Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's former in-law speaks out for gay rights

By Anita Kumar
Friday, July 16, 2010; C01

RICHMOND -- Robyn Deane, dressed in a red raincoat, jeans and heels, glanced at her handwritten notes before peering at the crowd gathered outside Virginia's Capitol to promote the rights of gay and transgender state workers.

For years, Deane, a man who is in the process of becoming of woman, had considered revealing her lengthy but largely unknown connection to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R). She had told no one that this would finally be the moment she went public.

"I am father to three of the present governor's nephews and nieces," she announced to the more than 100 people trying to shield themselves from the rain.

"Whoa," someone muttered.

"I'm also uncle to five of his children, so that puts me kind of close," Deane continued. "He is my former brother-in-law. . . . He witnessed the impact that all of this coming out can have on one's life. He had a front-row-center seat."

Deane's declaration was the first step in her second coming out, this time as an activist attempting to leverage her past association to McDonnell to promote a cause that has become dear to her: the advancement of gay and transgender rights. In particular, Deane wants Virginia and national lawmakers to pass legislation that prevents discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. She also wants to persuade McDonnell to speak publicly about how people should accept those who are gay or transgender.

Deane said she decided to announce her relationship to McDonnell on April 21 because she feels that her situation hardened some of his views on sexual orientation. The governor opposes same-sex marriage and has not backed measures that protect gay state workers from discrimination.

"Maybe I sealed an anger in him toward people like us," she said at the rally.

Deane also believes their past relationship makes her the most qualified person to persuade the governor to change his views, even though the last time they saw each other was at a family Christmas gathering more than a decade ago, just before Deane divorced a younger sister of McDonnell's wife, Maureen, in 1999 after 17 years.

"He should be able to see what social intolerance does," she said. "He's in a position that he can talk about it."

An 'awkward position'

Though Deane has not spoken to McDonnell in more than a decade, her activities threaten to become a nuisance and embarrassment to the governor and could cause trouble with social conservatives if he were to engage Deane.

"It puts the governor in a very awkward position," said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University. "It could inflame activists who don't want their leader to try so hard to be liked by everyone.''

But Rozell and other political observers said the situation could end up making McDonnell look good because Deane appears to be trying to use her past relationship to the governor to get attention.

Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), one of the legislature's most conservative members, said McDonnell is already well aware of Deane's history. "It's not like it's going to change his worldview," he said.

McDonnell, who has turned down invitations from Deane to meet and has not spoken publicly about her, declined to comment for this article. "This is a personal matter," said his spokesman, Tucker Martin. "The governor wishes Robyn the very best."

Deane and McDonnell, who met when they were 22 and began dating sisters from a large Northern Virginia family, became close despite religious and philosophical differences as they raised their families, Deane said.

Boyd Marcus, who served as chief of staff to former governor James S. Gilmore III (R) and now serves as a Republican consultant, said many people quickly show up from the past once someone is elected governor. Marcus suggested the public would understand if McDonnell ignored Deane and her cause.

"They want their 10 minutes," he said. "Your wife's sister's ex-husband doesn't really have any standing. Was he lobbying before he was governor? Will he be lobbying after he is governor?"

Deane, 55, who lives outside Richmond and has been advocating for years behind the scenes, has made it clear since the April rally that she does not intend to go away, though her children, 26, 22 and 19, are opposed to the public activism.

She sought a formal position last month within the state Democratic Party as executive vice chair of its gay, bisexual, transgender caucus, but the slate she was a part of lost. She is now talking with party leaders about a different role.

Deane said she also plans to campaign for Democrat Rick Waugh in his race against U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who represents her, and she plans to take vacation time this summer from her job as a supervisor at Home Depot to lobby members of Congress on a federal nondiscrimination bill.

Deane has emerged after a pair of high-profile controversies over gay rights that have caused trouble for McDonnell.

The governor alienated gay rights activists shortly after taking office when he excluded sexual orientation from an executive order that barred discrimination in the state workforce, a break in tradition from his Democratic predecessors.

The issue became even more heated when Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II advised the state's public colleges and universities to rescind policies that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. That opinion led to protests -- including the rally in which Deane revealed her connection to the governor -- and eventually led McDonnell to issue an executive directive that prohibits discrimination in the state workforce, including on the basis of sexual orientation.

But unlike an executive order, a directive is not legally binding and McDonnell's action was widely seen as an attempt to quell the uproar over what Cuccinelli had done rather than a shift in position for the governor.

Fighting for the cause

Even before she changed her name from Bob to Robyn, and transformed herself from a cleanshaven, dark-haired man to a blond woman saving her pennies for sex reassignment surgery, Deane was quietly speaking out against McDonnell and his views on sexual orientation.

Deane first became interested in lobbying five years ago when McDonnell ran for attorney general and the Republican-controlled General Assembly began pushing for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

She started stuffing envelopes at the Richmond offices of the gay rights group Equality Virginia every Tuesday night. She attended the group's annual lobby days, in which activists visit state legislators. She approached Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), McDonnell's opponent in the attorney general's race, to offer help. At the time, she was still dressing like a man and came accompanied by one of her daughters. Deeds said in an interview that Deane "offered advice and insight.''

Deane said she became more "energized" to work against McDonnell after he issued a legal opinion in 2006 as attorney general that stated the marriage amendment would not put thousands of unmarried couples at risk of losing benefits, as opponents had argued.

Deane testified in front of the General Assembly last winter for the first time when the House considered a bill to ban discrimination in public employment, which would have included sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. But she didn't tell them about her connection to the governor.

"I'm very blessed . . . to work for an employer who gives me those protections," she said in brief remarks to a House subcommittee. "What I would like to see for my friends in the state and local government is the same opportunity."

Deane, who has been estranged from much of her family since she came out as a woman, says her children have made it clear they oppose their uncle's -- the governor's -- positions but that they also oppose their father using McDonnell's name when lobbying. The children's mother declined to comment for this article and also asked that her name not be used.

Despite the potential resonance of her connection to McDonnell, activists in Virginia's gay rights community are also divided about whether Deane's approach is the right one.

'A private matter'

Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond), who sponsored one of the nondiscrimination bills this year and has been a vocal advocate of gay rights, said several activists have told him they are worried that Deane will shift attention from the cause to her.

"It's incumbent to all of us to keep the issue front and center," McEachin said. "The more all of us do to speak out about the issue, the more it becomes about the issue."

Guy Kinman, a longtime gay activist from Richmond, said he was so disappointed with Deane's strategy that he considered writing a letter to McDonnell to tell him he did not support her. "Robyn Deane caused deep embarrassment for the governor," he said. "It is a private matter. I don't think it's any of your business."

But Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, a lobbyist for Equality Virginia, said research shows that people are more likely to support an issue if they know someone close to them who is affected. She points to former Republican vice president Dick Cheney, who broke with his party in expressing support for gay marriage. Cheney's daughter, Mary, is gay.

Deane scoffs at the notion that she will hurt the cause. She insists she can only help, particularly now that gay rights have taken much more of a role in the state policy debate than in recent years.

"I raised my kids to question everything -- always challenge status-quo thinking and make a difference,'' she said. "I wouldn't be true to those values if I felt this way but stayed over here, worried about what this, this, this person thinks. Nothing would ever change.

"I think the voice needs to be heard," she said. "I can't sit back and wait."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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