blog banner

From gutter to glory: winning the cultural war | Elizabeth Birch | TEDxPennsylvaniaAvenue


Reviewer: Leonardo Silva As we stand here today, we may very well be on the eve
of a Supreme Court decision that is no less monumental
than Brown v. Board of Education, or Loving v. Virginia. It is possible that this Supreme Court
will deliver marriage equality to gay and lesbian couples
in this country. (Applause) It is hundreds of activists and some very brilliant
lawyers and strategists that have brought us
to that place on marriage, but people don’t understand
that over the last couple of decades, it has not just been happenstance; there has been strategy, in addition to the millions
of acts of bravery every day by ever and ever younger LGBT people
to speak the truth of their lives. There has been thought and a strategy
in how we got from there to here. And that’s the journey
I want to take you on today. So, I want to take you back to the 1950s to make sense of: How did we see
such a monumental shift? How did we see the most
compressed form of history and the most radical change
in public attitudes of any social movement we have ever seen? In the 1950s, homosexuals were hated. We were seen as evil, perverted. We were serpents lying in wait, trying to grab children
and thrust them into sexual cults. And on our off hours, we were spreading communism
as fast as we could around the globe. I don’t know why, but I know it’s true: I sprang into this world
as a little, tiny lesbian. I just did, I knew it young. And while I was an American citizen,
I was raised in Canada. I was born in 1956. And I would not meet another
gay person for years and years. But from that tiny place, I spent most of my youth running
through the forests of Vancouver Island, often slaying dragons and saving maidens because I didn’t have
any feminist analysis at that point. This is evidence that I continued
to grow as a lesbian. (Laughter) And my family, I sort of
confounded them all the time. My family was unusual. I was the fourth of five kids. I had a World War II pilot father. I had a kind of colorful,
intellectual Irish mother. Our house was full of chaos
and was sometimes reckless. We were often short on cash
and long on gin. But somehow in the middle of all of that, my parents performed a miracle: they never shamed me for being a tomboy, they never shamed me
for running home from school and, as fast as I could, getting out
of the little dresses and into my jeans. I could climb a douglas fir
faster than any kid in the neighborhood, and from the top, I would sway,
and I would wonder, “What is this difference,
and what will it bring?” I suspected it would be a great adventure. This is how I escaped
from my little town in Canada. I was admitted at the age of 16
into the European cast of Up with People, and even while I saw myself
as sort of a leftist, feminist lesbian, that is how I ended up
finishing high school, with a group of kids
that were mostly draft dodgers and really talented musical kids
from low-income areas around the world and tons of homosexuals. That’s where we found our way in 1974. I put myself through undergraduate school and then came to California,
put myself through law school, right in the heart of Silicon Valley, because there was no place I wanted
to work other than Apple Computer. I loved Apple Computer, and I loved Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs
because they had a dream. Their dream, at bottom,
was to take the power of computing, what we thought of in the 1950s
as really the massive huge UNIVAC, and shrink it down and put that power
right into the hands of the individual, thereby igniting
innovation and creativity, wheels for the mind, so that every person could be their own
Leonardo Da Vinci or Michelangelo. And then a day came,
and I really pondered, and I looked out
and around me and thought, “My community, we are
still besieged by AIDS and HIV. We need some sort of magic,” the same sort of magic that Apple
had created with great communications and really good weaving
of messages and messengers. And in a way, different
from a corporate brand, we needed a social,
entrepreneurial approach to start to bring together
not just the left of our country, but honestly, the grand
swath of the middle, of LGBT people and their parents. And so, in 1995, I left Apple and I came to Washington D.C.
to head up the Human Rights Campaign. The first thing we did is we studied
four organizations in depth: the American Red Cross,
the Christian Coalition, the UJA – United Jewish Appeal,
which is also now the Federation – and the AARP. And what we were looking for is what
fundraising techniques worked in the USA, and what has worked
for the last hundred years. And I said to the staff,
“I want this formula.” Insurance is to the American Association
of Retired Persons as X is to gay. What is X? What do we need to grow
and attract and become a magnet for hundreds of thousands of people? It turned out the answer was
the Power of Affinity. We launched what is now a ubiquitous
third logo for the LGBT movement, a simple crisp equality sign. It ended up proliferating everywhere; not just to the set of Will & Grace,
but it could be spotted in China, Tibet, and all around the world, and it is like a secret wink that you are
understood and you see each other. We knew that the rocket fuel of change was those individual gay people
coming out every day in their truth, and we made sure that we were as wide and as broad
as possible to catch all of them. We always had in our
communications plan four filters. One: anything anyone said had to be
affirming of the 13-year-old gay person. The second thing is
we had to talk to parents. The mom in Iowa and the dad in Alabama
had to understand what we were saying. The third rule was the most important:
I had to be a nice lesbian on the air. So, when I was going toe to toe
with Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, the minute I became
mean or shrill, we lost. And we needed diverse voices, tons of diversity to reach every
corner of the country. In any movement on any cause, you have to be willing
to leap over giants. It helped that I grew up in Canada, I had no mystical feelings about Congress, but when you can’t get
anything out of Congress, you have got to pivot and focus
and deliver to the people you represent, and we did that. We started a program to leap directly into the everyday lives
of LGBT people in the workplace, and we got hundreds of companies to voluntarily implement
domestic partner coverage and all kinds of protections
for their gay employees. It moved fast as a slow moving grass fire. It didn’t matter who was
in the White House, it didn’t matter who was in Congress. It moved across industry,
across geography. We launched a family program to help gay people think about children
and how to have them. You have to be very deliberate
if you’re gay and you want to have kids. It just doesn’t happen
in the back of a Volkswagen. So, we spent years coordinating
and putting out consistent messages and the right spokespeople, over and over again. And in concert with the other
amazing organizations out there, here’s where we are today. Today, if you’re gay,
you get your own TV show. (Laughter) It just gets issued at birth. There’s not a month that goes by that there is not another
major sports-figure that comes out. Entertainment heterosexuals are
desperately looking around the channels to find some heterosexually-themed
situation comedy. There’s no more boy-meets-girl on the air. There’s been an explosion
in entertainment, which has frankly confused
the American people because they think we have our rights. We’re in a transgender watershed with brave people like Caitlyn Jenner facing down the most
grueling, difficult truth that one could face. And then every once in a while,
an amazing leader comes along. He passed the Hate Crimes Bill, provided the leadership
to change the policy, the horrible Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
policy in the US military, and allowed open service
for gay and lesbian people. And then he did an amazing thing: he took the Windsor case from last year, which struck down Section 3
of the The Defense of Marriage Act, and the administration interpreted it
to allow for all federal benefits. It was a watershed, it was a miracle. (Applause) And so, that brings us
to marriage equality. We’re literally on the eve of it, and I believe the Court
will finally rule that, yes, gay and lesbian couples can indeed have the right
to basic civil marriage licenses in every state in the union. There are two people that were phenomenal. One is Evan Wolfson,
who was literally obsessed. He was obsessed years ago about marriage, and he was like our Paul Revere;
he never gave up, he kept going. And then our Thurgood Marshall
is Mary Bonuato, a brilliant legal mind who step by step
by step brought us to this place. But America loves
to thump on its own chest and think we are incredible as humans
in terms of civil rights and human rights. But you know what? We’re way behind all these nations. They did gay marriage years ago, and Ireland just did it by popular vote. We are so behind other nations, not just on this issue
but other issues that effect LGBT people. And when something is wrong,
it is wrong for all time. It’s just wrong. Plessy v. Ferguson was wrong in its time,
in the 19th century, late 19th century. “Separate but equal” was wrong. It was wrong then,
it would be wrong today. If the Supreme Court
is looking for more time for Americans to mull
over marriage for gay people, it is not their job. Their job is to deliver justice, not to decide when
justice should be delivered. (Applause) So our work is not yet done. We still live in a country where
there is still no federal protection, none, in terms of employment, housing
or public accommodation for gay, lesbian, bisexual
or transgender people. And this is a snapshot of the world. Everywhere that it is orange, red or rust, you can be imprisoned or put to death
for being gay or transgender. When Nelson Mandela had spent
almost three decades in prison and then was released, and he was working and dreaming
of the new South Africa, he spent weeks negotiating
with the Afrikaners, and they covered every issue: truth and reconciliation,
race, ethnicity, gender. They looked at every part
of what that Constitution should do, and they addressed every issue imaginable. And at the very end of the negotiations, Nelson Mandela said,
“There’s one more thing I want.” And the Afrikaners said, “What are you talking about?
What else could you want?” And he said, “I want to put sexual orientation
and gender identity in the new Constitution for South Africa.” And they looked at him and said, “Are you out of your mind? Having spent so many years in prison and all those blood
and the tears and the strife and the ripping apart of our nation, why would you insert
such a controversial issue? Why would you do that?” And Nelson Mandela said, “Having drawn a circle so large,
I am not about to leave anybody out.” And so, today, South Africa is the only country on Earth that has sexual orientation and gender
identity embedded into its Constitution. And from the time I was a little girl, running through the forests
on Vancouver Island and dreaming of a new world, I thought that was an idea
worth spreading. Thank you. (Applause)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *