Exclusive: Robin Tyler Speaks Out About Prop. 8
There are interviews you skim, and then there are interviews you read—all the way to the end. This week’s issue of the Advocate declaring “gay is the new black” nailed it, and Robin Tyler has an important message that will hit home at this moment in history—a moment that could be the tipping point of our movement.
Robin (left) and her wife, Diane Olson, were the first challengers to California’s ban on same-sex marriage in February of 2004. A blogger, world traveler, stand up comic and activist, Tyler has been an integral part of the grassroots movement in the gay and lesbian community for more than 30 years, including roles as the executive director of the Equality Campaign, and the co-founder of Stop Dr Laura. As pioneers in this civil rights struggle for marriage equality, Robin and Diane were the only couple in Los Angeles county to receive a marriage license on June 16, and on that day in front of the Beverly Hills courthouse, they were married.
On Nov. 5 of this year, just after the passage of California’s Proposition 8, Robin & Diane filed a brief with the California State Supreme Court asking that Proposition 8 be overturned on the basis of it being unconstitutional in California. The Court agreed to hear the petition, and Robin generously agreed to answer some questions here on PLL about this important moment in history.
Some Gen-X and Gen-Y friends of mine are “unaware” or somewhat oblivious to the historic struggle for equal rights for gays and lesbians. Could you put into historical context for these young people why marriage equality should matter to them?
Two gay men were married in Minnesota in 1971 and they are still married. Two men were married in Arizona in 1974, and they are still married. At every LGBT march on Washington, we have done marriage equality protests, because we have always seen this issue as an essential civil rights issue. Marriage equality means that our relationships are recognized by society as valid and equal to heterosexual committed relationships. Relegating same-sex couples to domestic partnerships or civil unions (even if these came with over 1,000 federal benefits, which they don’t), is marriage segregation. When African-Americans were forced to drink from separate water fountains, separate was not equal. Even though the water being served was identical, it meant that African-Americans were considered less worthy, and therefore, not entitled to drink from a white water fountain. This was called segregation, part of a pattern to keep African-Americans “in their place.”
Well, the issue for the religious right isn’t about marriage. Otherwise, they would not have passed the amendment in Florida, which denies legal recognition in any form for same-sex couples. It is simply, hiding behind religious beliefs in order to perpetuate discrimination. It’s based on three things: hate, fear, and a lack of self-esteem on the part of the religious right. In order for them to feel superior, they need to make others inferior. This is what I mean by a lack of self-esteem. So, deny marriage rights to same-sex couples is part of a pattern of ‘keeping us in our place.’
A lot of people are comparing this moment in history to Stonewall. Do you think the comparison of the recent street demonstrations to the Stonewall movement is accurate?
Yes, I think that the comparison to Stonewall is accurate. But, despite four marches on Washington (I called for the first and fourth, and produced the main stages for the first three) we have not obtained one civil right on a federal level. Why? Because the Democratic party (and I am a Democrat) has never fulfilled one promise in three decades, to the LGBT community. There are so many other countries who have ruled for total equal rights for LGBT people, that the USA is seen as backwards. Obviously, the LGBT Washington-based organizations have done nothing but capitulate to the Democratic party. We cannot depend on them anymore. We need to stay in the streets, demand equality from the Democratic party, and tie up the court system until this issue clogs every state court in the country.
Many people take an armchair attitude toward public policy, preferring to sit back and watch others on the front lines do the work. Was there an “A-ha!” moment for you when the ‘light went on, when you were inspired and knew you had a special role to play in this movement?
I knew it in 1962. I was at a drag ball in New York, (dressed as a woman). It was raided and 44 men and I were arrested for female impersonation. I was just a kid, and afraid to call my parents in Canada. So, I called the New York Post, and the headlines were “44 men and one woman arrested for female impersonation.” The cops were calling everyone names, and beat on us as they arrested us. This radicalized me, although I was out of the closet at age 16, holding up signs [saying] “gay is good” in Winnipeg, Canada (1958).
(I later went on to become a “female impersonator” at the 82 club. I did Judy Garland, so the arrest got me my first job in show business.)
How has the legal battle for marriage equality and the media attention affected your relationship with Diane?
The media attention has not affected us whatsoever. Diane and I function as activists, and don’t consider ourselves celebrities. You can’t take press home with you. And if one lives for it, (which neither of us don’t) then when it is over (and in reality, fame only lasts 15 minutes) there is nothing left. Diane and I are happy that the issue is getting so much attention. But, we stand with thousands of activists who are fighting for this cause, and because we are part of a passionate movement, it only brings us closer together. It is an honor to be part of such a great civil rights struggle.
Has the attention affected other couples?
The Goodrich couple—lead plaintiffs in Massachusetts broke up, as did Woo (vs. San Francisco). We thought this might be because of the personal media attention. (I have been an activist in the media since the 1970’s. I also was signed with ABC television, and when I starred in a show, the all national news broadcasts (mid-70’s) carried a story saying “avowed” lesbian Robin Tyler, star of the Krofft Comedy Hour, takes on Anita Bryant.” Diane’s grandfather, Culbert Levy Olson was the first elected Democratic Governor of California in the last century (1938-1942.) He was very controversial as he ran on the platform of “separation of church and state.” So, she is used to her family getting a lot of attention and being controversial).
What do your “instincts” tell you about what the outcome with the California Supreme Court will be?
My instincts say we will win. But I am not an attorney which is why I am an optimist. (I bet Kate Kendell $100 that we would win. She took the bet, and said she hopes she loses). Obviously, the rights of a minority cannot be taken away by a majority. So, if the CA Supreme Court follows the law, and the Constitution, Prop 8 will be made invalid. If they don’t, tens of thousands of us will be on the streets that night. If they do rule for us, we will dedicate ourselves to protecting their jobs, which have been threatened by the religious right.
Boycotts have been called on several businesses around the nation who have connections to “Yes on 8.” Do you think boycotts work? How do you think people should respond to these businesses?
Whether boycotts work or not—on a personal level, I don’t want to give money to a restaurant, business or support or work with anyone who would keep me in a position of being a second class citizen. We are a civil rights movement, and this is not about their religious freedom. This is about us finally standing up and saying we are mad as hell, and we are not going to take it any more. What part of equality don’t they understand? The public has more sympathy for the couple of bigots who have been forced out of their jobs then the fact that in 30 states, a lesbian or gay man can be fired from their job, just for being gay. We don’t want to work with people who were contributed money to take us (for the first time in American history) out of a constitution.
How do you think the recent “No on 8” campaign was managed? Did we miscalculate the challenge from our opponents?
The No on 8 campaign was very badly managed, especially here in Los Angeles, where we should have won. They did not do outreach to people of color, they hid behind their stone walls, and did not allow experienced activists and campaign people to help at all. And their greatest mistake was not showing same-sex couples. In the movie Milk, it showed that the one lesson we learned fighting Prop 6 (to stop lesbians and gays from teaching school in California) was that we need to be visible. By being visible, and on the streets and out, in the 1970’s, we took a campaign that was 90% against us (the Briggs Initiative) and won.
Has anything good come from the defeat? Any lessons you see for our community?
Since Nov. 5, with huge protests happening all over the country, eight percent of “Yes on 8” people would now vote “no.” This means that watching the protests and understanding the issue changed their minds. The “No on 8” people made our community invisible. The only good thing that came out of it is had we won Prop 8, it would have proved them right, that if we stay invisible and “quiet” we will win our rights. Well, those older activists of us knew this would lose the campaign for us. We will never be invisible and stay quiet again. And, we will never get off the streets. Those are two good things that came out of the loss.
What do you think is the strongest argument for gay marriage, that might appeal to someone who is undecided?
We are not a movement fighting for a “lifestyle.” We are fighting for our lives. We are fighting for the right to love, and want that love recognized in an equal relationship to heterosexual marriages. And yes—we want the word marriage. Our same-sex marriages do not diminish other people’s marriages. If anything, we strengthen marriage. At least six to 10 percent of your children are going to grow up lesbian or gay. That is their orientation. If you love your children, you will want every right and opportunity extended to them as to your non-gay children, for all children are important. Marriage is a civil contract, and no religion is forced to marry same-sex couples. Stop being afraid. Step out of the shadow of prejudice and discrimination, and come into the light. That is where spirituality truly exists. We are waiting for you.
When Diane and I filed the first lawsuit, many of the gay organizations were angry that we dared to file it without asking them. They said because most of the California Supreme court were Republican appointees, we would lose, and set the gay rights movement back decades. We sued anyway. My union, AFTRA, was going to deny Diane medical coverage after I retired, because we weren’t married. (They said that once I retired, “domestic partnership” would not qualify for medical benefits. They changed their policy after the enormous press the lawsuit got, in which I mentioned the AFTRA policy). So, I could not wait for these organizations to give us the “thumbs up.” Besides, I had been working for marriage equality since 1974.
We were in our attorney’s office when we heard the ruling. We cried in each other’s arms. The California Supreme Court’s decision to make us a “Suspect Class entitled to all rights that everyone else has” was my most illuminating moment in this journey for the freedom to marry.
And, because we were the first lesbian plaintiffs, when the County of Los Angeles allowed us to be the only couple to marry in Los Angeles County on June 16, we finally felt that someone had recognized our contribution.