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.