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The Reverend V.
Gene Robinson on endorsing Obama

The Reverend V.
Gene Robinson on endorsing Obama


The Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire became one of the highest-profile gay people to date to endorse Sen. Barack Obama for president, the same day Rep. Tammy Baldwin did the same for Obama's archrival, Sen. Hillary Clinton. In this exclusive Advocate interview, Robinson explains why.

When the Reverend V. Gene Robinson became the Episcopal Church's bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, it set off a controversy over homosexuality in the worldwide Anglican Communion that continues unabated today. Robinson made headlines again on August 2, when he threw his support behind Sen. Barack Obama for president, the first time the clergyman has ever endorsed a political candidate. That the two are both outsiders of their respective institutions--Obama as a black man who's positioned himself as the antidote to politics as usual in Washington, Robinson as a gay man seeking the full inclusion of gay people in a church with many hostile factions--is evident enough. But as Robinson tells The Advocate, it was Obama's vision for a united America that really compelled him to sign on.

How did your endorsement of Obama come about? Did his campaign approach you? Did other campaigns approach you?

Robinson: The Obama campaign is the only one who has approached me, but I've been interested in Senator Obama from the very beginning. This is a crucial election, and I'm so concerned with the polarized state of the nation. I was looking for a candidate who talked credibly about reconciliation, consensus building, and collaboration--and not just about winning. I'm looking for a leader, not for a business-as-usual politician. I must say, in my encounters with the senator, I think he has what it takes to bring us together as a nation. I don't agree with him on everything--I'm sure he'll say things in the future that I don't agree with--but I believe that the spirit with which he is going about this is a wholly different thing than we've seen before.

So his vision for America and his desire to rise above the political fray really resonates with you?

I'm sure he has plenty of publicity folks who coached him on this, but their slogan is "Obama for America," and I hear him talking more about Americans than I do about the Democrats winning. I'm not naive, but he really does seem to have a vision much larger than that. I also love the fact that he's lived overseas, he's been a part of another culture, and frankly, that as a person of color, he knows what it's like to be on the receiving end of bigotry and prejudice. I think it would be quite a novel thing to have someone in the White House who actually knows what that feels like.

The implication is that the other candidates don't know what that feels like. Is that what you mean?

Well, I'm going to try very hard to say what I think about Senator Obama and not about the other candidates. I just feel it very, very strongly: he's a healer rather than a divider. We've had enough division.

He's tried to position himself as an outsider to the Washington establishment in the same way that you're an outsider to the Anglican Communion. Did that parallel endear him to you even more?

I haven't thought about that, but I do think that finding yourself on the outside gives you a greater sensitivity to those who find themselves on the outside for whatever reason. For the last two years we have neglected, if not made worse, the lives of those who are on the fringes, and I'm looking for a candidate who is going to take that very seriously. I learned from my outsider status--there are great lessons to be drawn from that experience--and I do find that in Senator Obama.

What's your sense of him as a person of faith?

One of the things I trust most about his faith is that he came to it as an adult. Many of us grew up in the church and for all intents and purposes never strayed very far. But he was quite nonreligious until he got into community organizing, and it was seeing the role of the church in those communities and the role of faith in the lives of the people affected that actually brought him to the church. I like that about him. I also like the way he describes the role of religion in civil discourse. I have values that were shaped by the church, and I'm looking for a candidate who seems to embody those values. Not to create a theocracy, but in terms of who I want leading the country--and for me, that's Barack Obama.

Critics point out that he doesn't have an extensive voting record on LGBT issues as compared to some of the other candidates, so he's a bit of an unknown--even though he supports most of our issues, except for marriage equality. Does that concern you at all?

All of the Democratic candidates are very good on these issues, and none of them is as good as they ought to be, and he falls into that category. He and I have talked about this personally and I have told him that I will be pushing him on gay marriage while at the same time being grateful of his support for civil unions. His particular journey, both personal and political, I don't think has given him a lot of opportunities to have a track record, but what I can tell you is that the warmth, generosity, and enthusiasm with which he has welcomed me and the way he talks about LGBT issues makes me very comfortable with him.

Can you describe the meetings you had with him?

I had a phone conversation with him, and I've had two personal meetings with him. The thing that really surprises me is what a good listener he is. He asks a question and then actually appears to be listening to you answer it, as opposed to thinking about who else he's supposed to be talking to.

Did you discuss what's going on with the Episcopal Church and the potential schism?

In our first meeting he laughingly referred to me as a troublemaker, and I laughed and said, "Well, that makes two of us, doesn't it?" He laughed and said yes. I'm always telling my clergy to get into some gospel trouble. I think if you're getting into trouble for the right things, that's just fine.

What will be the extent of your involvement in the Obama campaign? Will you appear at campaign events, for instance?

That's still to be determined. I have a day job, and that obviously keeps me quite busy. Roughly, I think I will be behind the scenes. I don't expect to be out on the stump with him, and while I might offer him some advice when asked, my real focus and my real reason for getting into the campaign is our contribution through being the first-in-the-nation primary--the way that we can impact the election more than the actual vote.

With New Hampshire's important early role in the primary season, your endorsement sends a clear message to the LGBT community, doesn't it?

I know that both of the Clintons have been extremely supportive of us, not perfect, but very supportive, and I think the default position for a lot of LGBT folk is Hillary's candidacy. But I wanted to do this early and say, "At least give this guy a look. There's something very new, very different, very exciting." And I must say, I haven't heard anyone as inspiring and visionary as Barack since JFK. I really mean that. I don't know how he pulls it off, but when he talks about bringing the country together, it doesn't sound like hype, it doesn't sound like schmaltzy political talk--it actually sounds possible and doable. And I want to be a part of it.

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