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Faith Robinson-Renner was a precocious child.
“I gave my mother fits,” she recalled. “I had a bottle until I was 4 years old. Then my sister said, ‘OK, Faith Ann, we’re gonna throw it in the trash can.’ That’s what I was called, Faith Ann. I was named after my mother, but she had no middle name and I did. It was very kind of southern even though I was not southern.”
Robinson-Renner, in fact, was not even born in the United States. Her father was a missionary, and she was actually born in San Fernando La Union in the Republic of the Philippines. There she spent the first nearly three years of her life.
“Then we came back home to Ohio, where my mother and father had met at college,” she said. Robinson-Renner’s father made the rounds across the state talking to various churches about his experience as a missionary. “I went to small country schools wherever my father was preaching,” said Robinson-Renner. “Most of the time they were very white. But I was raised with a global view. We had lots of visitors from all over the world to my house. That’s what my parents believed in, more of a global view.”
Eventually, the family settled down in the southeastern corner of the state. “They called me a tom boy,” Robinson-Renner said. “I did play with dolls. But I also played with trucks and dirt and things like that and ran around behind our house. I never found a reason why girls were connecting with boys and talking about them in the bathroom. So I never joined in that kind of thing. I did participate in other things in school, like sports, band and choir.”
When she was 17 – six weeks before she was to graduate from high school – Robison-Renner was involved in a serious car accident. “I had a closed head injury,” she said. “I was five days unconscious, and six weeks paralyzed on my left side. I walked on crutches for a year and a half.”
When the time came for Robinson-Renner to go to college, she knew she wanted to leave home and set out on her own. She chose the University of Evansville in Indiana. “I fell in love with the city,” Robinson-Renner said. “I saw so many African-American people. I was involved in the welfare movement, the civil rights movement. I was involved in the peace movement during that time and I got so excited about city living that I tried to convince my mother that I wanted to go to Toledo and go to the University of Toledo. But they wouldn’t let me. They were too afraid of me going to that school because I wanted to live on my own in an apartment and work and go to school.”
Instead, her mother gave her a choice of small schools in the state. Robinson-Renner chose Wilmington College, which was still far enough away that she would have to live on campus and not at home. “Originally, I wanted to be a physical education teacher,” she said. “But I believed I had to be active for that and because of my foot I couldn’t. So then I went over to try to be a social worker and was unhappy because they said social workers (at that time) were just glorified secretaries and I never wanted to be a secretary. I went from there to deciding that I was going to be a teacher … but I probably shouldn’t have because I wasn’t happy.”
While in Wilmington, Robinson-Renner began seeing a young Jewish man who also attended the college. “David was just very, very sweet, very unimposing,” she said. “It was helpful for me because I’m kind of aggressive. I like my own way. I like to control the situation. And he was that kind of person. I could kind of control the situation.”
Eventually, they married and had a baby girl. But they did not live happily ever after. Instead, they took a trip to a Quaker commune that would begin to open Robinson-Renner’s eyes to new possibilities. “In the middle of the winter we biked to this commune,” she recalled. “We spent the night and that’s where they talked about being bisexual. It wasn’t something I had heard before. I had heard about gays … So I learned about bisexuality in this commune and I thought about it in my head and I said, ‘Yes, that is something that, philosophically, I could be.’ I could love a man or a woman. So I just kept in my head. As our relationship wore on I thought that would just go away. You fall in love, you get married and then that’s it. You don’t think about being bisexual anymore.”
But she did think about it, especially after the couple relocated to Battle Creek, Michigan and Robinson-Renner got involved with the local chapter of NOW, the National Organization for Women. She went to a conference in Philadelphia and suddenly she saw real-life lesbians for the first time. And she was particularly taken with one of the speakers, Mordeca Jane Pollock.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, this is what they were talking about when they were talking about their feelings for boys in the bathroom.’ I had never felt that way before and it was just different and kind of scary. I came back home and I told my ex-husband about it and he was titillated,” Robinson-Renner continued. “He already knew that I was bi. But I didn’t know what that meant. But these were my first feelings and I told him about it and he got excited thinking maybe I would pick up a cute woman and bring her to bed with us. But that wasn’t what I wanted.”
Soon, Robinson-Renner found out that she was pregnant again, a realization about which she had mixed feelings. Seeing no alternative, she continued in her marriage and in her post as president of the Battle Creek Chapter of NOW. Two years later, in 1977, Robinson-Renner went to a NOW conference in Ann Arbor.
“They invited me to a bar, the Rubaiyat, and there were women there dancing with each other and it was amazing,” said Robinson-Renner. “I got so excited about dancing with women. It was eye opening. So I came home in the middle of the night, drunk, and my ex-husband wakes me up a couple hours after I got in. He woke me up and said, ‘Faith, what’s up?’ And I said, ‘I’m drunk and I’m gay,’ and that was my whole coming out. We went out to breakfast and discussed it more and then I moved out of the bedroom.”
The couple began therapy. But while her husband thought it was to repair the marriage, Robinson-Renner was going there to learn how to end it peacefully without damaging their two daughters. A divorce soon followed and Robinson-Renner and her girls moved to Detroit out of respect for her ex-husband.
“He was nervous about me living too close because he was embarrassed,” she explained. “I think he thought it was his fault that I became a lesbian. He wasn’t man enough. That’s what a lot of them think, that it takes a real man (to keep a woman happy).”
In Detroit, Robinson-Renner decided that a change of career was in order. Having an aptitude for trades, she looked around for work until finally landing a position as a line technician for Michigan Bell. But the men on her line were not happy to have a woman on their crew, and they set out to make Robinson-Renner quit.
“If I had known what I know about unions now, I might have been able to get better help,” she said. “But they almost killed me. They swung a sledgehammer at my hedge. They called me names. They were pretty rough with me. So I walked off the job and talked with the Free Press.”
The Free Press agreed to do an article, but Michigan Bell pressured them into waiting until they had taken action to help Robinson-Renner before they published it. Eventually, the article appeared on March 12, 1979, by which time Robinson-Renner had been reassigned to a different line. There, a manager named Don Hall took her under his wing.
“The next year I was given a top rating and then made a splicer,” she said. “I was promoted. That’s all it took.” Robinson-Renner went on to work for the phone company for the next 27 years, and as a result of her ordeal Michigan Bell made changes to avoid hazing and make it easier for women to work on the line. During her time as a line technician, Robinson-Renner was working on a different kind of line as well – a hotline.
She became involved in the Wayne State Gay Liberation Front and was the only woman for a time working their switchboard. She would also become vice president of the Detroit Area Gay/Lesbian Council, an early gay rights group in the city. She also got involved with the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights and continued her work with the Lesbian Task Force of NOW. She stepped back from her involvement for several years as her girls became teenagers. She retired from the phone company in 2006 and this year celebrated 36 years with her partner, Deb Renner. The two married legally in 2014.
These days, she has resumed her volunteer efforts and serves as chair of the Jewish Gay Network. “We’re trying to open up a PFLAG West Bloomfield and have it at Temple Israel,” she said. “That’s a project that we’re trying to work on right now.”
And so, even after nearly 40 years of working in the movement, the work never ends.