LGBT Pride Month Local Hero Robert Gleason Builds Consensus
LGBT Pride Month 2014 Honoree
Ask anyone who knows Robert Gleason what quality most defines him, and it's pretty much unanimous: consensus builder.
Gleason, a 2014 LGBT Pride Month Local Hero, is the newly-appointed president and CEO of Evans Hotels, a company he’s been with for 30 years. A long-time San Diegan, Gleason is an activist for the following areas: the arts, economic development, electoral politics and LGBT civil rights, and his work as a consensus builder is front and center in his efforts in helping to pull together the LGBT Community Leadership Council.
“Talk about collaboration," he says. "The one big initiative we started was meant to bring LGBT and allied resources together. I chaired the board for eight years, and the great thing about it was seeing all these disparate organizations that didn’t often work together, get involved. When people were coming forward and trying to form new groups, they'd start with us. Once a year we'd hold a reception for everyone’s board members to learn and grow capacity. Max Disposti, who is now the executive director of the North County LGBTQ Resource Center, showed up and said, ‘Hey I’m interested in doing community work in Oceanside,’ and he started coming every month and that’s how his organization grew. It’s good to see what he’s done. The first step always is visibility and just being present.”
Gleason, who is a graduate of the Bishop’s School in La Jolla, attended college at Princeton University, earning an A.B. in Economics. He also has a J.D. from the University of San Diego School of Law, where he graduated summa cum laude.
He has volunteered his time and served on boards for the Old Globe Theater, the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, the Francis Parker School, the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, the San Diego LGBT Community Center, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, and the San Diego LGBT Community Leadership Council, to name a few. Yet, what he seems most fervent about is advocating for the rights of the LGBT community, and for good reason. It’s a cause that truly hits home.
Gleason, who grew up in what he describes as “the very early and very dark days of HIV AIDS,” explains, “I was just sort of understanding myself, and coming out and seeing the incredible fear and discrimination that was being targeted at the gay community. In so much of what I do, I work really hard to ensure we don’t go back to that, and not just for the LGBT community but for all communities who face discrimination and oppression.”
Gleason has spent ten years serving on the board of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which is based in Washington, D.C. Its sole focus, as he explains, “is to identify, train and raise financial support for openly LGBT candidates at every level of office across the country, who are in favor of marriage freedom and LGBT equality.”
It is because of his work with the Victory Fund that Gleason believes the best thing any LGBT person can do for their community is to come out as openly gay.
“If you look at any polling over the last 20 years,” he notes, “the biggest single determining factor in moving people’s opinions about issues relating to equality are about knowing someone who is LGBT. So, the most important thing you can do for your rights is to come out, and talk to your co-workers and the people in your house of worship.”
Despite recent successes in achieving equality, Gleason knows there is still much work to be done.
“There are still significant barriers, prejudice. Not every city is San Diego and not every state is California. There are states where you can be fired for putting a picture of your partner on your desk. And many more states where you can't marry, where it’s difficult to raise children in those relationships, and so people stay quiet. I think those of us who do a lot of this work, try to use what voice we’ve been allowed to have for people who don’t have a voice.”
For Gleason, the summer of 2008 is remembered as the “summer of love.” The California Supreme Court had just legalized same-sex marriage in May of that year, and the Prop 8 ban on gay marriage was still a few months away from being passed.
“I got married during the summer of love," he recalls. "It was an amazing summer. Marc (Gleason’s spouse) and I were going to two to four weddings every single weekend. Watching people get married who had been together for 20, 30 or 40 years, I never imagined I’d see that. I said to folks, the three happiest days of my life are the day I got married, the day my son was born and the day my daughter was born, and all those are things I never could have possibly imagined as a kid growing up.”
For Gleason, access and equality are key to all he undertakes.
“In my work at the airport we had a huge focus on local and small business contracting, about making sure those economic opportunities are accessible to small business. The work on the Arts Commission, is about the access and outreach that those organizations do in terms of making sure their performances, or whatever they’re creating, is accessible to the public. Of course, in the LGBT community, it’s about advancing equality in very tangible and realistic terms. So all of the work I do is related. It’s about access and equality, and what is fair and just across the community.”
Gleason is grateful for the support he has received over the years and wants to make sure others are similarly supported.
“I feel very lucky. I came out to my friends and a few teachers in high school. I was completely out in college, but not to my family until right after that. Today, I have this great support network but I was cognizant at the time, and I am cognizant now that that’s not everybody’s circumstance. So I work really hard to try to make sure that it is.”
When he contemplates what inspires him, he doesn't need to look further than his own community.
“Growing up, I didn’t have gay role models," he admits. "Now I do. Now I see people that I admire greatly, like Toni Atkins, (speaker of the California Assembly), who are doing really incredible work all across the country. I’m inspired by courageous and good people who choose a career in public service, selflessly and for the right reasons, particularly LGBT folk who are courageous enough to be out front serving as role models and work for the betterment of the whole community. When it comes down to it, our issues are everybody’s issues.”