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Openly gay bishop and controversial figure Gene Robinson may be retiring in two years but his commitment to LGBT equality still shines bright.
Bishop Robinson entered office in March 2004. He was consecrated as the ninth Bishop of New Hampshire, and the first openly gay bishop in LGBT history. Since then, Robinson has advocated for marriage equality across the country and the end of LGBT discrimination in the church.
Robinson spoke with BTL about his post-retirement plans, the death-threats on his life, and what it has been like to balance his responsibilities to the LGBT and Christian communities.
Have you always seen yourself as a leader in the Episcopalian church and LGBT community?
Even in high school I think I exhibited leadership qualities. But when I came out 25 years ago I assumed it was the end of my life as a priest. I never dreamt that I would even be allowed to function as a priest, never mind become a bishop.
So what was the tipping point when you came out? What gave you the strength and courage to continue as a priest?
I had read a book called “Embracing the Exile” by John Fortunato; it reconciled sexual orientation with Christianity and somehow it was the key that unlocked the door. I knew that I needed to leave my marriage, come out and claim who I was no matter what it meant for my life in the church. I really felt that God was calling me to do that, but that book really gave me the strength to do it.
What do you think about the attempted repeal of same-sex marriage in New Hampshire in January? Do you think it will pass?
We have a legislature that seems determined to do everything possible to take away any kind of thing that the state government does for people in need. I have rarely seen a legislature anywhere, never mind in New Hampshire, whose goals are so at odds with the common good and with such distain for the people who have a right to be receiving assistance from the state government.
We have to work hard, we have to do our homework, we have to do our lobbying, but at the end of the day I do not feel it will pass. Our governor will veto it if it passes and I think it’s possible we can peel away enough of the Republicans to sustain the veto.
You were one of the first LGBT activists to submit an “It Gets Better” video. What brought you to create a video?
It was soon after the campaign started. I really wanted to be a part of those who were reaching out to all these young people who may be feeling isolated and possibly even considering taking their own lives. I was speaking in a congregation in Little Rock and they were filming my talks. So I said to the cameraman, “Would you be able to come in a couple minutes early and do this video for me?” He said yes, so we just did it in one take. I had no idea it would get over 100,000 views. We did it in one take and I didn’t write anything out ahead of time.
I didn’t even know how to upload it! You know? I need a ten-year-old to show me how to do that.
After announcing your early retirement, you made it clear that you have no intention of “retiring from public life,” and will continue to work with the “unchurched” and “dechurched.” Will you still be involved in the LGBT community? What can we expect from you after your retirement?
They would have to take me out in a straightjacket if I just sat at home all day, so I don’t think this is retirement at all. It’s more a question of “What’s next?” I’ll have more time to be involved in the LGBT movement and I won’t have to balance this with my more-than-full-time job as bishop. I’ll have more time to speak with more college groups, which I just love doing.
I’ve been to a couple of states lobbying the legislature about gay marriage and I expect to be doing more of that. I will also be doing some part-time work for The Center for American Progress. I expect to be quite active in Washington.
I can do some more writing as well. In fact I’m just finishing the last chapter of a new book now.
Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming book?
The book is titled “God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage,” published by Random House and Knopf. It comes out May 1 next year. It imagines a conversation between someone in the “moveable middle”- somewhat tolerant and sympathetic of LGBT people but not yet ready to support gay marriage – and myself. Each chapter takes on one of their objections and by the end of it hopefully I’ve answered all the concerns someone might have.
So much has changed since your ordination – for example openly lesbian Bishop Mary Glasspool has been ordained. Do you feel comfortable retiring now?
I never considered retirement until Mary Glasspool was elected. I planned to be the openly gay voice in the house of bishops until the day I had to retire at 72, if need be, but when she was elected it signaled to me that the church was sort of inexorably headed in the right direction. You can elect an openly gay and partnered bishop once and maybe it was an aberration or maybe a mistake, but when you do it a second time that says there was something quite intentional about it.
After I thought and prayed about it, I realized that there were things I wanted to do.
Do you feel all of the denominations of Christianity are headed in this direction?
Absolutely, but at their own pace. Honestly I can’t see the Roman Catholic Church changing in my lifetime but it will someday. It took them 400 years to apologize to Galileo for thinking the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe so who knows how long it will take them. But I do believe we’re headed in the right direction. It doesn’t mean we can slow down our efforts or relax; we still have to work to make this happen.
You mentioned in your reasons for retiring that the numerous death threats and attacks on you and your husband have taken a great toll on you. Has this burden gotten any easier to bear in time?
After the first couple of years the death threats slowed down. I can remember coming back home from a parish visitation at a church that had a balcony around three sides. My husband Mark said to me that he realized for the first time he wasn’t constantly surveying the balcony to spot someone dangerous.
Fairly recently a man was accidently arrested in Vermont who was apparently on his way to kill us. He was coming through Vermont and was in such a rage that he shot out the windows of an empty parked police cruiser. They caught up to him and found he had pictures of (my husband) Mark and me that he had taken off the Internet. He had scrawled across it “Save the church, kill the bishop,” he had MapQuest (directions) to our house and he had a sawed-off shotgun and tons of ammunition. Back when I was ordained FBI agents said to me, “The ones you really have to worry about are the ones who don’t send a warning. They just drive to your house and blow your head off.”
How do you handle things like that?
We decided early on that we weren’t going to let that change our lives and make us stop doing what we felt called to do. My faith in God is what has allowed me to do that. It does take a toll and it’s always in the back of your mind, but it comes with the territory.
Your role as a bishop must be so incredibly unique. How do you prioritize and reconcile your responsibilities as the bishop of New Hampshire and as a role model to LGBT activists? Do these two roles clash?
The roles don’t clash but they do compete with each other. Being a bishop is more than a full-time job and because of this sort of accident of history of my being the first openly gay and partnered bishop, there’s this whole other life that no other bishop has to contend with.
Both roles are very important to me, so I’ve just tried to do my best to achieve a balance. I’ve really had to limit what I can do outside the diocese at the national and international level to be able to fulfill my principle responsibility, which is to be the bishop. I have had to make choices about which role I have to give more attention to at any given moment.
In your latest Bishop’s column on the anniversary of 9/11 you argue that you believe this is the greatest nation but that we have “much for which we should repent.” Is it typical for a bishop to speak on issues that touch on political policy? Is this bold of you?
I’ve never been one to shy away from this issue. In my work for the Center for American Progress I’ve written on immigration reform, health care reform, poverty and the importance of taxes.
It seems pretty clear to me that our Jewish and Christian tradition is to offer a critique to society. The prophets of the Old Testament were all speaking truth to power and they all got in trouble for it and no one wanted to hear it but they spoke the truth anyway, and I think that’s part of our tradition that we need to recover.
I think the church would be held in higher regard in culture if more of us were speaking out on things like this.
You will be speaking at the University of Michigan Dearborn campus on Oct. 5. What can those attending expect?
I plan to offer my assessment of where we are at the moment in the LGBT movement in this country, how we got here and to talk about what the work is in front of us. Then I want to talk about how church has contributed to the discrimination against us and how the changing church wants to be part of the solution.
In spite of your work with the LGBT community, undoubtedly your first priority is your faith and the faith of others. In November you stated that New Hampshire is always the place you remain simply “the Bishop” and the one place on earth where you are not “the gay Bishop.” Can you tell me a bit more about this sentiment?
It rarely comes up that I am gay here in the diocese. They elected me not because I was gay but because they knew me, and they thought I would be a good leader. It’s almost impossible for people here at the diocese to understand the role I play in the larger LGBT community. Conversely, its hard for people outside the diocese who know me as the LGBT activist to understand how normal my life is here as a bishop.
At first I tried to resist being “the gay bishop,” but I finally realized that it was selfish of me. I had been given this really enormous opportunity to move our civil rights, our acceptance and our affirmation forward and I decided I should accept that title and just become a good steward of it.
So I’m happy to be the gay bishop outside of New Hampshire and I am delighted to be the bishop inside of New Hampshire.
Do you think someday a gay or lesbian bishop or priest will be able to be just “another bishop?”
G: When you look at the craziness surrounding my consecration – Mary Glasspool fortunately didn’t experience a tenth of that. That’s the difference that 8 years makes.
So absolutely. There’s no question in my mind.