“The crisis has found me once again”: HRC’s new president on building a movement to take down hate

Kelley Robinson, President, Human Rights Campaign
Kelley Robinson, President, Human Rights Campaign Photo: Human Rights Campaign

Last September, the Human Rights Campaign announced the appointment of Kelley Robinson as the civil rights organization’s ninth president and the first Black and queer woman to lead the group.

Robinson, 37, stepped into the role at the end of November after serving as executive director of Planned Parenthood’s Action Fund. She got her start in community organizing with Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008, the same year she earned a BA in sociology and women’s and gender studies from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

We spoke at the end of June after Robinson landed back in Washington following visits to Pride events across the country and check-ins with some of the three million members that make up the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ rights organization.

The travel included a stop at Pride in Seattle, where Robinson’s wife officiated a wedding. The couple share a daughter together.

Robinson was animated on a muggy afternoon at HRC’s iconic headquarters, just blocks north of the White House.

LGBTQ Nation: You’re about halfway through your first year on the job. How are you settling in?

Kelley Robinson: Well, it has been quite the welcome wagon, with all of the vicious attacks that the community has been experiencing. I mean, I came to this role from Planned Parenthood. I was the executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. And there, I always felt like I was in the center of the fight and the crisis moment. And coming here, it’s like the crisis has found me once again.

But it feels like the right work to do at the right moment. And I do really believe in this ethos that with crisis, it actually opens the door for an opportunity to push through transformative change. So I’m excited to be in the role. But I’m also very clear about the assignment right now, and the urgency of the work that we’ve got to do.

LGBTQ Nation: What do you bring to the organization that past leaders haven’t?

KR: I really do appreciate that this organization has been around for over 40 years, and it’s an incredible foundation. To come into a place that’s got three million members, and not just people on a list, but like active, engaged, passionate members, that has, you know, 36 steering committees across the country, that’s got staff, of course, here in DC, but also rooted in states — like, that’s an incredible foundation to get to build on.

And I’m excited to enter the fight at a time when we’ve got a lot of new leadership, like lots of new Black and brown leaders, lots of new women, trans and non-binary leaders. And for me, I think that I bring some really critical kind of understanding about the arc of this fight, especially from my history in the reproductive rights movement.

And you know, being a Black queer woman, like, you’ve got to be able to be a futurist. You got to be able to see a world where we can be more free than we’ve ever experienced before. And, I think, by nature of how I’ve grown up, by nature of how I’ve built movements, it allows me to vision forward a little bit and kind of see what could be possible with the great foundation that we built at HRC.

LGBTQ Nation: The organization was founded in 1980, which is a lifetime ago for you, literally.

KR: Laughs

LGBTQ Nation: What were some of the organization’s goals then versus now?

KR: I think that our mission has stayed consistent: fighting for full equality and liberation for LGBTQ+ people where we live, where we work, in policy, and in laws, as well. So we’re still keeping at that fight.

I think that in this moment, I really kind of embrace our fight as being an intersectional one. I mean, we’re talking today on the day that the Supreme Court has gutted affirmative action, and I’m clear what that means, right? They are continuing to perpetuate an idea that the changing demographics in this country are a reason for white folks and cisgender folks to be afraid and not embrace what that abundance could look like. This is a moral and true kind of crisis for democracy that we’re facing right now.

So again, I’m clear on the assignment and the imperative, and I think moving forward, HRC is really embracing this idea that we are fighting for full equality and liberation for every LGBTQ+ person, without exception, and leaning in at the intersections of this fight around racial justice, around trans justice, around reproductive justice and more.

LGBTQ Nation: HRC declared a State of Emergency for LGBTQ+ people in June. When will you know you can lift it?

KR: Right now, we are facing an imminent health and safety crisis for the community, for LGBTQ+ people and our families. And I think that we’ve got a long road to change the tide on these issues. Some of the indicators that we’re looking at are the legal and policy landscape. I mean, having over 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills being introduced in states across this country this year is huge, and it’s more than double what we’ve seen in any previous year.

Not only that, one in five of all hate crimes being motivated by anti-LGBTQ+ bias is real, and impacting our health and safety. And of course, we know that all of this is having a dramatic impact on the mental health of our kids. So I think that we’ll be looking for indicators around a changing tide in policy and law. Then we’ll also be looking for a reduction and a stop to the violence, both in rhetoric and the physical threats that we’re seeing.

LGBTQ Nation: What accounts for those hundreds of bills? Don’t Say Gay legislation, gender-affirming care bans, bans on trans athletes, queer book bans. The list is long. Are they another symptom of the MAGA insanity, or a pandemic hangover, or the next fight for conservatives after overturning Roe v. Wade? What’s changed in the culture to make the onslaught possible?

KR: I think this is the push and pull of progress, right? I mean, we see it every time that we make significant advances as a community. You see a massive backlash to that progress. You know, I think about Ellen DeGeneres coming out in 1997, and then Matthew Shepard being brutally murdered in 1998. I think about the Obergefell decision in 2015, and then, of course, in 2016, Pulse and the mass shooting. And in this case, I think that we saw the Respect for Marriage Act pass and their attempts to criminalize and attack our families losing so much steam, that they were looking for the next battleground to fight on.

I mean, the far-right American Principles Project actually said out loud, the reason that they were targeting kids was, quote, “to score political points.” So I think that that’s real.

I also think that we’ve got to fix politics in this country. It’s just — we’re not living in a representative democracy. In a lot of states what you have happening is, people in office not speaking for the majority of their state, and actually pandering to, and riling up, an extremist base of the Republican Party. And that’s happening because of the gerrymandering that’s occurred across the country. They are pandering to a very slim, very extreme part of their base. We’ve got to fix our infrastructure around democracy to solve this problem.

LGBTQ Nation: How does social media figure in, with groups like Moms for Liberty, Libs of TikTok, Gays Against Groomers? They feel like a fever that needs to break.

KR: Absolutely. They’re loud online, but they’re not the majority. I mean, the danger side of it is, when we see these bad bills moving across the country, they’re usually joined by some sort of violent online campaign. So when Don’t Say Gay and anti-trans bills were moving in Florida, we saw a 400% increase in hateful language targeted at the LGBTQ+ community, language like “groomers” and quote-unquote, “pedophiles.” And when we tracked it back, most of it was coming from ten bad actors, some of whom were actually affiliated with the administration in Florida that was pushing for those bills.

So, one, I think we’ve got to be clear seeing folks for who they are. This is not some sort of organic uprising of the people. This is an orchestrated effort by political extremists. And then two, realizing really what the harm can be. I mean, it’s so dangerous because even when these bills aren’t passing into law, you’re creating a culture of fear that’s ultimately impacting whether a kid feels like they can come out. It’s fueling people to show up to drag queen story hours with AR-15s. It’s fueling people to make bomb threats against pediatricians and children’s hospitals. That’s a result of all this negativity and violent rhetoric online.

LGBTQ Nation: So what’s your strategy for attacking that and the organization’s other goals?

KR: Well, we just partnered with GLAAD on a big letter to social media companies. I think a part of it is very practical. Social media companies have to uphold their own community guidelines and hold people accountable. They’re pushing this violent rhetoric online. Like, that’s clear, that’s straightforward and something that’s really actionable and that people can support and get behind.

The other piece is visibility. I mean, look. Right now there’s a stat out there that more people think that they have seen a ghost than a trans person.

LGBTQ Nation: (Laughing) I haven’t heard that. That’s a good one.

KR: (Laughing) Yeah, it’s from GLAAD, actually. But it’s also dangerous. We know that lack of visibility creates a vacuum where our opposition is pushing in hate and fear. Well, what we’ve got to do is increase the visibility of the community so that we can shift hearts and minds and deflate the steam from this line of attack. And we’ve done it before around marriage equality. I believe that we can do it again.

LGBTQ Nation: In your own experience, at Pride events this month as president, and just as a civilian, are you seeing more visibility of trans folks in the last year or two?

KR: Yeah, absolutely. Look, nobody has talked about trans people as much as they’re talking about trans people today. The problem is, we’ve got to make sure that it doesn’t feed into these lies and this misinformation, and instead, we’re creating room to have real dialogue to lift up — not just the story of trans lives being under attack and being at risk and in danger — but also of trans abundance, of what trans joy looks like, of celebrating this community. That’s the opportunity that is in front of us right now that we really have to lean into.

LGBTQ Nation: What do you think has inspired trans folks to come out in the numbers they have recently?

KR: I don’t know if people felt like they had a choice, right? I mean, the level of these attacks is just so outrageous. I think that people are living in fear in a lot of ways. So I’m excited that people have come to the forefront. I’m also excited about the stories of allyship that we’re seeing, people saying why this issue is important to them.

Even if you are not trans, even if you don’t believe you know someone that’s trans, there is something happening here that’s deeper than that. I just look back. I’m like, the same things that they’re saying about trans people today, they were saying about people living with HIV 30 years ago, right? The same thing they’re saying about trans folks today, they said about Black folks, about women, about Jewish folks about Muslim folks. I mean, the list goes on and on and on. And when you take it from that perspective, I think that we can see that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.

LGBTQ Nation: You appeared at a Senate hearing a few weeks ago addressing LGBTQ+ civil rights, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz came after you pretty hard, asking, “Is there a difference between women and men?” I don’t think the senator really wanted to hear any nuance that day in front of the cameras. But if you had more time with him, out of the spotlight, how would you answer the question?

KR: I think that what I was trying to get at is, to your point, they’re asking these “gotcha” questions to try to set up a false dichotomy and a false argument that ultimately moves forward their political agenda. That was very clear.

But what I do think is that, look, when we’re looking at the next generation, one in five of them are identifying as a member of the community. They are thinking about gender and sexuality in ways that are more expansive than many of us can grasp today. Our job isn’t to put them in boxes. Our job isn’t to define their lives for them. Our job is to put laws and policies in place that allow them to grow up to be whoever it is that they want to be. And ensure that when they do determine what their identities are, they have the same full rights and protections as anybody else. It is that simple.

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