Celebrating 21 Successful Years with the Montrose Counseling Center.
by Brandon Wolf
“As a teenager, I read every Nancy Drew book,” says Dr. Ann Robison, Houston’s 2010 Honorary Grand Marshal. “I modeled myself after her. She was a strong young woman who made her own decisions, took care of herself, said what was on her mind, and solved puzzles.”
The woman who represents the LGBT community’s heterosexual allies during this year’s Pride festivities was born in 1956 and raised in the small town of Connoquenessing, Pennsylvania. She was the oldest child, and has a younger brother and sister.
Robison graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology, after changing her major numerous times. “I’ve always wanted to help people—especially those who have been wronged through discrimination or abuse—and I struggled to find a bachelor’s program that would help me find the best way to do that.”
At one point, she was enrolled in a pharmacy program, but a tour revealed drug testing on animals that left her sick to her stomach.
“I got out of pharmacy as quickly as I could,” she remembers.
After graduation, Robison worked as a volunteer for six months at the Pittsburgh rape crisis center. Through the connections made there, she ended up running a satellite program for the YWCA for three years. “I worked with a lot of immigrant women in the area—Lebanese, Spanish, Muslim, Asian—from all over the world. We had classes to help them assimilate into the local neighborhoods. But we also had recreational activities—I ended up taking groups to Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Fallingwater house four times.”
Robison was married at the time, and moved to Port Arthur in 1981 with her husband who worked in the oil industry. She worked as a sexual assault specialist in Beaumont for four years, and then went to work in Austin where she assumed responsibility for sexual assault programs statewide.
Answering a newspaper ad in 1988, Robison interviewed at the Montrose Counseling Center (MCC), and has been the executive director there for the past 21 years. When she first joined MCC, it was located at 900 Lovett Boulevard. It then moved to 701 Richmond before finally settling in at 401 Branard.
“I think behavioral services need to be separate from other health services,” Robison comments. “Otherwise, they get lost in the system because they are not big moneymakers.”
Robison says that in the past, insurance companies were not supportive of behavioral services because they felt there wasn’t a concrete measure of improvement. “But we now have a parity law that requires [some insurance plans] to treat mental health the same as physical health. This was the work of the late Senator Paul Wellstone.”
In addition to her bachelor’s degree, Robison earned a master’s degree at Lamar University in Beaumont and a doctorate from the University of Texas at their Houston School of Public Health. “But I’m not a good counselor,” she admits. “My contribution is to run the agency as best I can.”
The task of managing an agency with 70 employees requires reading e-mails at seven o’clock in the morning, and being in the office by eight. Although she tries to leave by five o’clock, she says that her job is an around-the-clock position. “I can get on the computer at home and meet with board members, volunteers, and donors. If I can answer a counselor’s question and help them move on with their client, I want to be accessible.” That accessibility even reached to China when she recently vacationed there. Her one guilty pleasure is having lunch alone and reading the latest issue of Vanity Fair.
The bulk of MCC funding comes from HIV grants, but Robison has still been able to develop new outreach programs in the areas of anti-violence and senior services. The anti-violence program came into being after Robison learned about a young man who was set on fire in 1995 in the Montrose area because he was perceived as being gay.
The seniors program, known as SPRY, developed as a result of the late Jack Jackson. “In his last months, he needed to be driven to and from dialysis treatments,” Robison remembers. “He never would avail himself of MCC’s counseling services, but when I took my turn driving him to treatments, we talked in the car about how he was doing emotionally. That was when I became determined to start a program for seniors.”
Robison says MCC learned of a senior gay couple who was living under a bridge, and brought them in under the umbrella of MCC’s services. “Some people think domestic abuse within the gay community is just two men fighting,” she notes. “But we’ve seen people who have been bitten, battered, stabbed, and shot.”
The first floor of MCC is now known as the GLBT Cultural Center, and Robison is proud of the inroads that have been made in providing meeting space for local groups. “We have groups as diverse as gay Catholics, atheists, and leather men.”
Robison has been with her partner Greg Gladden for the past 14 years. “We’ve both been married before, and decided we didn’t need that.” Gladden is actively involved in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and was the Texas state president for seven years. “He’s all about having fun and I’m all about working, so we offset each other well.”
“I’ve been lucky,” Robison says. “The stars aligned to help me do things to help people. And that makes me feel good. It’s a great source of fulfillment each day to see the people that we’re helping.”
Unfortunately, Robison’s parents don’t share in her sense of pride. “It took years for them to visit me at MCC, and they were very uncomfortable.” Robison says her mother once asked her what she had done wrong as a mother because her daughter wasn’t a church-going Republican. “I told her it was all those Nancy Drew books she gave me,” Robison says with a smile.
Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine. He also profiles Gary Wood and Carol Wyatt in this issue.