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Tyler, Robin (b. 1942)  
 
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Volatile and charismatic, Robin Tyler has been a part of the public gay and lesbian scene since her early years as a stand-up comic in the 1960s. She has also spent much of her life enmeshed in the struggle for gay and lesbian rights, planning national marches and regional music festivals, and taking her and her partner's case for gay marriage to the California Supreme Court.

Tyler has often been a controversial figure within the glbtq community. The dynamic personality and insolent audacity that have given her command of many a hostile comedy stage have sometimes been perceived as arrogant authoritarianism by those working with her on community projects. In her defense, however, Tyler would point out a double standard: "When a woman is professional, it is called 'authoritarian.' When a man is professional, it is called competent."

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Tyler was born Arlene Chernick in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, on April 8, 1942. As early as 1959, she demonstrated a rebellious flamboyance by standing on a busy Winnipeg street corner holding a sign proclaiming, "Gay is Good." However, though her sign was greeted with cheerful waves from Manitoban drivers who did not yet recognize her political use of the word "gay," Tyler's family did not accept her lesbian identity, and in 1972 she moved to Toronto where she found a more tolerant community.

In Toronto, and later in New York City, she began performing in nightclubs as a Judy Garland impersonator and as a stand-up comic, a rigorous training ground where she developed both a thick skin and an aggressive banter in response to sexist and heckling. In response to one drunken patron who shouted, "Are you a lesbian?", the quick-witted Tyler quipped, "Are you the alternative?"

In 1978, Tyler made the question unnecessary when she became the first out lesbian on U.S. national television on a Showtime comedy special hosted by Phyllis Diller. The same year she released her comedy album, Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Groom, the first comedy album by an out lesbian.

During the 1970s, Tyler teamed up with sister comic Patty Harrison to form a feminist comedy act. Harrison and Tyler built their reputation with performances at colleges and coffeehouses, then signed a contract to develop a variety show for the American Broadcasting Company. They produced four pilots for ABC, and, though the network did not pick up their variety show, Harrison and Tyler did appear regularly on the Krofft Comedy Hour.

Tyler came out publicly during an early gay pride celebration, when she responded to a challenge to make up "pro-gay" jokes to counter the ubiquitous anti-gay jokes. As she tells the story, "I got up and did this joke about running into a right-wing guy and he said 'I think they should take all you and put you on an island someplace.' And I said 'They did, darling, and they call it Manhattan.'"

Pleased with the response to her first gay joke, Tyler determined to create jokes where gay men and lesbians "weren't the object of the humor, where we were the subject of the humor." Convinced that humor "is the razor-sharp edge of the truth," she determined to hone her comedy to serve the needs of the burgeoning gay and lesbian political movement, though she knew that to do so might destroy her mainstream career.

From the very beginning, Tyler's comedy has been characterized by its political edge. For example, one of her most famous quotes takes on the question of whether homosexuality is a disease. "If homosexuality is a disease," Tyler says, "let's all call in queer to work: 'Hello. Can't work today, still queer.'" She is also known for her description of Christian fundamentalists, first applied to anti-gay activist Anita Bryant: "Fundamentalists are to Christianity what paint-by-numbers is to art."

Fittingly, Tyler's comedy career and her political career have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, each nurturing the other. She has not hesitated to assume leadership positions in the quest for gay and lesbian rights.

Tyler has worked for almost three decades as a national event organizer. In 1979, she initiated a call for a gay and lesbian march on Washington, D.C., partially in response to the right-wing backlash against the gay liberation movement. The resultant National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights drew over 100,000 demonstrators to the U.S. capital, the first such national demand for gay and lesbian equality.

Tyler was also instrumental in organizing the second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987, where the AIDS quilt was displayed for the first time, and the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, which drew almost a million glbtq protesters from around the nation.

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Robin Tyler (second from right) with Diane Olson at their wedding in Los Angeles. Rabbi Denise Eger, who officiated at the wedding, stands beside Gloria Allred, the couple's attorney in their successful lawsuit against the County of Los Angeles demanding the right to marry.
  
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