich had an early interest in politics. He was elected student body president in high school. His work with the YMCA and in the nonprofit sphere had already exposed him to public policy at the local level. Then, he began to get involved with the nascent LGBTQ political movement on the Peninsula. He became very active with the Peninsula Business Guild, a gay business group, and in late August 1984 Doug De Young introduced him at one of the founding meetings of the BAYMEC board. In September, he was elected to the board, and in 1985 he became BAYMEC’s president.

In 1992, Rich would run for San Mateo County Board of Education and win. Later in 1997, Rich was elected to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and in 2010 to the State Assembly, representing the heart of Silicon Valley – including parts of both San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. In the Assembly, he would spend more than four years as chair of the influential Rules Committee. In 2012, he was chosen to chair the full Legislature’s LGBTQ caucus, which would include two successive Assembly speakers during his tenure: John Perez and Toni Atkins. He would remain caucus chair until term limits forced him out of the Assembly.

In July 2017, Rich was named President and CEO of the California Forestry Association.

The Fight Against Prop. 64

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Efforts to Quarantine AIDS Patients

The early to mid-1980s was a time of widespread misinformation and hysteria about AIDS. There were public fears that AIDS could be transmitted through the air like the common cold or by mosquitoes.

Into this atmosphere stepped Lyndon LaRouche, a one-time Marxist who, by 1986, had become a far-right reactionary, calling Henry Kissinger a communist and accusing Queen Elizabeth of conspiring to get the U.S. population hooked on drugs. His followers exploited the misinformation and public fears about the AIDS epidemic to secure the 500,000 voter signatures necessary to get an initiative on the ballot.

LaRouche’s initiative appeared on the November 1986 ballot as Proposition 64. It would have allowed public health officials to make HIV testing mandatory for people thought to be infected and required public disclosure of anyone who tested positive. Further, it would have prohibited anyone with HIV from attending or teaching school, as well as restricting their ability to travel.

When Prop. 64 qualified for the ballot in June 1986, many Californians held a negative or even hostile attitude towards both the AIDS epidemic and the LGBTQ community. A Los Angeles Times poll published that summer found half of the public favored quarantining AIDS victims, and a quarter believed that “AIDS is a punishment God has given homosexuals for the way they lived.”

The South Bay fight against Prop. 64

On July 1, 1986, BAYMEC’s board voted to put the organization’s full resources into defeating Proposition 64. The South Bay’s LGBTQ community, demoralized by the passage of Measures A and B and the subsequent arrival of AIDS, gained a renewed sense of activism. The next few months would see a dramatic transformation in the community’s profile and relevance.

The statewide No on 64 campaign initially planned to open offices only in San Francisco and Los Angeles. BAYMEC board members thought this was short-sighted. They feared that the San Francisco and Los Angeles-based campaign leadership would ignore the South Bay and put little or no effort or outreach into the region. There was a lot of work to do in educating voters all over the state about the realities of the epidemic and just how dangerous and disruptive Prop. 64 would be if it were approved.

BAYMEC was eager to run the local campaign for two reasons. First, even though they were a fledgling organization, they felt they had the capabilities to run a professional campaign. Second and equally important, they believed that the South Bay needed a strong LGBTQ organization to lead all the subsequent fights they knew would surely come over the years. It would be a missed opportunity to leave no lasting legacy of progressive gay politics and coalition-building. Though originally there was no universal agreement on BAYMEC’s role by some gay activists, over time most came on board.

Wiggsy Sivertsen agreed to serve as the local No on 64 campaign chair, Paul Wysocki as finance chair, and Ken Yeager became the campaign manager for Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. Wiggsy, Paul, and Rich Gordon also served on the statewide committee.

There was never any question that local campaign headquarters would be at the Billy DeFrank Center, then located on Park Ave. It was not only the hub of South Bay LGBTQ political activity in 1986, but also a landlord who was willing to rent office space for the incredibly low rate of $200 a month.

Financially, the South Bay community stepped up in a big way. State organizers only expected BAYMEC to raise $20,000. In under 14 weeks, they raised $73,000. Santa Clara County donors actually contributed more than those in the much larger San Diego County. The first fundraising letter was mailed out on July 30. The September 7 kickoff fundraiser had over 200 attendees and raised over $7,000.

The fundraising campaign was the definition of grassroots. More than 1,200 contributors wrote checks of $10, $50, or other small amounts. The average contribution was $60. There were no corporations or wealthy individuals writing big checks. Fundraisers were held at bars and nightclubs stretching from San Jose to the Peninsula to Santa Cruz and 23 house parties in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

Election night victory

On election night, November 4, 1986, a large crowd of supporters watched the returns at the Billy DeFrank Center. A sense of happiness and relief mounted as it became clear that Prop 64 was going down to defeat. The people of California had listened to the No on 64 campaign’s prevailing message of reason and understanding.

The next day, BAYMEC immediately began planning a celebration. Someone had a connection to Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose so they decided to hold the event there. Rebecca Obryan organized volunteers who cooked spaghetti for approximately 200 people. Admission cost $5.

Because so many deserved to be recognized for their contributions, during the dinner Ken Yeager asked people to stand up and be acknowledged for their work on voter registration, speakers’ bureau, fundraising, house parties, and voter outreach, or as Billy DeFrank Center board members. When he asked who donated their hard-earned dollars, everyone in the cafeteria stood up. There was a roar of applause, creating a sense of community that was palpable.