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.

INSIDERS OUT

September 08, 1997|By ELLEN GAMERMAN | ELLEN GAMERMAN,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON — 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.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

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.

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