Metro Weekly

Bishop Gene: An interview with Gene Robinson

The Christian trailblazer reflects on what was and what's next for faith and himself

Bishop Gene Robinson

Bishop Gene Robinson – Photography by Todd Franson

Gene Robinson didn’t set out to make history.

“For the first two years I kind of pushed back against the moniker that would always get used about me in headlines and such — ‘the gay bishop,'” Robinson says.

In 2003, Robinson was elected the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church — a move that not only divided the Episcopal Church and broader Anglican Communion, but signaled the shifting views on homosexuality taking places in churches around the globe. Death threats against him and his family poured in. During his consecration as the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, there was fear someone might set off a bomb and Robinson wore a bulletproof vest under his robes.

Robinson, however, came to realize he wasn’t just the bishop of New Hampshire. His role as “the gay bishop” presented him an opportunity that, until that moment, had never been made available to anyone before.

“I realized I had been given this remarkable opportunity and for me not to seize that opportunity was incredibly selfish,” he says. “And so rather than fight it, I decided that I would make the most of it, that I would take every opportunity it gave me.”

Robinson retired in January 2013 and has since relocated to Washington, D.C. He’s published a book on the religious case for same-sex marriage, writes a regular column for The Daily Beast and continues to preach a worldview where religion and LGBT equality are not mutually exclusive. He’s also single and dating. Now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP), he has set his sights on exposing the religious right’s new obsession: anti-LGBT religious freedom legislation.

“It’s just been this fulfilling joy to have played a role in our collective liberation. It doesn’t get any better than that,” Robinson says. “To this day, I don’t know why this turned out to be me. But it did turn out to be me and I was not going to waste it. I was going to use it for all of us as best I could.”

And at 67-years-old, he’s not done yet.

METRO WEEKLY: How would you describe your childhood?

GENE ROBINSON: I grew up really, really poor and yet my parents, who were fairly uneducated, wanted me to go and see and do everything the world had to offer. So I was the first person on either side of my family to go to college or certainly to get a graduate degree. I never dreamt that I would wind up being a bishop in the Episcopal Church having grown up in a fairly fundamentalist congregation in rural Kentucky. I never could have dreamt myself to being where I am today.

MW: What faith were you raised?

ROBINSON: Disciples of Christ. It’s a denomination not known very well on the east coast. It came out of one of the great awakenings when Kentucky and Ohio were the frontier and so it went westward from there but it never turned around and came east. The only church here is right on Thomas Circle — National City Christian. That’s Disciples of Christ.

It was very conservative. It’s not a particularly conservative denomination at all but my family and every family in the church I grew up in were tobacco farmers and so it was a particularly conservative congregation of the Disciples.

I went to college at the University of the South, which is known better by its other name, Sewannee. It’s actually owned by the 20 or so southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church, so that’s where I became an Episcopalian. And then went to seminary in New York City in Chelsea — before it became Chelsea — and then was married to a woman for 14 years, had two daughters.

MW: When did you come out?

Robinson: When I was 39. About a year and half later I met Mark and was with him for 27 years. In the last two years that has ended and I’ve moved to Washington and started a whole new life, really. Whole new set of friends, whole new work. On the stresser scale it’s just about everything except losing a loved one. New job, new house, sold a house, bought a house, all that kind of stuff.

MW: In college you weren’t studying religion.

ROBINSON: I wasn’t. I was pre-med. I had always wanted to be a pediatrician, partly because I just adored my own pediatrician. But when I got to college, I realized it wasn’t the science of medicine I was interested in, it was the people. And I thought, Why would I spend that many years doing that stuff I don’t even like just to get to people?

MW: What attracted you to the ministry?

ROBINSON: I’d always been really involved in church and had always toyed with the idea of going into the ordained ministry. So at that point I thought that might be a good thing. I actually majored in American Studies and history and then went to seminary right from college.

MW: And what led you to become an Episcopalian?

ROBINSON: In many ways, the Episcopal Church and the Disciples Church understanding of Christianity and what it means to be a Christian are very similar, but the two things that the Episcopal Church added to what the Disciples were doing was the liturgy, which was beautiful, and this sense of history. I was fascinated by this notion of apostolic succession. The bishops had hands laid on them who had hands laid on them all the way back to the apostles. Little did I know that I would actually be one of those.

MW: Did you meet your wife while at seminary?

ROBINSON: I took a year off of seminary and went to serve as the Episcopal chaplain at the University of Vermont and met her then. Shared with her all my relationships had been with men, that I’d been in therapy twice a week for two years to get over that and thought that I was ready for a relationship with a woman. I told her that within two weeks of meeting her. And then about a month before the wedding, I broke down in tears and said, “I’m really fearful this might raise its ugly head at some point in the future.” And she said, “Well, if it does I think we love each other enough that we will handle it.” And 13, 14 years later we did. She remains a dear friend. She was one of my presenters at my consecration as a bishop.

MW: Did you think you were gay or that you just had a problem?

ROBINSON: Oh definitely it was a problem. I wanted to be married, I wanted a family, but mostly what I wanted was to be normal, as awful and as wonderful as that can be. I can remember the first time making love with a woman. It was very exciting, not because of the sex but because I felt normal. Which is not a really good reason to be having sex with someone! [Laughs] But you have to understand I grew up in a time when “gay” didn’t mean what we mean it to mean, and homosexuality was spoken about in whispers, if at all. It was a problem to be solved.

MW: Did that have to do with your faith?

ROBINSON: Oh, sure. Absolutely. Which is why I have pretty much spent my whole life both reinterpreting scriptures to LGBT people for their comfort and to the church for their learning in hopes of changing their minds. And I’ve had some success in that.

MW: How did you and your wife deal with you being gay?

ROBINSON: For a very long time, it was a part of me. But I became increasingly aware that this wasn’t just a part of me, this was me. And I think being 39 was instrumental here because I can remember thinking, If I don’t change this now, I’m going to live the rest of my life this way. And I don’t think I can do that and I know I don’t want to do that.

It was really frightening. So coming out meant not just coming out to my wife and friends, but coming out to my bishop. And the only thing I was certain of was that I would never be able to work in the church again — ever. Anywhere.

My bishop [New Hampshire Bishop Doug Theurner] was new and I went to him and told him the whole story and he wound up hiring me as his assistant. And at that time I was the only openly gay person on any bishop’s staff in the American church. It was an incredibly courageous thing for him to do, and he was the most thoroughly heterosexual man I have ever known. The man didn’t have a gay bone in his body and he would often call me into his office and say, “Come in here. I have some questions about your people.” So we got into this “your people” thing and I would talk about his “people.” But he was justice minded in all kinds of ways and understood long before much of the gay community, which wasn’t a community at that point, that this was going to be the human rights issue of our generation.

MW: How did your family and friends take it when you came out?

ROBINSON: Everybody was shocked. Often, I think when we come out a common thing is, “Oh, I knew that a long time ago.” That was not the case with me. And my marriage with my wife Boo was like everybody’s model for what a marriage ought to be. So it was quite shocking to people and quite surprising. And absolutely horrifying to my parents, which is all chronicled in the first documentary that I’m in, For the Bible Tells Me So.

When I went home to Kentucky to tell them, I was not at all sure my father was going to allow me to stay in the house that night. It was very tense. Had it not been for my mother, who would have loved me if I were a serial killer, I think he would have thrown me out. And mercifully, they both lived long enough — my mom died three years ago and we’re about to celebrate my dad’s 90th birthday in May — to go on that journey themselves.

One of the most common mistakes I think we make, it takes us years to get to the point of coming out to ourselves and coming out to our friends and we forget that’s day number one for people who didn’t know that before. We sort of expect them to catch up on all the years of work we’ve done right out of the starting gate, so I think good advice for people coming out is to remember that’s day one for them thinking about this. And my parents had enough time to work through that, fall in love with my partner Mark, they were there for my consecration and for our civil union and all that.

Bishop Gene Robinson Photo by Todd Franson

Bishop Gene Robinson
Photo by Todd Franson

MW: How did meeting Mark change your life?

ROBINSON: I met him on the beach in Saint Croix. It sounds like an advertisement for a travel agency or something, but I should go back now that I’m single again. [Laughs.] We were both on vacation and in this funny turn of events he lived here in Washington on Capitol Hill and worked for the Peace Corps. We dated for about a year and a half before he moved to New Hampshire.

MW: When did you enter into your civil union?

ROBINSON: We did what many states did, which was approve civil unions first and then two years later marriage. That was 2008 and I was about to go to England for the big worldwide conference of bishops that happens every ten years and I had begun to get death threats again. I had a couple of years of near constant death threats right after I was elected bishop and consecrated. But they had sort of slowed down a bit and then when the conference was coming up I was getting lots of death threats from England. And frankly, we were going to wait until marriage was possible but given that potential danger I wanted him to be protected as much as possible. And so we had our civil union about a month before I left for that conference.

MW: What’s it like to get a death threat?

ROBINSON: It’s both really real and also surreal. On the one hand, it’s just an astounding thing to handle a piece of paper with gloves on because all these things had to go to the FBI. They did the old B-movie thing of cutting letters out of newspaper and then gluing them on to make a message. And the message has a picture of me and Mark from the newspaper and the letters spell out “I’ve got a bullet for each of your heads when you least expect it.”

That gets your attention. You learn to live with it, but for me the way I learned to live with it was my faith. What I believed then, what I believe now is no matter what happens God loves me beyond anything I can comprehend and at the end of the day that wins. So if I were to die a violent death or if I die in my own bed at home at age 95, either way I’m going to be okay. I didn’t want to die, but my faith gave me the courage to sort of set that aside and to understand I was doing what God’s will was for me was as best as I could understand it. I mean, nobody knows what God’s will is and we should all be careful of anybody who says they do, but as best as I could figure it out, this is what God wanted me to be doing. And if that was the case then okay, bring it on.

Mark and I had to decide whether or not we were going to let this rule our lives. We lived in a wooden glass contemporary house in the woods. We did not own a curtain anywhere in the house and this was right about the time the abortion doctor [Barnett Slepian] in New York was shot through his kitchen window. We could have been shot through all but about one room of our house. And you just have to decide that to give into that lets them win.

A lot of them, I think, aren’t actually trying to shoot you, they’re trying to ruin your life. And if you let them ruin your life, they win. I had to have 24-hour security between the time I was elected in June [2003] and the consecration in November, and it was hot and heavy then. And it was also serious because if they had shot me during that period of time they would have kept me from being a bishop. After I was consecrated, they still could kill me, but they couldn’t stop my being a bishop. So that was particularly serious.

MW: It seems so hypocritical that these are presumably religious people who are threatening you with violence.

ROBINSON: We don’t know. We never caught them. But the irony is beyond description, right? Religion, which is supposed to be all about love and to contemplate doing something like that, or even contemplating causing that kind of fear in someone is an incredibly hateful and invasive and violent thing to do, never mind actually trying.

The last really serious thing that happened was after the president-elect invited me to the opening prayer at the inaugural event in 2009. About two weeks after that we’re back at home in New Hampshire and we get a call from the Vermont State Police and they say, “We’ve got a guy in custody who came through our town so angry that he shot the windows out of an empty parked police cruiser. And when we caught up to him, sitting next to him in the passenger seat he had pictures of you and Mark. He had scrawled across them ‘Save the Church, Kill the Bishop.’ He has MapQuest maps to your house and had a sawed-off shotgun and tons of ammunition. And we think he was on his way to blow your head off.”

They couldn’t charge him with anything related to us but fortunately he had driven up from Connecticut and had crossed state lines with an illegal weapon, so it was a federal guns charge. He got out of jail about a year ago.

MW: Do you still worry about the threat of violence?

ROBINSON: No, I don’t. As every day passes, the threat of that gets less and less. And I think since I retired it’s less a problem to people. They had ten years of my being a bishop to do something and so I’m a little more removed from the church. And we have an openly lesbian and partnered bishop as well. The times have changed, right?

When I was consecrated in 2003, it was like the world exploded. My picture was on the front page of every newspaper around the globe. Ten years later, Mary Glasspool has already been consecrated and the first openly gay Lutheran bishop was consecrated in Los Angeles — Mary and I went to his consecration to show our support. It didn’t even make the LA Times and it happened in LA! So, that’s ten years. That’s another way of looking at the progress we’ve made in ten years. It’s not just about marriage, it’s not just about this or that, it was just not that big a deal.

MW: Tell me how you became a bishop?

ROBINSON: It’s important to know how it happens in the Episcopal Church as opposed to the Methodists or especially the Roman Catholics or the Lutherans. It’s not decided by some small committee in a back room somewhere, smoke filled or not. Each diocese — when there’s a vacancy, when a bishop is retiring or whatever — has an open search process. A committee receives names. Any ordained priest from around the world can be nominated by anyone and their job is to then narrow that list down until there are roughly four to six candidates. And then those people are brought to the diocese to meet with all kinds of people and there are four forums held all around the diocese and anybody can ask any question about anything. Based on how they experience you, the delegates to the convention gather and elect. To be elected bishop the clergy and the laity vote separately and you have to get a majority of both on the same ballot. So you vote, and then they post how many votes each person got and if your candidate didn’t get very many or whatever then you switch to your second choice and so on and so on until there is a majority in both the laity and the clergy on the same ballot.

Sometimes it’ll go six, 12, 15 ballots. In my case, I was elected on the first ballot by the clergy and was shy only six votes, I think it was, in the laity. After that was posted it was clear where it was going to go. It was quite an amazing day. One of the symbols for the Holy Spirit is wind and breath and many, many people in New Hampshire remember that day as one of the most powerful religious and spiritual experiences of their life. When the announcement was made that I was elected, we were inside a large church and there was a rush of wind through the whole church. Everybody felt it. It was really spooky. And it was amazing.

MW: What happened after the election?

ROBINSON: After the diocese elect, then the wider church has to consent to that election. Up until this point, that was a completely pro forma process. It was just like nobody gave it any thought. But of course there were a lot of people who didn’t think New Hampshire should have elected me and so all of a sudden this pro forma process became a real one. At the general convention, which happened in late July [2003] after my election in early June, we all went to convention and there are normally 10 to 12 representatives of the media there who cover the convention, which is usually not making a lot of news. There were 435 registered media people there. So I’m sitting on the floor of convention because I’m still a layperson at this point and over here on the side, because they’re not allowed on the floor, I see a phalanx of thirty photographers with telephoto lenses a yard long all aimed at me.

I had round the clock security — some of the best looking guards that you could possibly imagine. [Laughs.] I was brought in all the back ways. It was just dangerous. It was totally up in the air whether I was going to be consented to. Again, the house of bishops and the house deputies both have to consent. And it turned out I got two-thirds majority in both houses. Then it was just a matter of planning the consecration and doing it.

MW: What do you remember of the consecration?

ROBINSON: It’s a beautiful, old ceremony. Every bishop who is there gathers around you and lays hands on your head or on the shoulders of someone who can actually reach you and they make you a bishop. We didn’t know what was going to happen. Actually, we spent well over $100,000 just on security — bomb sweeping dogs, metal detectors. I had become friends with Max Mutchnick, the creator and executive producer of Will & Grace, and he paid for most of my security. Mine was a little diocese that didn’t have a lot of money to throw around and no big endowment or anything, and we knew we needed where my family was staying to be basically sealed off and guards and all that stuff. We had cops on horseback. It was crazy. And Fred Phelps and the Westboro Church showed up, about 50 of them.

This took place in a hockey rink. Every seat is a good sight line, which means you can be killed from any seat. The guy dressed up like a deacon that was beside me during the whole service was like an armed tank. He wasn’t a deacon. Under his vestments he had guns and all kinds of stuff and we had this plan that if shots were fired or a bomb went off or whatever, if I was still alive he was to get me out. And then we had a place designated that I would be taken to if I was still alive and three bishops were to go there from the crowd of bishops and a photographer was set to go there, so that if I was still alive those three — it takes three bishops to lay hands on you to make you a bishop — could consecrate me and we would have a photograph of it to prove it so nobody would get to see it but the consecration itself would not be foiled.

They typed my blood and Mark’s blood so they could start triage on the way to the hospital. And my kids were there and my older daughter had just had our first grandchild, who by then was close to three months old. So we put her dad, my son-in-law, and Morgan, the three-month old, in the furthest away skybox so he could watch what was going on, but would probably be safe if a bomb went off. We just didn’t know. But nothing happened.

MW: And once it was done you just went to work?

ROBINSON: [Laughs.] Yeah.

MW: How did you approach the role of being this historic figure?

ROBINSON: [Laughs.] Well you know, I’d never done it before! You don’t get any ramp up time. I just felt so grateful for my own journey and the joy which I had come to believe in for my being gay and for my self acceptance but also my firm belief that God loved me gay. I just felt this tremendous burden, opportunity, debt to be paid back to the gay community.

MW: What led you to retire?

ROBINSON: I was 65 and a half years old, so I qualified for Medicare and Social Security and all of that. Actually, I never considered retirement until Mary Glasspool was elected bishop [in Los Angeles]. If my leaving would have meant there was no openly gay bishop in the house of bishops, I would never have retired. So when she was elected and I was at her consecration, for the very first time I thought, You know, I don’t always have to do this. I’d literally never thought it before. I could retire! But if I retire what will I do?

So I came to Washington. I had been doing part-time work for the Center for American Progress and I had gotten to know Winnie Stachelberg at HRC and she was of course now at CAP and she’s just really wise and smart. I went to talk to Winnie and said, “You know Washington like the back of your hand, you know various groups that are working, can you think of any places that I might fit in to do this sort of thing?” And she basically said, “Uh, yeah, why don’t you come here?” So that’s why I’m at CAP.

Mark and I were going through this decision about whether or not to be separated and divorced. We divorced and I decided to leave everything I knew and move here. I’m about to be 68-years-old and I’m making a whole new set of friends. Just everything is new. It’s a little scary because I could’ve stayed in that marriage and everything would’ve been all neat and tidy and planned out until I drop dead, but it was another one of those moments of if I don’t make this change now I won’t.

MW: At CAP I’ve seen you’re working on the religious freedom issue.

ROBINSON: The religious liberty thing is where all of the religious right’s money and time and energy is going. They realized they’ve lost the marriage battle, so now they’re trying to accomplish what they couldn’t through the ballot box and so on and find ways to exempt themselves from nondiscrimination laws.

The other thing I’m working on that I’m really excited about is, it occurred to me that we have done the Biblical and theological work related to gay and lesbian people but we’ve not done that for transgender people and for gender identity. So I’m convening this group of mostly transgender theologians and Biblical people and ministers and so on and we’re going to shape the skeleton for a theology of gender identity and then I will write up from that, give it back to them and we’ll make that available through all kinds of church networks and Jewish networks and anyone can use it. Sort of trying to head off the pass, if you will, the objections that will come when finally the homosexuality thing is resolved and we’re now moving onto transgender.

I think we are right to be doing what we’re doing, which is working for a federal omnibus bill for nondiscriminatory protections. We will be told that that would be more possible and quicker without transgender people being included and I think we have understood that is completely unacceptable. So it could be a five to ten year project, certainly it’s not going to happen with this congress. But I think that’s where our work lies next.

MW: The Presbyterian Church just voted to recognize same-sex marriage. Do you think all Christian denominations will ever be at a point where they embrace marriage equality?

ROBINSON: My thinking is that the mainline denominations will be first, the conservative evangelicals will be second and the Roman Catholic Church will be last.

I love this pope, he’s just a great guy from all accounts and his heart certainly seems to be in the right place. But nothing has really changed but tone. And we’ve made a lot out of that change of tone because the tone has been so bad for so long. It feels bigger than it really is. But the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is that we are intrinsically disordered. That has not changed. And until it does, I’m just going to say about this pope, so far so good. It just needs to go a lot further than tone.

MW: What’s your message to LGBT youth who are in religious households who might not see how their faith and who they are mix?

ROBINSON: The first thing I would say is don’t ever confuse church or religion with God. God never gets it wrong and religious institutions often do and it often takes them decades or even centuries to figure it out. And while they’re figuring it out God is loving those whom God will love, which is everyone. Your church or even synagogue may be doing a cruel and hurtful thing, but God does not want that to be happening.

The second is, scripture is actually not a simple thing to read and understand and there are many ways of understanding it. Your church or you may not have heard about some of them, which turn out to be more scholarly and more appropriate than other ways.

Third, I would say God rarely, if ever, appears in a cloud in the sky with a big thundering voice, so look for God in the people who love you for who you are because God is much more likely to speak that way. So, if you have friends and adults who are telling you that you are loved just the way you are, that also could be coming from God so don’t discount that as them only being your friends or your Aunt Tilly or your grandmother who seems to love you a whole lot more than your parents do. They could very well be speaking the message that God wants. And when you get out in the great big world you can find a lot of support, even in the religious community.

God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage (Vintage) sells for $15 and is available at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and other online retailers.

Justin Snow is Metro Weekly's former political editor and White House correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @JustinCSnow.

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