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A Relentless Rebel Pushes Ahead : Activism: For most of her life, Torie Osborn pursued social change as the antidote to life's sadness. Now she's on her way to head the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

April 25, 1993|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was Torie Osborn's last night in Los Angeles. The next morning she would board a plane for Washington with a one-way ticket to her new job heading one of the nation's leading gay-rights organizations. But this was no quiet evening of emotional goodbys and nostalgia after a decade here.

No, Osborn was schmoozing high in the hills at a fund-raiser for a new coalition working to lift the military ban on homosexuals. She smiled her way past the hors d'oeuvres, through rooms packed with gay men, greeting and meeting and finally grabbing the microphone for a quick pep talk. It was vintage Osborn, playing a role she had assumed countless times during her four years at the helm of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center and will assume countless more times in her new post as executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

A passionate evangelist of the gay cause, Osborn has a hard time passing up a crowd. She has been throwing herself into one movement or another since high school and, at 42, sees herself as a thoroughly political being, wedded to her work above all else.

Osborn is a bundle of contradictions: Part Doris Day with an MBA, part raging rebel operating by her own standards. She tosses off the catchwords of gay rights with an ease that can border on the glibly naive and a zeal and magnetism that is inescapable.

"She is driven by the politics of everything," observes Sylvia Rhue, a former staffer at the community center. "That's what keeps her alive."

Ensconced in the corner of a couch for an interview just before leaving Los Angeles last month, Osborn sat with her feet tucked under her, leaning forward to emphasize points, her voice sometimes resonating like a preacher's as she bounced from politics to the personal and back again.

"We are right ," she proclaims, her blue eyes flashing. "Equal protection under the law is a righteous goal. . . . There is the great promise of pluralism and democracy that is the best of America. We will win eventually."

With such fervor Osborn helped propel the 22-year-old community center into prominence as not only the nation's largest social service agency for gays and lesbians, but also a high-profile advocate of gay rights. The first woman to head the center, she nearly tripled the size of the staff to more than 150 people, dramatically diversifying it. Predominantly Anglo male when Osborn took over, the staff was half women and nearly half minority by the time she departed last fall for several months of vacation. The annual budget more than doubled to $7.4 million and the organization left its dingy, long-time quarters for a spacious new home in Hollywood.

At the much smaller task force--which lobbies and does grass-roots organizing around the country--Osborn is expected to work a similar transformation. "She will have big plans," predicts Tim McFeeley, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, another Washington-based gay-rights group. "She will push the board and staff to perform. She'll drive it."

Push, drive. Osborn has spent much of her adult life in the restless pursuit of change. Even as a child, she was aware of the world's failings. One of her early memories is of a food riot in Franco's Spain, where her father was on a tour of duty with the U.S. State Department. "We were immediately whisked away, and there were explosions and guns and screaming. . . . I remember feeling panicked and angry--why doesn't somebody do something about this," she says, pounding her knee as the recollection revives her outrage.

Do something! could be Osborn's motto. Direct and intense, she "has little tolerance for minutiae. She does cut right to the chase," says one of her admirers, David M. Smith, who worked under Osborn at the center and credits her with shaping the agency with a vision of growth and political advocacy. "Sometimes," Smith concedes, that "doesn't make people feel good."

Osborn herself says that her "rage can blow people away, I've hurt people with my anger. Politically, it's been helpful. But personally, it's been hurtful." Still, she muses with a touch of defiant acceptance, "I'm comfortable with it."

Osborn officially began her journey of protest after a short-lived attempt to fit her Irish-Catholic adolescent self into the blond, Republican, WASP world of her private girls' high school outside of Philadelphia. She starved herself, dyed her hair and bleached her freckles--to the acclaim of her classmates and the horror of her father, who had by then left the foreign service to work for a pharmaceutical company as an international liaison.

"My father pulled me aside and delivered this lecture about how boring these women were, how their families contributed nothing," Osborn recalls. "You want to be on the side of the common man," her father admonished.

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