By Sarah Mieras
NEW HAMPSHIRE –
The most visible and powerful voice for LGBT equality in the Christian community will address thousands of activists on Feb. 9 during the National Creating Change Conference in Detroit.
In 2003 Rev. Gene Robinson’s consecration as the U.S. Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop sent shockwaves across the globe that threatened to divide the Anglican Church. Despite death threats, relentless media attention and political fallout, Robinson has become a beacon of hope and reason for those focused on working for change within faith based communities.
“Because religion has treated LGBT people so horribly it is the last place we will look for support,” said Robinson during an interview with BTLlast week. “There is no civil rights issue so closely tied to religious issues as homosexuality.”
His plenary address at Creating Change will outline the connections between the fight for LGBT rights and religion.
“We cannot ignore the religious piece of the argument, since it is the greatest stumbling block to us making progress. I think it will take religious voices to counter the religious right.”
Coming out as people of faith
The very nature of the “religious right” and the pervasive use of the Bible to justify denial of LGBT rights, said Robinson, has made tackling faith based roadblocks the last priority for many activists, leading many into a spiritual closet.
“LGBT people need to come out as being religious. I think it sometimes easier to come out as gay than it is to come out as religious.”
During a recent visit at the D.C. offices of the Human Rights Campaign, he asked a group of 100 staffers to raise their hands if they were active in a church.
“About two-thirds of them raised their hands,” recalled Robinson. “But only 3 people said they had told other people in the building that they were religious.”
To create change, Robinson believes that LGBT people of faith need to view themselves as missionaries – building bridges between churches and the greater lesbian and gay community.
“Religion is not monolithically our enemy.”
But, homophobia justified by Biblical interpretation leads many LGBT people to stereotype all churches as the right arm in the religious right.
Robinson points to his consecration as proof that change is possible in faith based communities.
“In the Episcopal church, with me being elected, there have been lawsuits and people leaving the church. This is the church risking its life for gay and lesbian people. The church has put itself on the line to protect us.”
Calling the notion of “church or a belief in God” far from a stagnate thing, Robinson encourages LGBT people to seek out communities of faith that accept them for who they are.
“The church that you left when they were feeling so discriminated against may not be the church that it is there now. There is a church or synagogue that can, with an open heart, help you put back together your spirituality.”
Marriage – right or rite?
The use of religious beliefs against the LGBT community is viciously visible in the ongoing state-by-state debate over Marriage rights. Calling full marriage rights “absolutely essential” for gays and lesbians, Robinson looks to a separation of church and state as the solution.
“We have gotten confused in this country because the clergy act as agents of the state,” said Robinson.
Throughout the country ministers or rabbis serve as the legal signatures on marriage certificates. The religious sanction of a marriage is a rite. The ability to marry is a right. Robinson is currently encouraging the separation of the two “Rs” by asking clergy to cease signing marriage certificates.
“If they let a justice of the peace do the legal part, then it will become clear what is the right and the rite.”
Once religious sanctioning of a union is removed from the debate, Robinson believes it will be easier for gays and lesbians to achieve full marriage equality.
“Maybe then, as a nation, we could decide that everyone deserves the civil right of marriage.”
One man’s journey
Robinson’s journey to becoming the “infamous” gay Bishop followed the same path as many gays and lesbians. He knew from a young age that he was different than other boys, but he pursued a “normal” life. He married and had children. Eventually, questions about his sexuality led him to seek counseling.
“I was in therapy for a few years to change myself,” Robinson told BTL. “No one could have prayed harder…but it was to no avail because I am who I am.”
After 10-years of marriage, Robinson and his wife separated amicably, and 18-months later his met his life partner, Mark Andrews. In June, the couple will celebrate their partnership of more than 15-years a New Hampshire civil union ceremony.
Calling religious groups that try to cure homosexuals “incredibly destructive,” Robinson describes from personal experience the affects of trying not to be gay.
“You can white knuckle it, but in the end you are denying who you are and that takes a terrible toll on your soul.”
The international debate over his consecration thrust Robinson into the spotlight. Becoming a Bishop, who was gay, meant battling sexual misconduct charges, receiving hate mail and death threats.
Faith, and a belief that God made him gay, helped Robinson weather the storm.
“I believe that God says to me, and to every LGBT person the same thing, that I am God’s beloved and God is pleased with me. Whatever may come my way – hatred or death threats – it all pales in comparison,” said Robinson.
As Bishop, Robinson has continued to focus on lifelong passions such as clergy wellness and youth programs. He has co-authored numerous AIDS education curricula and has worked on HIV/AIDS prevention issues in the U.S. and in Uganda and South Africa. He is active in social justice efforts such as health care for the uninsured and debt relief for impoverished countries. He also works closely with NGLTF, HRC and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund to further LGBT civil rights.
Robinson’s life story is the focus of the documentary, “For the Bible Tells Me So.” In April, he will release a new book, “In the Eye of the Storm,” which is a collection of his speeches, journals and reflections since his 2003 consecration.