When my contact in Huntsville Alabama (author Jane McNeefe) started promoting my Huntsville show, she told me there was one guy I really needed to meet: James Robinson, the executive director and one person staff (cough-but mostly unpaid-cough) of GLBT Advocacy and Youth Services.
We began emailing and James asked if I’d add a health workshop to my agenda in Huntsville. In order to make it happen, he recruited the local PFLAG super-mom Bani Logreira to put me up for a second night and then got one of the organizations’ board members Elizabeth Crankshaw (interview from her coming shortly) to drive me on her day off all the way from Huntsville Alabama to Nashville Tennessee.
Yup, obviously the dude to know.
(To be fair, this was part two of Heroic Alabama Driving Stories, Don Mills, the director of Birmingham Pride drove me from Birmingham to Mobile in the middle of the night so I could grab the next Megabus after my Birmingham gig. He did this even though he had to be at wok at 5 am.)
Anyway, I spent the extra day I had in town with James and it was, okay, I’m going to use the “h” word here: humbling. If you need a metaphor to say “I’m busier than a” try “a gay man trying to find services for LGBT people in Northern Alabama” I am pretty sure at one point I saw him simultaneously on the phone with a youth, trying to find connections for housing, then emailing with a social worker about resources for an LGBT elder that was having problems in his assisted living and exchanging facebook messages with a volunteer who was going to help run the adult support group that night. It was like that all day.
When we got ready to head over to the workshop, we took turns spraying each other with generic Fabreeze (we had eaten at a bbq place for lunch and the cooking fumes still stuck to our clothes) and I asked James if he wasn’t, you know, a little tired. He smiled a little and said “um yeah of course” and we headed out to the car. Later, I asked him if he would answer some questions for PrettyQueer.
Kelli Dunham: [I had to ask this question first] Okay dude, seriously, what keeps you going?
James Robinson: My faith in a higher power and in the people who enrich my life inspire me and give me the motivation to push forward when I become tired and discouraged. For 12 years I was an active addict abusing a variety of drugs. I eventually became an IV methamphetamine using. I am very fortunate to be alive. After surviving years of living this self-destructive lifestyle while also functioning successfully as a special education teacher my life feel apart. Fortunately, I was arrested. I had been arrested previously but it took the second time for me to realize I no longer wanted to live the life of an addict. I am fortunate to have no criminal record because I was given other alternatives both times. I am thankful for this and use my voice to advocate for people who are less fortunate. I am motivated because I remember how dark, lonely, and filled with pain my life was just three and a half short years ago. I am motivated when I hear of someone ending their life because they felt unloved, unwanted, or lost. I do not want other people, in ur community to continue suffering needlessly.
KD: Tell me what it’s like to be gay in Alabama, we probably all have our own stereotypes but what’s the reality.
JR: I believe being LGBT in Alabama is very similar to being LGBT in any more rural part of our nation. While it is true that we have advantages and challenges because of cultural differences we generally face the same prejudice, discrimination and hatred based up ignorance and bigotry that our LGBT community faces across our country and our world.
In November 2009 I embarked upon a truly amazing journey when I founded GLBT Advocacy & Youth Services, Inc. as the only social service agency directly serving the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community in this region of the country. When I say ‘region’ I am referring to an area covering all of Alabama, much of Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi. While there are organization such as PFLAG, and ‘Equality’ groups we are the only federally recognized social service non-profit in a vast region of our country. While I have received amazing rewards on a personal level because of the impact we have had on a community that is suffering due to years of neglect and bigotry I have also faced unexpected challenges. My original vision was that the agency and our mission of advocacy for the entire community and support for our youth would be received with rejoicing and open arms by the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in this region.
The reality is that I have been confronted with a very invisible and wounded community that has yet to embrace our vision of a safe and healthy community for everyone. I have faced a severe lack of public support and financial support from the local LGBT community.
KD: Okay so, for people who haven’t spent a Wednesday with you, how does the rubber hit the road? What does a typical day for you look like?
JR: A typical day for me begins when I awake early from a night of broken sleep…I usually wake up several times during the night thinking about what I need to do the following day or thinking about something that happened the day before. When I eventually give up on resting and get up I usually check for messages on facebook and my e-mail. Some mornings I spend a couple of hours networking, responding to messages, and promoting our work before I actually go into the office.
At the office I look at the stack of lists I’ve made of things to get back to, ideas to follow-up on, materials to read, etc.. I usually do this while creating a new list that eventually gets added to the top of the stack lol. I juggle several things on a regular basis and I simply cannot do it all by myself. My schedule is never the same. People randomly make appointments to see, call me with questions, or needing support.
I meet with new volunteers, plan our support schedules, and try to maintain contact with the currently active volunteers. On any given day I meet with people from the community such as other non-profit leaders, religious leaders, and individuals who are interested in knowing more about what we do.
Is it hard to find places to refer people? How do you make contact with other organizations?
JR: Finding places to refer members of our community and youth who need support has and continues to be a challenge. Alabama was recently ranked the worst state in the name for homeless youth due to the lack of services currently being provided. If a young person under 18 comes to us needing support we are only able to provide advice and refer them to state run social services. Needless to say, this is not usually the best option for these youth. We are extremely limited in our ability to provide support due to our lack of funding.
Many people suggest we apply for grants. While we are in the process of doing this it important to have someone experienced in this process. I have a skill set that was adequate to establish the agency and raise public awareness but I do not currently have the skills of a professional grant writer.
KD: Tell me about the Host Program. How on earth did that happen? When we look at the places in the US that have programs like this it’s larger cities that are considered progressive: Seattle, New York, Minneapolis and then, Huntsville. One of these is not like the other.
JR: The Huntsville Host Home program [to support homeless LGBT youth] was one of five winning proposals for the Launch Pad Social Media Contest from over 1,000 submitted nationwide. I modeled the program after a very success program in Minneapolis, Minnesota called the GLBT Host Home Program. Within a year of developing the project idea for the social media contest we had our first host home in place and a 19 year old lesbian living successfully in a safe stable home.
KD: Working in the “Bible belt” how has it been collaborating with faith communities? What has been your biggest obstacle/greatest success there?
JR: I have been surprised and pleased with the relationship we have developed with members of our faith communities. I have been welcomed and support by our local Jewish community, many pastors and leaders of various Christian churches, pagans, and atheists. While we live in a very conservative and fundamentalist religious community I have yet to have any direct personal confrontations or problems. The culture in the South is somewhat different in this respect. People are much less likely to confront me directly. I am certain that many hate filled sermons have been spewed from local pulpits in response the positive message of love and acceptance that I share in our community.
KD Tell me about your support for transfolks; how has your organization been able to be inclusive of the “T” in LGBT when organizations in supposedly more progressive areas still only seem to include transpeople as an afterthought?
JR: We have been fortunate to have a transgender support group meeting off and on locally for a number of years. This group is called the North Alabama Gender Center. It had operated as a support group with no connection to an organization. I stopped by (the group) one evening to meet the group leader, Elizabeth Crankshaw.
Soon after meeting Beth I asked her to serve on our board of directors and she accepted the position. For the past year and a half she has served as chairman of our board and has proven to be a great asset to the agency and to me personally. From the beginning our agency’s mission included services for all parts of the LGBT community as well as support for young people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
After Beth became connected to our agency I discussed with her and our board my desire to incorporate the North Alabama Gender Center into our agency services because there was no need to try and create a different group for this segment of our community. Since the group was not affiliated with an organization we decided, with Beth’s support to incorporate this group into our services in order to begin our outreach to the transgender community. We are extremely fortunate to have Beth work with us and be part of our local community because she has proven herself to be a leader and to have a true passion for supporting other people who identify as transgender. To my knowledge, this is the only group currently meeting specifically to meet the needs of the transgender community in our region of the country.
KD So you moved back to Northern Alabama after living in a much larger city for many years. You started an organization that’s really struggling. Are you wishing you had done something a little different?
JR: I will never regret this decision. As I said, the personal rewards have been beyond my wildest dreams. Young people and old have shared with me that we have saved lives, that we have done things that have never been done before in this area. How could I ever regret giving up a selfish self-destructive life in exchange for a life that is appreciated by so many people?
KD Finally, why do you think there isn’t an LGBT center or any other organization doing what you’re doing in Alabama? It’s not a small state.
JR I can only guess but I think this is due to the fact that most of our community is closeted. After years of oppression many people, the people with resources, have found what they consider to be comfortable lifestyles and they are out of touch with the struggles that other LGBT people continue to face. The saying, ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ come to me at this point…when the community is invisible or nonexistent then it is easy for people to assume the problems do not exist. I have news for these people…the problems do exist here and whether or not they believe the affect them they do affect all of us. Drug abuse, suicide, sexual exploitation, sexually transmitted diseases are rampant in our community and I believe this is because we do not feel free to live openly as the beautiful gifted people that we are.