Fresno, California appointed its first LGBTQ+ Liaison at the end of September 2023. Mayor Jerry Dyer selected Robin McGehee, an influential local advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ+) community, for this landmark position. McGehee has years of experience speaking out against discriminatory laws and policies and has found herself in a role suited to the cause.
The LGBT Community Network (LGBTQ Fresno’s non profit umbrella organization) spoke with McGehee in this exclusive interview about her new position and the future of Fresno’s LGBTQ+ community. McGehee’s passion for LGBTQ+ rights is apparent, and she readily told us about her new role and how it impacts issues in the community, as well as her personal experiences with advocacy.
McGehee’s history with advocacy began with racial injustice issues in her high school. Attending Forest Hill High School in Jackson, Mississippi, she witnessed widespread discrimination. Forest Hill High School represented itself with a confederate flag and the nickname “The Rebels.” “That was just a moniker for everything growing up,” McGehee said.
Deciding against a passive approach, McGehee utilized her position in the student government, organizing the removal of the confederate flag. “Learning what it took to organize and take action and actually see results opened my eyes to the power of people,” said McGehee.
The new liaison also understands many struggles of the LGBTQ+ community. During high school, she experienced issues LGBTQ+ people live with everyday, such as depression and identity problems. These mental health issues resulted in McGehee remaining closeted for fear of rejection.
Accrediting teachers who were aware of McGehee’s sexuality, she received a scholarship to a college in southern Mississippi. With her family’s financial struggles, she readily accepted the opportunity, though she was unaware of her teacher’s intentions for this recommendation. Attending this Southern Baptist college exposed her to a “religious dogma,” rigid gender roles, and an rejection of queer individuals, for four years.
Witnessing acts of homophobia, including the expulsion of another student who expressed a crush on a same-sex professor, McGehee became more secretive about her sexuality. Though she was in a same-sex relationship during the last two years of her college career, she still experienced internalized homophobia and shame surrounding her sexual identity.
These struggles manifested in her marriage to a man, which she viewed as a way to move to California with her family’s approval. Quickly after their wedding, McGehee realized she made a mistake. “It just took me six months to try to figure out how to unwind what I had actually created for myself,” she says.
Facing homophobia in her college years sparked McGehee’s desire to move to California. Applying for various master’s programs across California led to a scholarship for Fresno State, and she readily accepted the opportunity. However, McGehee did not realize the differences between a school based in Fresno and one in a more notably progressive area, such as Los Angeles.
Anticipating any area of California to reflect her vision of “people hugging trees and singing kumbaya,” McGehee was surprised to find many similarities between Fresno and the environment she wanted to flee in Mississippi.
After facing many life changes, including a divorce from her husband, McGehee found friends and mentors. She also met her partner of 12 years and mother of her children, Kathy Adams, at Fresno State. McGehee and Adams were among the 18,000 couples to get married, before voters passed Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to define marriage as being only between a man and a woman in November of 2008.
After they wed, McGehee and Adams’ son, Sebastian, attended St. Helens Elementary School. The couple had friends in the LGBT community who taught at the school, commending it as a welcoming environment for their same-sex relationship. McGehee and Adams readily enrolled their son in the school, anticipating a supportive setting for their family dynamic. The school then invited McGehee to join the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), of which she became the president.
After Californian’s approved Proposition 8, McGehee spoke in an interview with the Fresno Bee during a protest at a local church. Recalling the interview, McGehee says, “I made the comment that we should live in a society where religion is not dictating our legal process because we’re based on separation between church and state, but at the very least, we should be practicing principles that are faith-based that say, ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself’ and that means we should be loving our neighbor and not discriminating against them.”
Upon seeing this quote in The Fresno Bee, the priest of St. Helen’s Elementary School requested the principal to remove McGehee from her position as PTA President. After revoking their opportunity to volunteer for the school, the representatives at St. Helen’s requested that Sebastian remain enrolled. “No, I’m not [leaving] my kid where I can’t volunteer. You don’t understand what kind of parent I am,” McGehee says.
After seeing the tears in her son’s eyes as they drove away from the school, McGehee realized she needed to fight back against the hate and discrimination. While she was already involved with activism regarding marriage equality, this first-hand experience of discrimination led to action in the form of an event in Fresno’s City Hall. During this event, 7,000 people across the region, including neighboring states, gathered for “Meet in the Middle for Equality.” Standing up in protest in the place that voted most against the LGBTQ+ community regarding Proposition 8, they also announced their March on Washington. As another form of protest, only five months after Meet in the Middle for Equality, 250,000 people, including McGehee, participated in the protest. “All of that was a snowball effect of trying to get people to stand up for their dignity,” McGehee says, “even if we’re losing, we’re not going to go silently.”
Continuing her activism mission, McGehee helped launch the Get Equal organization in March 2010. Over the next three years after joining the organization, McGehee was arrested five times in the name of activism fighting for marriage equality, the appeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and other LGBTQ+ rights. McGehee later left the Get Equal organization to focus on her full-time job as a professor in Visalia, CA. Though she left, she is still involved with Get Equal and is helping fight against Ron DeSantis in Florida.
Facing these challenges led to the divorce of McGehee and Adams. Through her passionate advocacy, McGehee found a lack of foundation in her marriage. “Part of that is what I think the straight community doesn’t realize. It’s not just you’re taking away our rights. Our free time is affected, our mental health is affected, our relationships are affected because we’re depressed based on the fact that we’re having to go through this at all,” she says about her divorce.
McGehee found self-love after getting involved with activism and learning more about herself and acceptance. She accredits this and the meeting her now wife of 10 years, Karen Johnston, to the growing support she sees in Fresno. McGehee also realized there needed to be more political advocacy in the Fresno area. With the issues regarding marriage equality, she saw the importance of engaging local politicians in LGBTQ+ issues. Upon a recommendation from a friend, McGehee met with the former mayor of Fresno, Allen Autry. Lobbying for an equal voice, she told the then Mayor, “You could be the kind of person that looks at it the way that you do and not publicly advocate against us as the mayor of this city.”
Autry’s first effort was creating a community advisory board, inviting McGehee and other community members of varying views and beliefs to discuss local issues. This environment allowed people to hear all opinions and even led to more interactions between community members with opposing ideas. While this advisory board opened the doors for communication, it did little for activism. Mentioning people who chained themselves to City Hall in protest while Autry was mayor, McGehee says, “There was beginning to be more nonviolent civil disobedience.”
After Autry’s term as Mayor of Fresno concluded and Ashley Swearengin was elected, McGehee found herself in an identical situation. Like Autry, Swearengin changed her perspectives on marriage equality. McGehee met with her, and the mayor suggested a community advisory board. “They’re making you feel included, and you’re hoping that you’re changing hearts and minds through these conversations,” McGehee says.
While McGehee attempted to lobby former mayor Lee Brand for an LGBTQ+ Liaison, his focus remained on other projects, and the proposal did not go through. When Jerry Dyer was elected mayor of Fresno, McGehee was sure he would not be involved with LGBTQ+ issues based on what she saw during his time as Chief of Police. Not wanting to waste time, she did not contact the new mayor about a meeting.
Later, McGehee spoke to a friend in the city government, who is also in the LGBTQ+ community. Recalling their conversation, McGehee says, “She’s like, ‘You need to meet him, your perceptions of him are wrong, he knows I’m a lesbian, he asks about my wife all the time, and I really believe he could be moved.’”
When McGehee and Dyer met, she introduced the idea of an LGBTQ+ Liaison position to the new mayor. Dyer responded positively and agreed to consider the suggestion, McGehee waited to hear back regarding the issue.
As McGehee waited for correspondence about the creation of the LGBTQ+ Liaison position, the local community faced attacks and bigotry. During this time, an LGBTQ+-friendly church in Fresno faced vandalism, the vandals breaking dozens of windows. At a vigil after the attack, community members expressed the need for representation in city government, feeling a city official should be in attendance. These discussions sparked further advocacy for the LGBTQ+ Liaison position.
When McGehee did not receive correspondence regarding the issue, she contacted Dyer’s Chief of Staff, Kelli Furtado. She explained the community’s concerns and assured them of the continued action they should expect if there was no resolution. With the assistance of other community members, McGehee gained over 400 signatures in less than 24 hours on a petition for the LGBTQ+ Liaison position.
Dyer felt pressured about this issue, but McGehee wanted to take action to see the unification of the people of Fresno. Dyer directed McGehee to contact the City of Fresno’s council president, Annalisa Perea, where she lobbied the council members to vote regarding the issue. While some debated the need for the position, the LGBTQ+ community knew the importance of having representation in local government. While the community rallied for a full-time LGBTQ+ Liaison, the council elected to make the job part-time, as there was debate about the position.
There was worry that the action in place would reduce funding essential to the community. However, they discovered the opposite when the community secured $100,000 from the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission’s LGBTQ+ Center. They also secured an additional $100,000 for LGBTQ+ or serving organizations. This budget is determined for a year and will face reevaluation in July.
Upon the position’s creation, McGehee received a call from the Mayor’s office requesting her to apply. She did not intend on becoming the city’s LGBTQ+ Liaison, only for the creation of the position. McGehee felt applying for the job would be self-serving, as she advocated for its creation. After some convincing, McGehee applied for Fresno’s new LGBTQ+ Liaison position, which was offered and accepted.
McGehee hopes that during her time as LGBTQ+ liaison, she can build a base to advocate for the renewal of the position in 2024. “I honestly do not want to do it long-term. I’m hoping to set up a structure and then hopefully get someone in there that represents the community from a youth perspective or a person of color or a trans perspective because that’s really how you’re going to push toward diversity in City Hall,” she says, “We have to establish a community of collaboration where people are working together.”
Since accepting the position, McGehee has remained involved with the community. Helping with town hall meetings, attending the local Diwali festival, and assisting with the Stop the Hate event are just a few of the influences she made in her short time as LGBTQ+ Liaison. Introducing the LGBTQ+ Liaison in events with people of varying cultures and beliefs provides representation where it may otherwise be overlooked or erased. “That gives further validation that our community exists and that we are a partner in this community,” She says about participating in these events.
As McGehee attends monthly meetings with city officials in her new position, she briefs them on issues within the LGBTQ+ community and hears information that requires her support. She recalls a specific incident where a local gender non-conforming student contacted a council member’s office for assistance when their family kicked them out of their home. The council member then spoke to McGehee, who assisted the student with resources, leading to the person having housing and support within two weeks.
With about 100 LGBT-serving organizations in the Fresno area, communication within the community can be challenging and can cause division. McGehee feels communication within the LGBTQ+ community is invaluable and thinks a liaison can assist with events such as town hall meetings by getting people to learn what others are doing and working together more.
“What I have loved is seeing the community you guys [at the LGBT Community Network] have even built in fighting back against the Clovis School Board and the Board of Supervisors, and what I’m hoping comes of that is a continual base that gets built so when something bubbles up and happens, immediately there’s a strike-force that can go out and respond,” McGehee says, “I am grateful that you guys are creating that community network because it’s so important for the people that are just trying to figure out how to love themselves.”
Regarding a response to an LGBT Community Network study suggesting an open forum to discuss LGBT issues, McGehee excitedly says, “I love that idea, and I would be willing to help.” Her past experiences with forms such as this have been invitation-only, likely missing concerns within the community. Fresno’s new LGBTQ+ Liaison feels public forums are powerful ways to communicate local issues. McGehee, like many people in the LGBTQ+ community, sees the importance of communication among opposing views.
“My really big goal is that in January or February, we could host a Town Hall where we invite the whole community,” McGehee says. In this meeting, she envisions representatives from different organizations presenting their principles and ideals as an organizational showcase. She believes this can lead people in the community to previously unknown resources.
Fresno’s new LGBTQ+ Liaison has a positive vision for the city. McGehee’s passion for activism and first-hand involvement with LGBTQ+ issues makes her ideal for this role. Fighting through mental health issues, discrimination, and arrests, McGehee exhibits admirable strength. Though she has only held the position for a few months, Fresno’s new liaison is actively involved with the community. With new ideas for communication and representation, Fresno should see more changes in 2024.