When Colin Robinson, the prolific activist and poet, passed away from colon cancer on March 4, he took a large chunk of Black, LGBTQ, and HIV history with him. Though noted by those in the know for his devotion to queer liberation, many of his accomplishments have heretofore gone undocumented in the wider press.
During his life, Robinson joined Pentecostal minister Rev. Charles Angel to found Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD), one of the first organizations to advocate for Black men living with HIV, where he eventually served as the organization’s first executive director, chaired and supported Other Countries, the Black writers collective for gay men, and helped produce its journal.
Further, Robinson served alongside Black HIV activist Ron Simmons, Ph.D., as the field producer of Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied; appeared in Riggs’ short films Affirmations and Anthem, during which he recited the poem, “Unfinished Work”; cofounded New York City–based LGBTQ nonprofit the Audre Lorde Project; served as the director of HIV prevention at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) as well as the head of GMHC’s Community Partnership Initiative; was a board member of the Center for LGBTQ Studies and executive director of the New York State Black Gay Network; fought to repeal Trinidad and Tobago’s colonial homophobic anti-sodomy laws; and founded the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO): Sex & Gender Justice.
Though Robinson had a hand in nearly every movement for Black queer liberation that occurred in New York City from the late 1980s through the mid-aughts, his work was rarely recorded in the press. Kenyon Farrow, TheBody’s former senior editor, who considered Robinson a friend and mentor, said that this separation was purposeful. “Colin was more interested in the work getting done than he was in being in front of the cameras,” said Farrow.
Robinson confirmed as much in “No More Tributes,” a column he wrote for Trinidad and Tobago’s Newsday. In that piece, he quoted his friend, the activist and poet Essex Hemphill: “Our loss is greater than all the space we fill with prayers and praise.” Robinson concluded, “We spend far too much time and energy in mourning, sentimentality, and tribute. … I want our action to be our tribute.”
Though Robinson’s dedication to action over acclaim is part of the reason that he is not as well known as he should be, Farrow noted, “The failure of mainstream press in this country to write about all that Colin accomplished for human rights speaks to where their priorities were.” Farrow said that extends to the people Colin was working with at Other Countries, all of whom made huge contributions. “I wish we could see the same celebration of those activists and writers who are still alive, in the same way that the original white gay activists are.”
Beyond Robinson’s work, fellow poet Rosamond S. King, Ph.D., a Lambda Literary Award–winning writer and professor of literature at Brooklyn College, said his true legacy is that he “was a father to many Black queer men who were rejected by their families.” She added that among Black gay men from the Caribbean, “Many of them will tell you that ‘He was the father I didn’t have.’”
That’s why, despite his forceful pronouncement against commemoration, TheBody is celebrating the life of Colin Robinson. We do so not only to correct the ongoing whitewash of HIV history, but to remind activists everywhere what a spectacular man he was.
A Life of Activism
Colin McNeil Robinson was born on October 8, 1961 in Trinidad. On May 10, 2020, he announced in his Sunday Newsday opinion column that he was living with terminal colon cancer. He died less than a year later on March 4, 2021 in Washington D.C..
After graduating from St. Mary’s College, his Catholic high school, in 1979, he was awarded a national scholarship in modern languages that funded his studies at Yale. But in an interview with Newsday, he revealed that he found Yale a “a culturally challenging space” and “flunked out after one term.”
Following his departure, he traveled to New York City, where was accepted to New York University (NYU) and began intermittent studies in 1981. During this period, he found a second family in Black lesbian feminist organizers and gay activists who introduced him to LGBTQI organizing.
In 1984, with his student visa expired and degree unfinished, he decided to stay in New York instead of returning “home to a dead-end job.” Though he eventually graduated from NYU in 1988 with a degree in anthropology, he spent the next 15 years living as an undocumented immigrant. But, rather than hide under the radar, he immersed himself entirely in LGBTQI and HIV activism.
By 1986, Robinson had become associated with the Black queer activists and writers Essex Hemphill, Ray Melrose, Ron Simmons, Steven Fullwood, Assotto Saint, and Joseph F. Beam. That year, he worked as a news correspondent for Black/Out, a queer magazine for Black people edited by Beam—and at Other Countries, a writing workshop that focused on developing the voices of Black gay men.
In July 1986, a few weeks after Other Countries began to meet, Rev. Charles Angel founded GMAD, with Robinson as his co-chair. Sometime after that, Robinson met John Manzon-Santos, the founding executive director of Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS, with whom he co-founded the Audre Lorde Project in 1994.
HIV Advocacy and Serving the Caribbean Queer Community
Robinson spent most of the 1990s working in HIV prevention and advocating for attention to Black gay men, who were often left out of conversations about the virus. Following his time at GMHC, where he served in numerous leadership capacities, he began to turn his attention toward empowering the Caribbean queer community of New York.
In 1998, after inviting Godfrey Sealy, a Trinidadian playwright and activist who was living with HIV, to his Brooklyn apartment, Robinson co-founded Caribbean Pride to address the erasure of immigrants from Black queer political movements.
Responding to racist stereotypes about Black people from the Caribbean, Robinson told the Small Axe Project—a literary platform devoted to Caribbean intellectual and artistic work—“I began to insist on Caribbean voice, agency, and self-determination; to question a queer Caribbean politics of internationalism and human rights as opposed to domestic political engagement, and of rights demands over strategic work of alliance-building and inclusion; and to relentlessly critique the lack of imagination about liberation that I concluded underlay this.”
Part of this work involved linking Caribbean traditions with queer celebration, which he accomplished by engineering the placement of the first soca music big truck in Manhattan’s Pride Parade. But Robinson knew that eradicating homophobia throughout the Caribbean community required more than marching in a parade.
Poet and critical writer Rosamond S. King met Robinson during these years at the Audre Lorde Project, where Caribbean Pride held its meetings. A few years after the movement's soca big truck had become an established part of the parade, King recalled hearing him say, “Caribbean Pride is no longer an organization. It’s a framework,” which she said meant that “rather than focusing on marching in New York City’s Pride parade,” it would be used in ways that were “explicitly political and social.”
Robinson completed his activism work in New York as the executive director of the New York State Black Gay Network (NYSBGN) from 2001 until 2006. It was during those years that Kenyon Farrow met him, while protesting against Shirley Q. Liquor—a racist drag performer who dressed in blackface while spewing offensive anti-Black stereotypes.
Farrow recalled that the incident pitted them against famed drag queen and television personality RuPaul, who defended the performer and denounced protesters as “idiots” and a “self-righteous lynch mob.” He noted that Robinson helped to remind him that it didn’t matter what anyone said about their work, because their agenda was to serve the community and not the media’s entertainment cycle.
“That Wasn’t in the Papers”
In Robinson’s penultimate year as executive director of NYSBGN, he penned an essay that pointed toward terminating the spread of HIV by promoting “our own culturally specific experiences and expressions of [homosexuality,]” rather than allowing the Black queer community to continue to be forced to the margins of society.
With that focus of uplifting Black queer lives in mind, he departed the organization the following year and, soon afterward, returned home to Trinidad and Tobago where he turned his attention toward fighting homophobic colonial anti-sodomy laws and bolstering the fight against HIV. As part of this mission, he referenced his love for Trinidadian culture by serving as the founding executive director of an organization that was named for his love of the country’s version of calypso music—CAISO, the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation: Sex & Gender Justice.
When CAISO first opened, King recalled that its contact number was Robinson’s personal number, “which meant whenever someone was thrown out of their house or was considering suicide, Colin got the call and he went to help.” Robinson may have been the most well-known “capital A” sexual minority activist in the entire Caribbean region, said King, “but that was the type of work that he did on a daily basis—that wasn’t in the papers.”
Whenever Robinson did appear in the papers, delivering a quote or publishing his own opinion, his ferocious intelligence fearlessly dragged equivocations for perpetuating homophobia for filth.
Speaking to International Business Times in 2013, he quipped, “Trinidad and Tobago’s culture is one of multiethnic and multi-religious diversity, where prejudice and public accommodation coexist,” while noting that the country had become a “target for the export of U.S. fundamentalism and ex-gay ministry” that supports homophobia.
In 2014, after the country’s prime minister claimed that gay rights were not legally possible, he noted, “Mrs. Persad-Bissessar was blunt about her reasons for not protecting some of her citizens: political cowardice.” Robinson continued, “The Prime Minister embarrassed herself on the international stage by saying that her Government practices human rights by referendum. If it’s popular to hate one social group, or pass laws against what they can do with their own bodies or who they can love, the Government will just go along.”
Living on Through His Poetry
Though Robinson was CAISO’s executive director, in 2018 he asked that he be renamed the director of imagination. This was a sign of his insistence that one have “playfulness and rebelliousness around how we do this work and not take ourselves too seriously, because we’re doing it for the community and don’t want to separate ourselves from that directive,” said Angelique Nixon, CAISO’s current executive director.
Nixon joined CAISO’s board in 2016 at Robinson’s invitation. She worked alongside him to build coalitions among numerous movements across the region to end child marriage, implement domestic violence laws, end homophobic legislation, and extricate Caribbean culture from the grip of its colonial past.
In remembering him, she noted the importance of recognizing Robinson’s love for caiso culture and literature. His many tributes have included readings of his poems, Nixon said, and in accordance with his wishes, written responses to his words so that a true dialogue could take place even after his passing.
Robinson should be remembered, Nixon said, “as someone who was fiercely and fearlessly dedicated to human rights, intersectional activism, protecting women, and supporting youth activists.” His legacy through CAISO “affirms a place and space for same-sex-loving LGBTQ folks to live in this region and to be proud,” she added. “Again and again, we hear young people saying, ‘When Colin first came back and I saw him on TV, I knew I could be an activist.’”
CAISO continues to promote his dream of queer liberation and inspiring activists to transform the world. Currently, that includes a collaboration with Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice to support Caribbean LGBTQI organizations with grants ranging from $2,500 to $10,000. The current round for funding closes on June 30, 2021. But keeping Robinson’s memory alive does not end there.
On July 29, 2020, to honor “the fearless ways in which [he used] creative imagination to speak out against injustice,” CAISO launched the Colin Robinson Hard Head Award. The award is named for his collection of poems, You Have You Father Hard Head. Nixon noted that this makes perfect sense, because anyone who wants to know who Robinson was should “Read his work. That’s where he lives.”
Colin Robinson lives on through the many people he mentored, his poetry, and his activism. You can learn more about him by visiting CAISO or by reading You Have You Father Hard Head, his book of poems.
Readers can learn more about and support the continuation of the award established in Robinson's memory by visiting Colin Robinson Hard Head Award.