Kelley Robinson will be the new president of the Human Rights Campaign and the first Black, queer woman to lead the group, the organization announced Tuesday.
Robinson is a veteran organizer in progressive politics who comes to the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ civil rights organization from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, where she worked for three years as executive director. She takes the helm in the wake of the end of federal protections for abortion access and as states are considering and passing anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.
In an interview with The 19th ahead of the HRC’s announcement of her role, Robinson said that her many identities — as Black, queer, a woman, a mother and wife — shape how she will approach the job.
“My identities always remind me of that responsibility and help me to open the door for others,” Robinson said. “Just my being here is revolutionary. I also have a lot of privilege. I show up in the world as a cisgender woman. I have to make sure I’m creating space for others whose identity I don’t hold, to make sure they see that this movement for LGBTQ+ people is a space where all of us are seen, where all of us are celebrated, and we’re going to fight like hell to make sure all of us have the freedoms we deserve.”
Robinson is the latest Black woman and queer person tapped to head progressive organizations historically led by White people, including Laphonza Butler at Emily’s List, Alexis McGill Johnson at Planned Parenthood and Fatima Goss Graves at the National Women’s Law Center.
Robinson’s predecessor, Alphonso David, the organization’s first Black leader in its 40-year history, was one of several advocates who advised former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s team on sexual harassment allegations. The New York attorney general said in a report that David, a longtime aide to Cuomo before joining HRC, was one of several outside advisers who engaged in a “flurry of communication” to protect Cuomo.
In a span of weeks, the HRC conducted a review of David’s interactions with Cuomo, David and the board disputed the results of that review, and the organization announced its boards had decided to fire David.
Asked whether she was concerned about these issues being resolved and how much of her new role would require repair and trust-building in the organization, Robinson did not address the issue directly, but said: “The progressive movement is in a space where we are really reckoning with not only ensuring that we are fighting for justice externally but also making sure that within the walls of our organization, staff, volunteers, activists, leaders are also experiencing that same sort of dignity and respect that we’re fighting for externally.”
Robinson said that HRC has done “an incredible job” of nurturing staff and building volunteer leadership to be ready for this moment, adding, “The crisis is so urgent that the only way to look is really forward in terms of what we’ve got to do next.”
A number of states have passed laws restricting the discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in schools, and some have also passed anti-trans bills about participation in athletics. And the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which based a federal right to abortion in a right to privacy guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, has raised some questions about whether a decision for marriage equality, based in that same right, is also vulnerable. The Senate has delayed a vote on a bill that would protect some aspects of marriage equality until after the November midterm elections.
The Human Rights Campaign has a mandate to ensure freedom and liberation for every LGBTQ+ person and to address the intersectional challenges of the moment, Robinson said. That looks like fighting for marriage equality and saving the lives of transgender people who are being murdered, working to ensure access to medical services from abortion to gender-affirming care, and pushing for dignity in workplace regardless of the industry, she said.
“We’ve talked about intersectionality as a theory and now we’re applying it to our movement building work as truly the only way for us to survive,” Robinson said. “Our opposition is intersectional. They will say that they are coming after our ability to marry who we want, and at the same time, coming after our abortion rights, after immigration rights, climate justice and more. So we have got to have a more broad and powerful intersectional response.”