INSIDERS OUT Politics: An openly gay and powerful Washington couple goes about the business of championing music and human rights, and making sexual orientation a non-issue.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An article Monday overstated the federal campaign contributions made by Hilary Rosen, CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America. She has donated more than $114,000 to political campaigns and organizations since 1987, according to records filed with the Federal Election Commission.

The Sun regrets the errors.

WASHINGTON -- It has been a busy few months for lobbyists Elizabeth Birch and Hilary Rosen. They mingled with a dozen senators at a beach retreat in Nantucket, entertained Hillary Rodham Clinton at their home in the Maryland suburbs and partied with Kathy Mattea and her country music pals at a bash on the vice president's compound.

Along the way, Birch chatted live on CNN. Rosen spoke up on NBC. And, for fun, they traded CDs with Tipper Gore.

A well-connected Washington power couple? For sure. But there is a difference: Birch and Rosen are gay. The detail is both meaningful and irrelevant -- meaningful because both say they could not have made it in this town had they stayed in the closet, irrelevant because theirs is in some ways a typical, if complex, story of Washington success.

"We're the crossover couple," says Rosen, the $510,000-a-year CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America. "Kind of like the Garth Brooks of the gay and lesbian world."

Garth Brooks, maybe. Or perhaps a gay Bob and Elizabeth Dole. Rosen, whose salary and powers are among the highest at Washington's trade groups, enjoys close connections with lawmakers that are enhanced by the fund-raisers she organizes and campaign contributions she delivers.

Birch, head of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian political group, has doubled the organization's size to more than 200,000 and magnified its political clout -- not surprising given her previous career as one of the country's highest-ranking openly gay corporate lawyers.

Within Washington's rarefied government circles, they are regarded as deal-makers who know how to put on the pressure without overdoing it. "They've got real political savvy," said George Stephanopoulos, the former top Clinton aide who has seen them in action lobbying the White House. "And both are seen as leaders in their own right."

Yet even given their prominence -- and their recognized political talent -- they remain marginalized because of who they are and how they live.

Every night, Birch and Rosen go home to a relationship that some of the same lawmakers they lobby -- even befriend -- have deemed illegitimate. Congress and the Clinton administration backed a bill last year barring same-sex marriages -- dismissing couples like Birch and Rosen, regardless of their clout. The Washington world has accepted them, but only to a point.

Still, they are very much "out" as a couple, together on the political scene for the past two years. As a pair, they have attended the Grammys, posed for pictures flanking President Clinton, even sat in the studio audience of the coming-out episode of "Ellen." Birch tells friends that meeting Rosen was like finding her soul-mate. As for Rosen, she keeps one photograph on her desk: A shot of Birch, windswept under a powder-blue sky.

Sitting on earth-colored couches in their glass-walled living room overlooking Rock Creek Park, they cannot talk about each other without discussing their decisions to be openly gay.

"You really don't have another choice. If you know you want to be happy and fulfilled and have a greater sense of your own power, then being out is the only option," says Rosen, 38.

Out in front

"There's some trailblazing in both our stories," adds Birch, 40. "It's very rare to find lesbians at our corporate level who are absolutely passionate about gay and lesbian issues."

Together three years, they have not performed a commitment ceremony, but describe the relationship as long-term. They met through their gay activism -- opposites, in some ways.

Rosen is a dark-haired, green-eyed New Jersey native with a deadpan sense of humor. Whatever she does, she likes precision, effectiveness, control -- whether it is taking charge of a meeting on the Hill, competing on the golf links or preparing dinner. Even when posing for pictures, there are certain angles she likes and others she won't permit.

Birch counter-balances Rosen's East Coast intensity. The tall blond daughter of a Canadian Air Force engineer, she has a laid-back manner that wins trust. When the Ontario native moved to Santa Cruz to head international litigation at Apple Computer in the 1980s, she settled cases that other lawyers would have taken straight to court.

Rosen, who became a lobbyist 20 years ago, has been calling lawmakers by their first names ever since. But Birch's path was more circuitous. She once took a break from lawyering to write a screenplay called "Dykes in Oz," featuring a character with a lipstick switchblade.

Even with these differences, they have shared a similar journey.

Both feel very close to their families. Birch, one of five children (her younger sister is also a lesbian), describes hers as "the Cleavers." They did typical stuff like go camping and watch beauty pageants on TV. Rosen and her older brother remained close through their parents' divorce. Her mother will tell a virtual stranger how proud she is of Rosen and Birch.

Both came out as young adults. Birch was 16 when she ran off with the traveling musical troupe, Up With People, where she met other gay kids. Rosen explored her lesbianism in college -- she dated her George Washington University roommate -- and decided to come out in her early 20s while lobbying Congress on AIDS issues.

Both had strong political instincts early on. Birch started by overturning her high school's no-pants rule for girls. Later, she took on pro bono gay-rights cases for a San Francisco law firm. After that, she won benefits for domestic partners at Apple.

Rosen was also active. She campaigned for George McGovern via telephone, so folks in her West Orange, N.J., hometown would not know they were being lobbied by a 13-year-old. She worked in the New Jersey state office in Washington, and soon got hired by a private lobbying firm.

An important role

As a pair, the two are a potent image in the gay community.

"They put the 'go' in 'you go, girl!' " says Bob Hattoy, a Clinton administration aide and gay activist. "They cannot be dismissed because they are so professional and good at what they do."

He adds: "Washington respects power first and who you sleep with second."

Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who is openly gay, says the two set an important precedent: "Others should come out. There are more like Hilary and Elizabeth who are closeted."

But some criticize the couple, accusing them of getting too cozy within the system.

"The most important thing to them is getting invited to the next cocktail party," says Steve Michael, an AIDS activist with ACT UP. "You've got to push the envelope, constantly, and that's not what they do. They are not rooted in our world."

Rosen and Birch know they cannot make everyone happy: That isn't their goal. If they are trailblazers, then they want to be the pragmatic kind.

In fighting for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would protect homosexuals from workplace discrimination, Birch sought the support of not just gay rights groups but conservative lawmakers as well. As head of the Human Rights Campaign, a non-profit group that lobbies policy-makers on gay-rights, she remains a vocal supporter of the Clinton administration despite its failure to back same-sex marriage.

Rosen also operates in the mainstream, but in a different way. Her strategy: Keep her music industry life separate from her gay-rights activism to maintain her credibility in the business world. For example, she held her stand against censorship and resisted pressure to attack music with vitriolic, gay-bashing lyrics.

"Quite honestly, that she's gay never crosses my mind," says Jack Valenti, who heads the Motion Picture Association of America. She is, he says, all business. "When the dagger is at your belly and you wonder how do you react, that's when you look to Hilary."

Rosen and Birch both felt pangs of worry as they tried to make it as openly gay professionals. Birch said coming out of the closet sometimes made her feel "opened up like a filet" in the public eye. But both women note that some of their greatest mentors have been straight men, and their concerns about workplace discrimination did not materialize.

"There was a moment maybe two years ago when it occurred to me that it might be a stretch for the board to give me the top job," says Rosen, who was named CEO last month. "But it was only a flash. A very brief flash."

The pair first met more than three years ago, when Rosen was on the Human Rights Campaign's board of directors and Birch was preparing to leave her job at Apple. By early 1995, after Birch took over the gay-rights group, Rosen stepped off the board and the two became a couple. Not long after that, they moved in together.

Multipurpose home

At first glance, their home is a serene retreat, a haven in Chevy Chase with music almost always pulsing out of speakers hidden in vaulted ceilings. But if this is Zen paradise, it has morphed into its pure Washington form. Birch uses the meditation tower mainly to write congressional testimony, and no one is home much to enjoy the koi ponds.

Still, the $750,000 house has proven perfect for something else: fund-raising parties. In June, the duo raised about $75,000 there for California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

The event brought everyone from Candace Gingrich to Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski. A testament to their pull: Even Hillary Clinton stopped by to deliver a few words.

Some contributors said it was the hosts, not the senator or even the impressive guest list, that prompted them to show up with checks in hand.

"Hilary asked me and said it was important to her," says lobbyist Mike Berman, one-time aide to former Vice President Walter Mondale. "It was Hilary, so I just said yes."

The donations all fit into an elaborate chain of favors -- some delivered, others received.

Since 1988, Rosen has contributed more than $1 million, mostly to Democrats. After the GOP takeover of Congress, she also gave to groups such as Americans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee headed by Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the House Republican whip.

Support from Washington's players is critical if Rosen and Birch hope to realize their own political agendas. For Rosen, this means battling against possible federal controls over music content and trying to secure strict copyright laws to protect musicians' intellectual property rights. Birch, meanwhile, is actively promoting the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

Sometimes, their political lives are at cross-purposes. On a recent evening at home, Birch looked anything but disappointed when Rep. Sonny Bono had to cancel an evening fund-raiser planned at their house. She dubbed the party for the California Republican "a Hilary thing."

Bono happens to be one of Rosen's allies in guarding musicians from the pirating of their work. But unlike his ex-wife, Cher, Bono has not embraced gay-rights legislation, even since his daughter Chastity came out of the closet and became a political activist.

A big celebration

"You tell Congressman Bono that the instant he becomes a co-sponsor of ENDA," Birch said to Rosen, "I'll throw him the biggest party in Washington."

The two spend much of their time courting federal lawmakers. In April, Birch attended a White House coffee with Clinton. Participants said it was not a fund-raiser, but the 15-member group of activists and local politicians had Clinton's ear for more than an hour.

Often, the couple's private life and public work mix. In July, they went to Nantucket for a Democratic fund-raising retreat, where contributions averaged $20,000 per person. That same month, they combined work and pleasure at a country music gala at the Gores' house. From their vast collection of compact discs -- which includes everything from Bob Dylan to Celine Dion -- they traded with Tipper Gore, whom Rosen and Birch call a friend.

So it is easy to see how politics has become the background music to their relationship. Even from the solitude of their home one evening, a long day of work behind them, the world of Washington rarely seemed far away.

"We are very in love with each other," Birch said. "And it's deeply meaningful."

A beat passed.

"What's more," Rosen quipped, "we both agree on the copyright law."

Pub Date: 9/08/97

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