In November, Kelley Robinson became president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest LGBTQ+ advocacy group in the United States.
Robinson took over the organization – which has over three million members – at a difficult moment. Her predecessor, Alphonse David, stepped down from his role when it was revealed that he had secretly advised former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, at a time when the Democratic politician was facing multiple allegations of sexual harassment. Furthermore, in the days just before her tenure began, a shooter opened fire in an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs. Five people were killed and 25 injured in the hate crime.
In the aftermath of the attack in Colorado, on November 20, Robinson – then the incoming-president of the HRC – responded with a forceful statement: “We know anti-LGBTQ+ hate is on the rise and gun violence impacts our community at devastating rates. We must rise against hate in the strongest possible terms, we must stand together in solidarity and love with our LGBTQ+ family and demand an end to this epidemic of gun violence.”
The first Black gay woman to lead the HRC – an organization that has been criticized in the past for devoting most of its efforts to the rights of gay white men – Robinson’s appointment is historic. She brings with her more than 13 years of experience as a director at Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of reproductive health services in the US. For the past three years, she headed the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, lobbying for the defense of abortion rights.
Earlier this year, Robinson, 36, spoke with EL PAÍS about gun violence, rising hate against sexual minorities and her role in the movement to champion LGBTQ+ rights.
“Representation matters,” she stressed. “One of my biggest priorities is going to be about bringing more folks of color into the movement and creating leadership opportunities. And also understanding that, while I’m bringing a lot of identity and lived experiences, I don’t have all of them.”
Robinson also made the point that the fight for gay rights is interconnected with many other struggles.
“Whether you think about abortion access, or you’re thinking about being able to love the person that you choose, it’s an interconnected fight. And we’ve got work to do. When the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, Justice Clarence Thomas, in his dissent, said that they should also reconsider the landmark decisions that have affirmed our right to marry the people we choose… our right to privacy, our right to contraception. These are interconnected battles.”
Thomas – the oldest member of the Supreme Court – is a far-right Republican, married to a pro-Trump election denier. As he now sits on a conservative majority (6-3) on the most powerful court in the US, his musings about overturning legal precedents that made contraception (1965) and gay marriage (2015) legal in the United States are to be taken seriously.
Robinson was able to get married in 2020 because the Supreme Court had declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states five years earlier, during the Obama administration. She is married to her wife, Becky George – who works in gun violence prevention – and the couple has a one-year-old son.
“We decided to get married… a lot of it was because of Covid-19. We were very concerned that, if one of us got sick or was in the hospital, we wouldn’t be granted the privilege of being able to visit each other.”
“It’s essential that we get enough power and that the government [House and Senate] enshrines our rights into law so that they can be protected. The Supreme Court has told us their intention of reviewing these landmark pieces of legislation; we should take them at their word.”
From women’s reproductive rights to hate crime legislation, Robinson thinks that it is a matter of urgency to pass laws that are not on the books, or codify whichever ones are, to avoid the consequences of conservative judicial activism. This won’t be easy – although the House of Representatives recently gave final congressional approval to legislation that provides federal recognition of same-sex marriages, it is more problematic to get right-wing politicians to support abortion rights or trans rights. With the Republicans taking the House and the Democrats narrowly retaining the Senate in the 2022 midterm elections, the challenges next year for civil rights will be even greater.
Robinson plans on placing transgender rights at the forefront during her tenure at the HRC.
“We have to do more to create space for trans folks to lead, especially Black trans women. Last year was the deadliest year on record for trans lives. That’s the reality that our communities are living with… they go to work, go to school, go to church, walk their dog, wondering if this is the day they’re not going to make it home. People are in a fight for their lives.”
Over the past 10 years, more than two-thirds of the more than 300 murders of trans people that the HRC has tracked have involved guns. Two of the five people killed in the Colorado Springs shooting were trans.
Robinson considers certain “political attacks” to be the driving force behind anti-trans attitudes. She mentions the so-called “Don’t say gay” law in Florida, passed by Governor Ron DeSantis of the Republican Party. The legislation prohibits discussion about sexual orientation or gender theory in elementary classrooms. It has proven popular among the electorate – DeSantis secured his re-election by more than 20 points in November and is expected to challenge Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
Because of laws like the one passed by DeSantis, Robinson says, “there was a 400% increase in misinformation and bullying of LGBTQ+ kids in [Florida] online. They’re launching a culture war against our kids in the digital space.”
Robinson, who grew up middle-class in Chicago, has first-hand experience with being made to feel less-than-equal. Her ancestors, who were slaves, left Mississippi to settle in Iowa – the first state to pass anti-slavery legislation. As a child, she promptly discovered what racism was: “Your parents would tell you not to have your hands in your pockets in a store, because people might think that you’re stealing… even as a four or five-year-old! Chicago is a very segregated city.”
“My first really negative experience with racism, though, was when I was in school at the University of Missouri. There was a subtlety to the racism… I would be friends with someone during the day or in class, but then we’d be at a party at night and they’d be a totally different person.”
There was a particular incident where some white students put cotton balls outside the Black Culture Center. It was a clear symbol of the history of plantation slavery. “When we [the Black students] told the administration that we were upset about this, they said that we were overreacting.”
These kinds of experiences pushed Robinson out of university. She worked as a waitress and practiced mixed martial arts. But then, in 2008, she worked on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, registering thousands of young people to vote in the swing state of Missouri. By 2009, given her capacity for organizing, she was hired by Planned Parenthood.
More than 10 years later, she feels that the US is going through “a scary moment.”
“This isn’t the democracy that my ancestors fought for. They [Trump supporters] have their tagline – ‘Make America Great Again’ – that’s about taking us back to a time when people who looked like me didn’t have the rights and freedoms that we have today. I think it’s our job to remember that they are not the majority… they’re just a small set of extremists. It’s our job to show that we are the majority, to vote and restore democracy.”
Her past work at the Planned Parenthood Action Fund precisely consisted of getting people motivated to vote for progressive policies. Robinson can take much credit for the recent midterm election results, which stopped pro-Trump Republicans from sweeping the Democrats, as most polls indicated. High youth, minority and female participation in traditionally low-turnout legislative elections was bolstered by fears of abortion rights being taken away. Planned Parenthood made the case for people to participate in their democracy. In five right-leaning states, anti-choice legislation was defeated by voters in referendums.
However, despite the positive results in the midterms, Robinson isn’t letting down her guard. She worries that the electoral system is becoming less and less representative with each passing year.
“By 2040, 70% of the country will live in 20 states. What that means is that 50 senators will have a huge amount of power in the United States Congress, but they’ll represent only 30% of the population.”
Robinson doesn’t pretend to have a solution to this. For the time being, she’s going to concentrate on preserving the democracy that exists.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition