Elizabeth Birch was acutely aware of her sexuality as a child, she said.
She left the small town in Canada where she grew up because she knew her sexual preferences wouldnt be readily accepted, escaping to Hawaii and her first girlfriend.
Now she lives in Washington D.C., and while the country she chose mostly still doesnt allow gay marriage, the country she left now does.
Birch delivered the featured speech to an audience of about 150 at the University of Montanas third annual Day of Dialogue, a symposium focusing on a range of topics, from race and gender to disabilities and mental illness.
Birchs address was titled Gay Civil Rights: Its Impact on the Individual, Business and Community. Birch was one of the first openly gay heads of a corporation in the United States, serving as worldwide director of litigation for Apple Computer, Inc. In 1995 she became head of the Human Rights Campaign, the countrys largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organization.
Birch said that the last four or five decades will some day be seen as the gay civil rights years. The United States has been slow to adopt gay rights, with currently no place in the federal code that protects gays and lesbians, she said.
The United States, from a global perspective, is like watching a slug move across Australia, she said.
Many Americans may not be aware of the lack of gay rights in this country because of the difference between actual policies and the cultural perception of gays, she said. Every sitcom has its obligatory gay character and Lindsey Lohan has a girlfriend.
Im telling you, all the gay people are on TV, she said.
Birch also talked politics, saying Barack Obamas emergence was phenomenal, despite the fact that she was initially a Hillary Clinton supporter. She said she knew John McCain in the past and he used to be a different man.
Hes become like a born-again pretzel, with everything malleable, everything up for grabs, she said.
She questioned Sarah Palins preparedness for the vice presidency as well.
We cant be goaded into not telling the truth, she said. The woman is not bright.
Before Birchs speech, two UM dancers, Michael Leu Becker and Pete Betcher, performed an excerpt of the production Swan Lake: Undercurrents, a performance that is the senior project of UM students Liz Martin and Jessica Zacharias. The two reconstructed the classic Tchaikovsky ballet, placing the prince in a white separatist family and making the swan black and male, introducing elements of both homosexuality and race.
Were trying to make it accessible to show that the swans are just as bigoted as the white supremacists, Zacharias said.
The full-length production will be performed in the universitys Masquer Theatre on Dec. 3 and 4.
The Day of Dialogue featured another dance by UM Dance Departments African Dance Class and Unity Dance and Drum. Sounds of drumming and spirited routines attracted a noontime audience in the UC.
We really feel strongly about being involved in diversity events, said dance instructor Tarn Ream.
The Day of Dialogue also featured 31 presentations and workshops on a range of topics.
Molly Collins, assistant director of student involvement, said event attendance had increased since last year, though she wasnt ready to release exact numbers.
Tina Brown, Day of Dialogue coordinator, said she received positive responses about several of the presentations.
I think its been fabulous, she said.