By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
When Tyler was 19, she fled provincial Winnipeg for what she thought would be the more open atmosphere of Manhattan. But rumors of New York's laissez-faire attitude toward gays and lesbians proved ill-informed. At the time, it was illegal for men and women of the same sex to dance with each other — and being out of the closet was a de facto criminal offense.
One night, while checking out a gay drag club, Tyler was rounded up in a massive police raid and charged with impersonating a woman. Sitting in jail, unable to convince the police that she actually was a woman — she was wearing pants and had short hair — Tyler did the only thing she could think of that would get her out of jail: She called the New York Post.
A reporter was sent to the station to interview her, and the next day's headline read: "Cops grab 44 men and a real girl in slacks."
Tyler was set free.
The incident, though terrifying, actually proved fortuitous for Tyler, helping her to land a gig at the 82 Club, the legendary drag cabaret — as a female impersonator.
Thus began a life of show business — which eventually brought her to Hollywood in 1970. Tyler and her then comedy partner and lover, Patti Harrison, landed their first gig almost immediately — in war-torn Vietnam as part of the USO tour.
"We didn't actually have an act," says Tyler. "The military just couldn't find anyone else to go over there."
Witnessing the horrors of war firsthand, Tyler became radicalized, and when she returned to America after eight weeks abroad, she launched her career in Hollywood as both a full-time gay-and-lesbian advocate and one of America's few openly lesbian performers. She attached herself to any and every meaningful cause she could find.
In 1973, Tyler read a story in the L.A. Times about a gay church that had been burned to the ground by an arsonist. Though an atheist of Jewish descent, she decided to attend the first service after the fire in a show of solidarity. The church was the Metropolitan Community Church, and it was there that she met the Reverend Troy Perry — preaching from the ashes.
Tyler and Perry became immediate friends and colleagues in the gay-civil-rights struggle. "We both have a sense of humor," says Perry, "so we got along great. But we also shared a deep concern for achieving our equal rights. No matter how dangerous things got, Robin was always on the frontlines. She was not afraid."
In 1975, the duo collaborated to raise legal funds for Anthony Sullivan and Richard Adams, a gay Angeleno couple who had legally wed in Boulder, Colorado, earlier that year. It was the first in a series of major gay-civil-rights collaborations between Tyler and Perry, as well as Tyler's first formal foray into the gay-marriage debate.
It was a theme that would linger in her life and career.
In 1978, Tyler cut her first solo comedy album, Always a Bridesmaid Never a Groom — a prophetic title that referred as much to being unlucky in love as to the government bureaucracy that denied her the right to marry.
Nearly two decades later, Tyler would remedy the former problem, if not the latter, when she began spending time with an old friend, Diane Olson, who had just gotten out of a long-term relationship. At the time, however, Tyler was involved in a cross-continental affair with a woman in Australia.
"Robin and I would get together and watch Murder She Wrote, trying as hard as we could not to sleep with each other," remembers Olson, laughing. "It was the least-sexy thing we could think of to do together."
Their efforts at self-denial lasted about three months. Tyler eventually flew to Australia to give her lover the bad news. "I told her I couldn't do this anymore, I was madly in love with someone else."
Tyler returned to Los Angeles, and she and Olson have been together ever since — for more than 14 years. Olson, a Beverly Hills native with long, bleached-blond hair and a quiet, confident air, isn't the political force her partner is, and prefers to spend her time focusing on her electrolysis business while Tyler battles the powers that be. Still, she's supportive of Tyler's various political crusades, and has no lack of political conviction herself.
"I come from a long line of people committed to the separation of church and state," says Olson, the granddaughter of former California Governor Culbert Levy Olson, a radical atheist who refused to say "So help me God" during his inaugural address. The issue of same-gender marriage awakens a latent, genetic, political outrage in Olson.
"There's a great picture of my grandfather being sworn in as governor with one hand on the Bible and his fingers crossed," says Olson. "Same-gender marriage is something my grandfather would have fought for. There's no reason to deny us the right to marry, other than religious intolerance. And so I'm deeply committed to it on principle — not just for my own benefit."
That said, marriage isn't without its perks. There are "over a thousand" legal incentives for marriage, according to Tyler — from inheritance laws to hospital visitation rights to tax breaks. "We don't need a piece of paper from the government to validate our relationship," says Tyler, "but the legal rights of marriage are invaluable."