By Trudy Ring
Originally published on Advocate.com October 22 2012 4:00 AM ET
Being a trailblazer is never easy, and for Gene Robinson, becoming the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church brought harsh denunciations, harassment, even death threats.
But Robinson, looking back as he prepares to retire at the end of the year, says he was never deterred from his groundbreaking path. “There has never been a time when I didn’t feel this was worth it,” he says. “When you are pursuing God’s dream for a just society, that is worth dying for … it’s a noble thing to pursue.” And he takes great satisfaction from the progress his church and society as a whole have made on LGBT issues since he was elected bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.
Robinson, however, is not just looking back but looking forward. After retiring as bishop, he will be working half-time in Washington, D.C., as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, the think tank founded by former White House chief of staff John Podesta, where he’ll be writing and speaking on a variety of social issues. The bishop is also the subject of a documentary, Love Free or Die,which will air on PBS October 29, and he has a new book out, God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage.
Love Free or Die, which won the Special Jury Prize in the documentary category at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, has had about 300 screenings around the nation but will be available to a wider audience with the PBS broadcast and an upcoming DVD release. It details Robinson’s experiences and contributions as bishop and provides a look at how far his church has come — and those who would hold it back. His book focuses on progress that still needs to be made, as will his work for the think tank.
It’s clear that there has been progress, Robinson says, despite some difficult times. He notes that his appointment as bishop put not only his life but that of the church in jeopardy. “I think it’s not too dramatic to say the Episcopal Church risked its life for its LGBT members, and I’m very proud of that,” he says.
At some points it appeared the church was in danger of schism, with some congregations leaving the Episcopal denomination to affiliate with Anglican dioceses abroad that held more conservative views on LGBT issues (the Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, a worldwide church body). This phenomenon appears to be largely played out, though, says Robinson, noting that the breakaway congregations claim about 100,000 members, while the Episcopal Church retains 2 million.
Meanwhile, in 2009 the Episcopal Church in 2009 lifted a moratorium on further appointments of openly gay bishops, and in 2010 it consecrated its first out lesbian bishop, Mary Glasspool, in Los Angeles. This year it approved an official blessing for same-sex couples and a policy prohibiting discrimination against transgender members and clergy. The church “has just moved extraordinarily” on LGBT issues, says Robinson. So have some other mainline Christian denominations, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (USA), which in recent years have approved the ordination of openly gay, partnered clergy.
Robinson is consecrated as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire on November 2, 2003.
The situation overseas is much different, with great hostility to LGBT people from Anglican and other religious leaders in certain countries. “We’re dealing with a much more complex set of issues internationally,” says Robinson, noting that some nations still have laws criminalizing homosexuality. He thinks, however, that acceptance of gay people will increase as they assist these nations in addressing poverty and other problems. “We know that knowing someone gay or lesbian makes all the difference,” he says.
He hopes the film and the book will empower audiences to speak out for equality. “I think the message of the film is that each one of us can make a difference in the fight around LGBT equality,” he says. The movie features many people who have supported him, including his husband, Mark Andrew, and Robinson’s parents and daughters (he was married to a woman for several years before coming out as gay). It also documents the Episcopal Church’s internal battle over full inclusion of gays, with both advocates and opponents getting time on camera.
With his book, which counters religious and other arguments against equal marriage rights, Robinson says, “in many ways I’m trying to give a script to those who are supportive of marriage equality — ways to win someone over, especially in an election year.” Not only are there four states voting on marriage-related measures, there are presidential candidates with starkly different views on the issue, and Robinson is outspoken about his preference.
“I’ve been quite public about my support of Barack Obama,” he says, noting that he gave the invocation that opened the president’s inaugural events in 2009. He supports Obama because of other issues in addition to LGBT rights, he adds. For instance, Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate, has proposed a federal budget that would cut deeply into programs that aid the poor. “There’s not any word to describe it but immoral,” says Robinson.
What about the arguments made by some conservatives that biblical morality, or morality in general, mandates individual charity, not government spending? “That would be a fine attitude to take if it were true,” Robinson says. The Bible’s call to assist the needy, he says, makes clear that this is a societal responsibility. “I find it hard to believe that one could read Scripture and come away with the idea that it applies only to private charitable giving.”
His concern about a broad range of social matters will be reflected in his work for the Center for American Progress. Podesta, he says, “wanted to bring a moral voice to the issues of the day.”
As Robinson looks ahead to this effort, he does look back with a sense of accomplishment on his tenure as New Hampshire’s bishop. “My greatest satisfaction comes from leading a healthy and holy diocese,” he says. “We have been devoting ourselves to preaching the good news and making the church relevant in the 21st century.”
Love Free or Die, directed by Macky Alston, will be shown at 10 p.m. Eastern/Pacific on PBS stations as part of theIndependent Lens series; check local listings.God Believes in Love (Alfred A. Knopf, $24) is available in bookstores now.