By Mark McNease
Robin Tyler has been an LGBT activist for many years and it was a real treat to have the opportunity to ask her some questions. It was Robin who called for the first National March on Washington in 1979, as well as the fourth, and who served as the stage producer for the first three. She’s been honored as the first comic to come out on stage and in her comedy career, opening the doors for many to follow.
Robin is currently producing a comedy documentary about her life called “Always A Bridesmaid, Never A Groom” (which was the name of her first solo comedy album), and (yes, there’s more) she operates Robin Tyler International Tours and Cruises. Amidst all her activities she still found time for the following interview.
MM: You’ve done so many things it’s challenging to know where to start. You’re the Executive Director for the Equality Campaign, you run Robin Tyler International Tours and Cruises, you write, you’ve been an activist for many years . . . how do you juggle all this?
RT: I am also producing a comedy documentary about my life called “Always A Bridesmaid, Never A Groom” (which was the name of my first solo comedy album). I have always had a lot of energy and have divided my time between work and the movement.
MM: Last September you aligned with Gloria Allred and people around the country to support Chaz Bono after some harsh public reaction to him being on Dancing with the Stars. Was that successful, and do you think it helped bring transgender issues into the public consciousness in a way that moves us forward (including within our own community)?
RT: I actually didn’t align with Gloria Allred. Gloria has been a good friend of mine since the late 1970’s. When I read the negative comments towards Chaz being on Dancing with the Stars, I phoned Gloria and asked her to join our effort. (We had already planned national parties and had a website up called ‘Support Chaz Bono.’ ) Gloria jumped right in and we did a ‘Pro Bono’ dance and viewing party in West Hollywood.
MM: You and your wife Diane Olson were both plaintiffs in the case that brought marriage equality to California, and now the case to overturn Prop 8. What’s it like to be at the center of these landmark cases? Upside/downside?
RT: Diane and I actually were the original lesbian plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit here in Los Angeles. Most people thought the lawsuit started in San Francisco, but it didn’t. Mayor Newsome married Del and Phyllis about 3 hours after we announced the lawsuit . Then the opposition filed a lawsuit to stop the San Francisco marriages, and our lawsuit (which included Rev. Troy Perry and his husband, Phillip DeBlieck who were married in Canada and wanted their Canadian marriage recognized in California) was filed on Feb. 24, 2004. When the SF marriages were annulled by the CA Supreme Court in March, attorneys filed on behalf of a dozen or so SF couples. Our cases were consolidated into one case, but that case was started here in Los Angeles. This is why the Board of Supervisors granted Diane and I the right to be the only couple to marry at 5 PM June 16 in the County of Los Angeles. Other couples started to marry here the next morning. Diane and I were given an award which called us the Rosa Parks of the marriage equality movement.
MM: I knew about you as a comedian a long time ago. Last June you were honored with the first ‘Outlaugh’ Festival Award for being the first lesbian or gay comic to come out on stage, recordings and television. When and how did you do that as a comic?
RT: I started doing ‘out’ gay humor in 1972. Harrison & Tyler did pro gay humor on our comedy album in 1973 and I made the first ‘out’ gay or lesbian comedy album in 1978. I filmed the 1st Annual Women’s Comedy Show for Showtime in 1979 and it went on the air in 1980. This is the first time anyone actually appeared as an ‘out’ lesbian or gay performer on television. (14 years before Ellen came out.)
MM: Early last year you were supporting another march on Washington (I was at the last one with my husband). What came of that, and do you think another march would be effective?
RT: I called for the 1st and 4th National LGBT Marches on Washington, and was the main stage producer of the 1st, (1979), 2nd (1987) and 3rd (1993) Marches on Washington. Another March would have been effective, only we had one huge obstacle. Cleve Jones had called a march the year before and in 4 months, about 75,000 people attended. Because this was billed as a ‘National March’ and nothing substantive came out of it, people were discouraged. I shouldn’t say nothing came out of it. Get Equal, a great grassroots direct action organization whose Executive Director is Robin McGehee, was formed and Dan Choi became very public because of his direct action to get rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Both Robin and Dan are friends of mine. But the ‘National’ Mini March was wasted because it wasn’t in an election year and Cleve did not go on to do anything he said he would. Also, when you just give 4 months for a March, people cannot save up the money or take the time off of work or school. I think that National Marches which were organized a year or two in advance helped us organized locally and then organize Nationally. And yes, during an election year, politicians listen.
MM: You and Diane have been together a long time and gone through all these things as a couple. Can you speak a bit to longevity and what makes a relationship last, or has for you two?
RT: Diane and I were best of friends for 20 years before we became a couple. Other ‘lead’ couples in marriage cases broke up. The press did not affect us as I have been in the industry most of my life and Diane comes from a political family. (Her grandfather, Culbert Levy Olson was the first elected Democratic Governor of California. He ran on the platform ‘separation of church and state.’ We are both sober, and know how to talk things through. We will be together 19 years in September.
MM: We recently gained marriage equality in New York (clapping sounds). What would you say to those who think there’s not much point in marrying while DOMA still stands?
RT: There is definitely a point in getting married while DOMA still stands. The more of us they see married the better, despite the cries of ‘straight supremacists’ (I don’t say homophobes because the language is not strong enough). Supremacists, whether it is ‘white’ supremacists who think they are superior and therefore deserve more than people of color; or ‘straight’ supremacists who think they are superior and therefore deserve more then lgbtq people, are cut from the same cloth. I believe that people lack self esteem if they need to feel superior to someone else.
MM: I see you’re heading to Botswana soon with your Robin Tyler International Tours. Two parter: what’s your average tour group like (older, single, travelling as friends?), and why Botswana?
RT: I have had an international Tour and Cruise Company for lesbians since 1990. Older women, retired, singles, couples, professional lesbians, etc., that want to travel and stay in the best lodges, hotels, yachts, safaris, etc. come with my company. Botswana is one of the greatest animal destinations on earth. To give you an example, Kilimanjaro in Kenya has the largest elephant population in Kenya, about 1200. In Botswana, there are 135, 000 elephants. Botswana also only allows 24 people per camp so there are not a hundred people watching the same wild animals. I use Abercrombie and Kent a lot, and actually sell wholesale, which means I get group rates. So rather than pay more, as many gay tours and cruises do, my passengers pay less than retail. And Diane and I accompany all the tours. I am actually thinking about expanding to include gay men as I am sure that many would want to travel on this level. My website is www.robintylertours.com
MM: When I interviewed author Patricia Nell Warren she spoke about oral tradition and the importance of keeping our histories alive. What would you say to those LGBT people coming up behind us in an age where everything’s become digital and life is being parsed in 140 character tweets?
RT: I know a lot of LGBT youth who are making great digital documentaries. And yes, tweeting is replacing the telephone, but every age group does something different. Both the internet and Twitter are our friends as we use them to organize. The only thing that could be detrimental is if we think expressing our anger just on the web is enough. Web activism is only good, not when we rage and it gets sent into cyberspace, but when we use it to organize. A virtual movement doesn’t work. We need to be seen. After Prop 8 passed, tens of thousands of us here in the LA Area stayed in the streets for months.
MM: Where do you think we’re headed with the equality movement (and how successful do you think we’ve been),
RT: We are the only developed country in which LGBT people do not have civil rights. I don’t call it the ‘equality’ movement. Since the Equal Rights Amendment didn’t pass, women are not constitutionally equal to men. LGBT IS a civil rights movement.
Throughout all of the LGBT Marches on Washington, I called for a comprehensive civil rights bill to cover our community. By breaking rights down piece by piece, and state by state, we have to fight for each right individually. The Democratic party keeps promising us (since 1979!) that they will help us gain our civil rights. But we have not been strong enough in our demands. LGBT organizations have steamrolled our movement so that we spend tens of millions a year supporting ‘Gay Inc.’ when really, we are so far behind so many countries. I can’t believe that a gay person can still get fired in the majority of the States, let alone, not get married.
MM: is it possible to understate the importance of the 2012 elections, and not just for the White House? I don’t want to assume anyone’s political opinions or affiliation, but I personally think the results next year will have a profound and lasting effect on where we go as a country and I’d like to get your take on that.
RT: I think the 2012 elections are very important. Yes, I am really angry at the Democrats and the fact that although some progress has been made, it is nothing compared to where it should be. However, to vote for a Republican is crazy. They are still running as straight supremacists. It’s not that I don’t think Obama has been beholden to Wall Street and special interests, but he is still better than any Republican running. Remember, we are voting for the Federal Supreme Court. It is already tilted to the right. Whether we win marriage or not depends on one Supreme Court justice right now, Justice Kennedy. Justice Ruth Ginsberg has got cancer and will probably resign in the next 4 years. This is the court that declared that corporations are ‘people.’ Do you want a Republican to replace the next Supreme Court Justice?
The left keeps saying it doesn’t matter. That is because they are hoping for an all out revolution. Well, Occupy is here and they do not want to replace the entire system. This movement wants an end to economic injustice. Hopefully, the will remain a grassroots movement who is not coopted by the faux left.