This interview is part-five of LGBTQ Nation’s Queer State of the Union, in which we speak with some of the nation’s leaders about the challenges — and solutions — in our struggle for equality.
Kelley Robinson was leading Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s political arm when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022.
She was sitting in a room full of abortion providers at the time.
Before they could internalize what the news meant for the future of reproductive rights, every staff member had to get on the phone and call pregnant women across the nation to tell them that the appointments they had planned that week, or that day, could not move forward.
Robinson knows what it’s like to show up and do the work no matter what, even when you’re holding back tears because you’re forced to explain to women they lost autonomy over their bodies.
In November 2022, she was elected the ninth president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), becoming the first Black queer woman to hold the position in the civil rights group’s 40-year existence.
Now she aspires to be the first Black queer woman to spearhead the HRC in fundamentally changing the country and its systems of power.
Before accepting the position, Robinson, who resides in Washington DC with her wife and children, thought about what the job would mean for their safety in a time of unprecedented threats against prominent queer people and others.
She sits at the head of the most prominent LGBTQ+ advocacy group in the United States. With that responsibility comes the reality that there are bigots who would do anything to try and stop the organization’s mission for equality.
LGBTQ Nation chatted with Robinson at a pivotal moment in political history with queer equality under attack everywhere from red states all the way up to the conservative majority Supreme Court.
LGBTQ NATION: What does fighting for queer rights mean to you in 2023?
KELLEY ROBINSON: I come to this work as a Black woman, as a queer person, as a wife, and as a mom. And there are so many issues that matter to people in the community because we hold all of these identities, right? But I think the powerful thing is that when we engage in fights, what we’re actually doing is opening up more rights and freedoms for everyone.
You can’t get to liberation without racial justice; you can’t get there without disability rights, immigration justice, climate change, and climate reform. All of these pieces are key to us actually getting free. So this moment for me is both about a crisis at hand and the fact that because of this unique crisis, we have unparalleled opportunities to advance change in a way that we have not seen happen in generations. And for that, I’m really hopeful for the fight.
“You can’t get to liberation without racial justice; you can’t get there without disability rights, immigration justice, climate change, and climate reform.“Kelley Robinson
LGBTQ NATION: It took 40 years for HRC to name their first Black queer woman president. Why do you think that is, and how does the weight of that honor feel?
KR: I am really clear that there’s a responsibility at hand. I think the task for HRC is to make sure that every LGBTQ+ person in this country knows that when we talk about fighting for equality, we are talking about them.
So to be honest with you, I don’t think that there was another moment in time where people were ready for the leadership of a Black woman of this organization until right now. And now that I’m here, hmmmppff! We’re bout’ to take them down, okay!
LGBTQ NATION: How do you prioritize the most urgent issues?
KR: The biggest thing to understand is that we cannot be single-issue. You have to talk about the violence happening in Black trans communities, particularly against Black trans women. At the same time, be able to talk about how it is a disgrace that we are still living with the HIV epidemic in this country. At the same time, also be able to talk about the issues facing folks related to discrimination across this country because of the loopholes created under the guise of, you know, “religious freedoms.”
LGBTQ NATION: In politics, there’s often that saying, especially when it comes to voting, choosing the lesser of two evils.
KR: I don’t think that we actually have to stand for that anymore. We’re at a point where we’re thinking about transformational politics. Look at Pennsylvania as a great example. Nobody would have thought that we’d be standing here at the end of the 2022 cycle, where we’ve taken back both chambers in Pennsylvania, and the governorship is able to advance progress. You also have the first out Black lesbian elected to the legislature with La’Tasha D. Mayes coming out of Pittsburgh. That means there’s an opportunity for us to not deal with politics as usual but instead to think about who the champions are that we can elect on behalf of our people.
If I were to think about ways that we are really pushing the Democratic party to be accountable, it’s there. We’re not just voting against people anymore. We need people that we can vote for.
LGBTQ NATION: And speaking about accountability, what would you say is the liberal agenda’s Achilles heel, if there is one?
KR: Hahahaha, what a loaded question! The liberal agenda’s Achilles heel…
LGBTQ NATION: Oh my gosh, sorry, you’re right. I now hear that wording. But is there an urgent issue that we need to fix internally?
KR: Because there are problems in progressive politics doesn’t mean that we don’t still engage and operate.
I also want to say that our issue is beyond partisanship. Like, even if you look at the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act gun safety bill, we had an incredible amount of Republican support. They know we’ve created an issue you cannot be against because the people’s will is with it.
The Achilles heel is that we can’t take voters for granted. And I think that for too long progressive institutions have taken the support of people of color and queer folks for granted. We have to deliver on behalf of these communities to motivate and engage them in the fight and in the work.
LGBTQ NATION: We had at least 340 LGBTQ+ candidates win their elections across the nation, surpassing the previous record of 336 set in 2020.
KR: We saw a rainbow wave come through, not a red wave, which was huge. We need to ensure that we demystify the process of running for office because there’s no reason you shouldn’t be running for office.
LGBTQ NATION: Regarding voting, HRC polling estimates that queer voters will make up increasingly large parts of the electorate as Gen Z ages into adulthood. How do we wield this power?
KR: The biggest threat to progressivism is not our opposition. It’s actually people that are with us feeling disillusioned by the system. There are so many ways our opposition has rigged it. We don’t have a representative democracy right now because of the gerrymandering that’s taken place. And the way that the Senate is set up to not actually represent the will of the people.
To take advantage of the demographic shifts, we’ve got to make sure that we’re giving people a meaningful way to engage and fixing the system so that they know that when they vote, it will actually make a difference. So some of the work we’re doing around voter reform and ensuring that we’re protecting things like the right to protest are key there.
LGBTQ NATION: You were executive director of Planned Parenthood for three years. And you worked with the organization for 12. What are the looming implications of Roe v. Wade being overturned?
KR: Man, they are huge. The big picture implication is that we’re now dealing with a Supreme Court that’s in the business of taking away rights. And if that’s our reality, that’s a very dangerous one when we think about what else could be rolled back.
The other piece of it is, I think when you look in the global context at ways that authoritarianism has moved in countries. Normally, the first thing they come after is gender, right? Trying to reduce people’s rights and powers based on gender, which we see with Roe, and we also see with the trans attacks. And the second thing they come after is education, which we also see with the “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bills that are moving in states and the threat to “Critical Race Theory.”
What we saw happened during Roe; that’s like the canary in the coal mine moment. We all have a responsibility to fight back here for the sake of our democracy.
LGBTQ NATION: All these issues are important, but trans issues are one of the issues that voters haven’t rallied around. Less than 5% of voters that the HRC polled said they were motivated by trans issues. How do we get people to care about trans lives?
KR: A lot of it is about storytelling and visibility and representation. GLAAD has an interesting stat: More people believe they have seen a ghost than a trans person. Ain’t that something?
LGBTQ NATION: I’m waiting for the punchline for that one…
KR: Yeah! It’s kind of like, wow. When you hear it, the reality is quite dangerous. Because people don’t understand that trans folks – trans kids – are just our kids. We have to do a better job of storytelling and representation. Because if we don’t, the opposition is seeking to criminalize trans folks, dehumanize our trans family, or, at worst, create a world where they’re seen as dangerous – that cannot happen.
LGBTQ NATION: I hope you don’t mind if I get a little personal. Stacy Stevenson, the head of Family Equality, said she moved to DC from Texas because of safety concerns. Of course, having been the head of Planned Parenthood, you know about the dangers that exists in fighting for human rights. But now you are literally the face of what the radical right sees as the most threatening organization to their agenda. Did you have any fears or think about your safety when taking the position? Is this a conversation you’ve had with loved ones, and how did you navigate this?
KR: Before I took this role, my wife and I had a long conversation about what it would mean for us and our family. I’ve been an organizer and a movement activist for a long time. And I don’t know exactly when we started to believe that doing this work was safe. Because it’s not. We are fundamentally challenging the systems of power – we’re trying to change the country.
When we talk about leaders that have done it, like Martin Luther King, and John Lewis, they didn’t do it without risks. And I’m not saying that all of us should be putting ourselves in the line of danger. But what I am saying is that for us to get free, it’s going to take risks.
For some of us, that risk will be telling your story in a powerful way. For some, it’s going to be being brave enough to live as your full self when you go to school or go to work. And for others, the job is like mine, to step up every day and fight relentlessly for our people.
Featured image: Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images, Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Supermajority. Illustration by Kyle Neal for LGBTQ Nation.