Person of the Year: V. Gene Robinson

As the renewed debate over equal marriage rights has shown, at the root of all opposition to gay and lesbian rights lies religious conviction. In 2003 one gay man stood resolutely at the center of the contentious battle to shift religion away from hatred and exclusion and toward love and equality. V. Gene Robinson—elected bishop in June by the Episcopalians of New Hampshire, confirmed at the church’s national convention in August, and consecrated November 2—has handled the resulting anger from conservative Christians with poise and eloquence. For his grace under the pressure of a worldwide debate and for his steadfast focus on his mission to open God’s church to all people on the margins, Bishop Robinson is The Advocate’s Person of the Year.

BY Advocate.com Editors

December 09 2003 12:00 AM ET

Were you worried that the ceremony might be disrupted?
Believe it or not, shortly before the ceremony I took an
hour’s nap. That’s how Ialm I was.
Through this whole process, God has seemed so very
close by.

Was there anything about the ceremony that took you by surprise?
The moment these 44 bishops gathered around and laid
their hands on me, I was surprised at the weight
applied to the top of my head. It was really all I
could do to withstand it. It was such a powerful moment and
a physical reminder of the spiritual responsibility being
laid on me, not just in being the bishop that I am
called to be but in being in this historic
moment.

How has all of this affected your partner, Mark?
He is so rock-solid. It is amazing. He is about the
steadiest person I know. It’s been hard on us
because it’s changed our life in the sense of
how much time we have together. But we are so together on
this. He’s a very private person. For him to
agree to be in the limelight and to shoulder some of
this is just a remarkable gift to me and to the church.
I couldn’t love him more.

How did you two meet?
We met 16 years ago on the beach in St Croix. I had some
frequent flier miles that I needed to use. I actually
looked in The Advocate and found an ad for a
hotel on the western end of St. Croix. I flew down
there by myself, and Mark was there with a friend from
Chicago. Mark and I were immediately taken with each
other.

So have you always wanted to become a bishop?
No. I used to be one of those people who
laughingly said anybody who wanted to be a bishop
deserved it. It always seemed inappropriate to me to
aspire to it. But about 10 years ago, I began to literally
be pursued by God about this. It began to creep into
my prayer life. Also, my attitude changed, once I
worked for a bishop, from one of “anyone who
wants to be a bishop deserves it” to thinking that
being a bishop is so hard, you’d better want to
do it. Even on a good day it’s a tough job, and
on a bad day it’s nearly impossible. I can’t
imagine going into this sort of begrudging it. It used
to be fashionable for nominees to claim they
didn’t want it. For me, it was more complicated,
because I did know that if I was ever nominated, much
less elected, I would become a flash point for
controversy.

So how is it different than being an openly gay priest?
I didn’t have to think a lot about it. We forget
in New England what a rarified atmosphere we have
compared to most of the country. I came out in this
diocese in 1986. It’s never been a focus of my
ministry, but it’s certainly something that I
haven’t shied away from. One of the great
inconsistencies in all the controversy these last few months
is that for some reason everybody has gone over the
edge because I’m about to become a bishop,
whereas if they were being consistent at all, they would be
as outraged by my being a priest. It makes no
sense.

Did you know you were gay when you became a priest and
later got married?
Absolutely. I started seminary in 1969, two or three
months after Stonewall. I had been struggling with
this for quite some time, and all of my significant
relationships had been with men. But then I got into
therapy for a couple of years to cure myself. I really
wanted to be married. I wanted to have children. I
felt that I was in a place that I could have a mature
relationship with a woman, and indeed, I met Isabella
and we were married. But I told her within a month of our
meeting that all of my relationships had been with
men. About a month before we were married I remember
breaking down one night and crying and saying that I
was so fearful that this would raise its ugly head at some
point. Flash forward about 10 years, and it was. I was
increasingly feeling that I could not continue to deny
who I was. We made a mutual decision. We felt that she
deserved the opportunity to know a relationship with a
heterosexual man and that I deserved the opportunity to make
my life with a man.

She sounds very understanding.
We both felt that we were honoring each other by
letting each other go. In a strange kind of
upside-down way, we were honoring our marriage by
getting a divorce. We took an Episcopal priest with us to
the judge’s chamber for the final divorce
decree, and we immediately went from there back to his
church and celebrated communion together. We asked for each
other’s forgiveness, we cried a lot, and we gave our
wedding rings back to each other.

Did you enter the priesthood as a way of dealing with
being gay?
I don’t see that my being gay had anything to do
with my decision to respond to God’s call to
ordination. I have always been very close to the
church.

Even as a young boy?
I grew up in the Disciples of Christ denomination, in a
small rural church in Nicholasville, Ky. By the time I
got into high school I was beginning to question. I
was in a fairly fundamentalist congregation, and I
would ask all kinds of questions, such as “How could
a loving God send people to hell if they have never
even heard of Jesus?” The response from the
adults in my church was “There are certain questions
you shouldn’t ask.” Well, even by high
school I was convinced that there wasn’t any
question that shouldn’t be asked. When I left high
school I was looking for something more open. I wound
up at a college that was owned by the 20 or so
Southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church. I was confirmed
in the Episcopal Church Easter of my senior year and
went to seminary that fall.

So what does the V. in your name stand for?
I weighed 10 pounds when I was born and my mother is a
very small woman, so the birth was very difficult.
They couldn’t do a C-section, and six doctors
failed to extricate me. At the last minute one of the nurses
called in a pediatrician, who was able to deliver me [using
forceps]. I was completely paralyzed on my right side,
and my head was crushed in. They asked my father for a
name for the birth and death certificates, knowing I
would not live. My father used the name Vicki Jean that they
had chosen for a girl, figuring it would not matter on my
tombstone. He just changed the spelling to Vicky Gene.
I was in the incubator for about a month and then came
out of paralysis. I was given to my parents, who were
poor tobacco sharecroppers and quite young, and told that I
would never walk or talk, that I would be a total
vegetable. I didn’t learn any of this until I
was 13 and my pediatrician told me. Every time I went to
see him he would say, “You sure look better than the
first time I saw you.” He told me that my head
had been so crushed in that he took his hands and
molded it back into a round shape. He knew I wouldn’t
live, but he couldn’t bear to let my mother see
me in a casket that way.

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