A transgender Virginia woman is drawing media attention for her role in LGBT activism — and her familial ties to Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Robyn Deane of Midlothian, Va., is gaining notoriety for calling on McDonnell, her former brother-in-law, to come out in support of LGBT non-discrimination protections in Virginia.
“It’s just absurd that we have the issues that we have today,” she told the Blade. “I don’t want anybody to be discriminated [against] on any basis other than their ability to do a job, their qualifications for their job, their performance on the job.”
Virginia is among the 29 states where workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation remains legal. It’s also among the 38 states where such discrimination based on gender identity remains legal. McDonnell, a Republican, has said he doesn’t support legislation that would bar discrimination against LGBT people in state and public employment.
Deane, 55, was married to Ellen Gardner, the sister of Virginia’s first lady, Maureen McDonnell, for 17 years. They divorced in 1999 after Deane came out as transgender. The two have three adult children, ages 26, 22 and 19.
On April 21, in a rally at Capital Square, Deane addressed her ties to the McDonnell family and recalled how her coming out process showed him “the impact that all of this coming out and being who we are can have on one’s life.”
“He had a front-row, center seat because it is his family that was directly affected,” she said at the time.
The Washington Post published a profile of her last week that reviewed the impact she’s having.
Deane, who works as a store department supervisor for The Home Depot, said she’s received calls and more attention since the Post published its article, but her activism is “really about the cause.”
“I’m just the person that happens to have been related, or knew Bob, for all these years,” she said.
Stacey Johnson, a McDonnell spokesperson, said McDonnell’s relationship with Deane is “a personal matter” and that “the governor wishes Robyn the very best.”
Terry Mansberger, president of the Virginia Partisans, a statewide LGBT Democratic group, said Deane’s visibility is helpful and “puts the spotlight on the issue, especially for transgender people.”
“I’m not so sure how much it’s going to do to sway McDonnell, but he did campaign on a platform of being moderate, so this is a good opportunity for him to show support within his own family,” Mansberger said.
Mansberger said he hasn’t spoken with Deane since she emerged in activism, but is hoping to get her involved in Virginia Partisans.
But David Lampo, vice president of the Virginia Log Cabin Republicans, expressed skepticism about Deane’s motives and said her “publicity campaign is more about self promotion than moving GLBT rights forward.”
“Certainly, the people we need most to change their minds on this issue will be totally put off by this campaign and perceive it as an effort to embarrass the governor,” Lampo said. “A behind-the-scenes effort would have made more sense from a strategic perspective, but now it’s too late for that.”
Although she said she hasn’t spoken with McDonnell in more than a decade, Deane noted that she previously had conversations with him when she was married to his sister-in-law.
“We never really agreed philosophically,” she said. “I’m a Christian, and he is, so we come at it from different angles, and he’d say that he’ll pray for me because of something I said.”
Deane said McDonnell’s ties to conservative politics are well known because of his affiliation with Regent University School of Law, where he earned his law degree.
Still, Deane said she considered McDonnell a good friend until her divorce and said their families often visited each other when they lived nearby in McLean, Va.
“Because we’re of a similar age, and really education, it was always interesting talking,” she said. “You could have a conversation with him and you didn’t get chastised for feeling different. You could have a conversation that took on some meaningful discussion, almost where you could agree to disagree.”
Deane recalled that upon coming out as transgender, her former wife didn’t take the news well and the ensuing divorce divided their families.
As an activist, though, Deane said McDonnell should be a focus for LGBT activists in Virginia because of his position as governor and because he’s well regarded in conservative circles.
“He has that connection to the right and because they trust him, or at least they seemingly do, he’s in a unique position to make a difference,” she said, “because he’s witnessed what happens to a family when someone comes out.”