Southfield, Michigan’s Faith Robinson-Renner has made it a priority to look out for LGBT elders in her community and make sure they have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. As a married lesbian woman, she has decided to fight for fair treatment in employment, having experienced discrimination herself.
After discovering a love for the electrical repair trade, Robinson-Renner decided to forego the education degree she had earned in college and dive into learning how to be an electrician. She was eventually hired by telephone utility company Michigan Bell.
As a woman working in this industry, Robinson-Renner was unfortunately on the receiving end of harassment, discrimination, and sometimes the threat of outright physical harm.
“They almost killed me,” she says. “They swung a sledgehammer at my head. They called me names. They were pretty rough with me, so I walked off the job.” After she went to the Detroit Free Press to tell her story, Michigan Bell pleaded with her to allow them to fix the situation. Not only did they solve the problem, they promoted her to the position of splicer. During her 27 years of work, Robinson-Renner helped develop guidelines on how to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and how not to discriminate against women, even though she knows there is still work to be done.
“They haven’t dealt with all of that stuff, especially among blue-collar women and women in lower-income areas,” she says.
When it comes to non-discrimination protections for LGBT people, “There are just so many people who lose their housing, lose children. It would be wonderful to see the state of Michigan adopt those protections,” Robinson-Renner says.
“There are so many of my LGBT friends who do not have the ability to live their twilight years in dignity,” she says. “I am one of the few lesbians who has been more fortunate than most. Because of discrimination, we are not always able to have a good and healthy retirement.”
After being married to a man and having two daughters with him, Robinson-Renner (right) came out as a lesbian in the late ’70s. In 1979, she met her partner Deb Renner, and they have been together ever since. In 2014, they were legally married. Now, in addition to helping raise and look after her grandchildren, Robinson-Renner has begun a new mission: giving back to the LGBT community who embraced her from the beginning. She has also resumed her volunteer efforts and serves as chair of the Jewish Gay Network. She hopes to help open a PFLAG West Bloomfield, Michigan, soon.
The work Robinson-Renner is doing to increase visibility and community among LGBT older adults is invaluable. Recent reports indicate that LGBT elders are disproportionately vulnerable to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, especially when compounded with discrimination based on age, race, and economic status. Discrimination haunts LGBT older adults in many different areas of life—in places of employment, but also at the doctor’s office, in communities designed for older adults, and in community centers that provide access to social networks and supports.
It’s clear from her history of activism and her personal run-ins with discrimination that Faith Robinson-Renner is a fighter for equality and strongly believes in the principles of non-discrimination.
“I can be a voice for the voiceless,” she says. “We need to get more equity for everyone.”