In Memoriam: Scott Robbe

Renowned television, film, and stage producer, and veteran AIDS and queer rights advocate, Scott Robbe died on November 21, 2021, of complications from myelodysplastic anemia, a blood cancer he had battled for more than a year. He was sixty-six years old.

Robbe was born on February 16, 1955, in Decorah, Iowa. He attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison, graduating in 1978 with a degree in Theatre Arts. It was there he got his first taste of progressive activism, taking part in many student protests. He moved to New York City, living in the East Village, restoring the Orpheum Theatre, and producing plays at La MaMa ETC and other venues, including Harvey Fierstein’s Fugue in a Nursery (the middle section of Torch Song Trilogy) and, later, Fierstein’s Safe Sex on Broadway.

Photo courtesy Scott Robbe Estate

He joined ACT UP in 1987, taking part in numerous protests. He was a member of an ACT UP undercover team led by activist Peter Staley that secretly gained access to the New York Stock Exchange in September 1989. Their goal was to protest and publicize the record-high price of AZT, then the sole approved treatment for HIV/AIDS. Burroughs Wellcome eventually bowed to this nationally publicized activist pressure and lowered its drug price—then the highest in medical history—by 20%. Staley said of Robbe, “Scott didn’t flinch when our lawyers would warn us of all the possible charges and maximum sentences we’d face for infiltrating a powerful institution. When it came to fighting for his dying gay brothers, he’d always reply, ‘I’m in.’”

His activism continued when he moved to the West Coast in 1991. He greatly assisted fellow ACT UP LA members Judy Sisneros and Lee Wildes, who co-organized a protest at the Oscar Awards in March 1991, calling for visibility  of PWAs and the AIDS crisis in film, which the studio system had ignored while thousands were dying. Also in the early nineties, he cofounded Out in Film, a group that sought to battle homophobia in Hollywood filmmaking. His extensive television credits include the first-ever LGBT comedy special for Comedy Central in 1993, called Out There, and hosted by Lea DeLaria. Robbe was on the creative team for the groundbreaking initial iteration of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which debuted in 2003. He also produced shows for Lifetime, Comedy Central, VH1, Children’s Television Workshop, and American Playhouse.

“Scott was a fearless activist, always on the front lines, whether he was protesting pharmaceutical company greed or homophobia at the Oscars,” said ACT UP New York veteran Ann Northrop. “And he was a total sweetheart.”

A celebration of Robbe’s life will be broadcast online early in 2022. Donations in Scott’s memory may be made to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and ACT UP New York. ◊