When Ann Robison became executive director of the Montrose Counseling Center in December 1988, the organization’s finances were so precarious that she sometimes had to scrounge change from the soda machine and rush to deposit it at the bank so that payroll would clear.
If there still wasn’t enough money to make payroll, she and the receptionist would wait several days to cash their paychecks. (He was a retired teacher who lived on a pension, and she could depend upon her then-husband’s income.)
Finances weren’t the only crisis that Robison had to deal with. She assumed leadership of the organization at the height of the AIDS crisis, and Houston’s LGBTQ community—including the Montrose Counseling Center itself—was reeling from the devastation. It was a lot for a small agency to handle with only 17 employees and a $385,000 annual budget.
“If Ann hadn’t taken the lead when she did, the Montrose Center might not be here today.”
Three decades later, Robison, 62, has led the organization through a profound transformation. It’s been re-branded as the Montrose Center and significantly expanded beyond its original core mission as a behavioral-health center. It is the nation’s fifth largest LGBTQ center, serving 100,000 individuals over the last year, with 95 employees and a budget of more than $6 million. In 2017, the Montrose Center launched the Hurricane Harvey LGBTQ Disaster Relief Fund, raising $1.2 million—the largest LGBTQ disaster-relief fundraising effort in history. Having celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this year, the Center will break ground in 2019 on a $24.8 million LGBTQ-affirming senior housing complex, the second-largest in the nation, in Houston’s Third Ward.
“Ann is an incredible force of nature,” observes Kennedy Loftin, chief development officer of the Montrose Center.
“When I came to the Center, we only had 325 donors,” he said. “It would have been impossible to complete a capital campaign of $24.8 million without Ann. The trust that Ann has built with the City government, with our local community, has helped us achieve our goal.”
Katy Caldwell, CEO of Legacy Community Health, praised Robison’s decisiveness in periods of great stress.
“During times of crisis—such as Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike, and Harvey—she was laser-focused on making sure the Center was able to serve the LGBTQ community and had the resources to do it,” Caldwell says. “She was a strong voice to make sure the needs of the community were not overlooked by elected officials and funding organizations.”
Sonia Corrales, chief program officer of the Houston Area Women’s Center, lauded Robison for her decades of activism to combat violence against women. “She’s a badass,” Corrales says.
So how did a heterosexual woman from a conservative Presbyterian family in Pennsylvania come to lead a Houston LGBTQ institution for 30 of its 40 years? The credit for her evolution goes to the intrepid teenage-fiction sleuth, Nancy Drew.
Born in Butler, Pennsylvania, Robison grew up in the tiny town of Connoquenessing. Her mother taught her to sew, and she loved creating costumes for student theatrical productions. As she matured into a young adult, she developed a liberal sensibility and discovered that she was an atheist, much to her conservative mother’s dismay.
“My mother kept saying, ‘How did you turn out this way? I don’t know how you turned out this way,’” she recalls. “I said, ‘Well, Mother, it was all those Nancy Drew books you gave me. [The books featured] a strong woman who was in charge, and that’s what I became.’ That did not make her happy to know that it was her fault.”
Robison graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a dual major in psychology and sociology. She then volunteered full-time for six months at Pittsburgh Action Against Rape as an advocate for sexual-assault survivors. She would take the bus to the hospital at night, meet survivors, help them navigate the hospital and the police, and support their emotional recovery.
After she married and her husband’s job took her to Port Arthur, she ran the Rape and Suicide Crisis Center in Beaumont from 1981 to 1984. She also participated in the National Organization for Women (NOW) as well as Democratic Party politics, and she was a founding member of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault.
In 1984, she moved to Austin to work for the Texas Department of Public Health. While there, she co-founded the Austin chapter of NOW and went on to serve as the president of its Texas chapter. She ran a sexual-assault hotline out of her living room and also participated in marches, protests, testified at the Capitol, and took part in NOW consciousness-raising sessions. “That was really helpful in shaping part of who I am and the things that I care about, and giving me strength to keep doing what I do,” she recalls.
She arrived at what was then called the Montrose Counseling Center at the end of 1988. A key initiative was to establish Texas’ first domestic violence/sexual assault/hate crimes agency specifically for LGBTQ survivors.
Robison also brought strong administrative skills that helped buoy the organization. “Ann is unique in that she has an administrative background, but she also has a PhD in public health,” Caldwell says. “While she has the academic chops, she came with a large amount of managerial and administrative experience.”
Robison approached her role with an activist’s zeal. She had learned to quilt from her mother, and made several panels for the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt to honor two board members of the Montrose Counseling Center who had died of AIDS complications. In the mid-1990s, the quilt was displayed at the University of Saint Thomas in Montrose, but that Catholic university would not allow condoms to be distributed during the event.
“A lot of us got together and decided we wanted to use this as an education opportunity,” Robison says. “At the time, one of the big things was colored condoms, so I made earrings with colored condoms on them, and also a necklace with condoms on them. You couldn’t take them off and hand them to people, but you could talk about them and show them.
“It was not the early, early days of HIV, but it was still a time when people were not listening to prevention messages. So it was very important to be able to have that teaching moment when you had people that had some interest in the subject. We did a little minor disruption that they weren’t happy about, but we said, ‘It’s jewelry, and we’re not handing them out.’”
Caldwell says Robison “has mellowed over the years—like a good wine.
“She’s grown wiser, has a stronger voice and more clout, and understands to how to better use it,” Caldwell adds.
In her spare time, Robison enjoys playing with her pet turtle and her bird. She also takes trips with her longtime partner, Houston attorney Greg Gladden.
“If Ann hadn’t taken the lead when she did, the Montrose Center might not be here today,” Caldwell says. “She’s had a great vision, and it really met the needs of the community. I don’t think that anyone else coming in at that time could have envisioned what the Center would become.”
This profile is based partly on an oral history conducted by Renee Tappe for The Oral History Project. To read the full oral history, visit https://scholarship.rice.edu/handle/1911/98793.
This article appears in the December 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.