In 1986, even Bishop Gene Robinson feared that his ordained ministry would be over when he came out, after years of struggling with his LGBT identity. But he, along with millions of other others, witnessed the beginning of a shift towards acceptance when, in 2003, he was elected Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, making him the first openly gay man to be elected a bishop in all Christianity.
Since then, Bishop Robinson has been a leader in the movement to ensure that all Americans are granted the rights and opportunities that make them full citizens. In 2009, Bishop Robinson was invited by President Barack Obama to give the invocation at the opening presidential inaugural ceremonies, and yesterday, he spoke at a rally outside the Supreme Court for marriage equality. Bishop Gene Robinson is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he works on the LGBT issues, and how those issues intersect with religion and faith. He is the father of two grown daughters and lives with his husband, Mark Andrew.
Campus Progress sat down to talk with Bishop Robinson about his coming out process, the intersection of his faith and LGBT identity, his advocacy work in securing full civil rights for all LGBT individuals, and the importance of family.
CP: When you "came out," what challenges, if any, did you encounter?
Bishop Gene Robinson: I grew up in Kentucky, in a very conservative and religious background, where all the messages were anti-gay. This was in the 50s, when I was growing up, when "gay" wasn’t even a word yet. This is before “Will and Grace,” before “Ellen,” before all those people that we know.
So, yeah, I did everything to change that. Ultimately, I got into therapy to become straight. I got to a place where I felt like I could have a relationship with a woman. I married and had two children. And we were married for 14 years. I was honest with my wife within two weeks of meeting with her—my relationship with men, that I thought I had changed that. But about a month before we were married, I told her that I was afraid this would rear its ugly head. She said well if that happens, I think we love each other enough that we’ll be able to deal with it—and 14 years later we did.
So I actually fully came out when I was 39 years old. And I was ordained by then. In those days, in 1986, it looked as if my ordained ministry would be over. But my bishop hired me to be his assistant, and I worked for him for 18 years. Then, I was elected bishop to become his successor in 2003. And so I was the first openly gay person ever to be elected bishop in Christendom.
CP: How does the the role of faith in your life intersect with your LGBT identity.
Well, for most gay people, their intersection with faith is a negative one because it has been the traditional teaching of most world faiths that homosexuality is a big thing—it’s a sin, it’s despicable in the eyes of God. So the first intersection is a negative one.
But I have to say it’s really my faith that enabled me to accept who I am and to know that God loves me. So, in a very powerful way, coming out felt like a call from God to be truthful, to be honest, and to live a life of integrity. At the end of the day, the church may have been a negative influence, but God was always a positive influence. I believe that the movement toward the acceptance of LGBT people is a movement of God’s holy spirit—in the culture, in the church, in the synagogue, in the mosque.
CP: Why is advocating for gay marriage so important to you?
There was a big discussion in the gay community back in the early 90s about whether or not we should push for marriage equality. And most people felt that it was too risky—that the backlash to that would be so intense that it would set us back. But I credit Evan Wolfson with the Freedom to Marry Coalition, as the person who just kept saying, “If we settle for anything less than marriage, we’ll be second class.” Over the last 20 years, we have seen that argument win the case.
I think it’s important to remember that it’s the right to marry that we’re looking for. Not everyone will want to get married, not everyone will meet the right person, and some people will want to stay single. But what it means to be equal in the eyes of the state as a citizen of this country—that we should all have the right to marry. It’s like the right to serve in the military—any of those things that make us full citizens. Even those who have no desire particularly to be married—just as I don’t have a desire to be in the military. But I certainly fought and advocated for the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And again, it’s about our full citizenship.
CP: If the Defense Of Marriage Act, a law that withholds federal benefits and inter-state recognition from same-sex married couples, is overturned, it would obviously be a huge step forward for equality. But what does it mean to be viewed as full citizens in the eyes of the law versus what it means to be viewed as equal in the eyes of the church?
I think the separation of church and state applies here. When we’re talking about the state, we are talking about equal citizenship and equal protection under the law. In terms of religions, I don’t think we mess with people’s religion, in the sense that we can’t go for non-discrimination in religious settings, as far as forcing it on people.
But what I think what we’re seeing now in the mainline denominations is a huge shift toward inclusion and full acceptance. Of course we’ve got the Evangelicals on one end, and we’ve got the Roman Catholics on the other. What we’re finding is that while the denominations, the leadership, whether it be the leadership in the evangelical movement or the pope in the hierarchy in the Roman Catholic church—despite them holding the party line against homosexuality, people are changing their minds. So you’ve got a majority of Roman Catholics in this country who favor marriage equality. Of course, Roman Catholics have a long and wonderful history of not paying any attention to what the hierarchy is saying!
So I think we’re seeing a change in the hearts of people—especially in young people. I think it’s 81 percent of young people favor marriage equality. And because all religions are worried about the next generations, they’re going to have to pay attention, because young people are no longer willing to believe the awful things their churches are telling them about LGBT people. And even the evangelicals are beginning to understand that they are going to lose their young people over this issue if they don’t change. So it seems to me that the Evangelicals are beginning to look for a way forward, in order to understand this issue differently than has been traditional.
CP: Actually, to continue the focus on young people, the Pew Research Center released a report last week that found that Millennial support for marriage equality was at an all-time high.
It’s unbelievable. I compare it to during the 60s, during the civil rights movement; people stopped joining country clubs that wouldn’t allow Jews and blacks to belong. And so young people don’t want to belong to a church that is saying all these terrible things about their gay friends. And so I think that’s going to be a huge development in terms of our pressing for acceptance in religious institutions.
CP: Can you speak about the importance of your family, and what it means to have her speak with you at the rally?
It’s so great. So I have two daughters. The older daughter lives in Vermont with our two granddaughters. But our younger daughter, Ella, is here with me in DC and will be speaking. She is—well we’re both active in an organization called the Family Equality Council. And they work for LGBT families and laws that affect them and so on. And Ella and Zach Wahls—do you remember Zach Wahls did the thing in Iowa about his two gay moms?—so Ella and Zach are the two spokespeople for a program called the Outspoken Generation. It’s made up of adult kids who have been raised by gay parents.
And so she will be speaking as a child raised by two gay dads. And then I will be speaking after her. It just—I just wrote her a note the other day about how much it meant to me that she would take this activist role and stand up for us and our family and for families like ours. It just means the world to me. And how special to be on the stage with my daughter, doing this work together! It’s pretty amazing.
CP: What are your thoughts on the upcoming court cases—on DOMA and Prop 8? This week is such a pivotal moment in the LGBT rights movement.
It is. It’s always amazing when you’re a part of history as it’s happening. And you know it. We know that this next couple of days are a huge moment in our movement. I’m very hopeful about DOMA being declared unconstitutional. In fact, I’m so convinced that it’s going to go down, I think we might even get a 6-3 vote in the Supreme Court. Because even the conservatives could make the case against DOMA using the notion that the federal government shouldn’t be interfering in something that’s the state’s business. So I think we could get 6 votes to end DOMA.
I think that’s the easier one. The Prop 8 case is intriguing to me because the Court could have just let the lower courts’ decisions stand, which would have made prop 8 unconstitutional in California and would have restored marriage there. But they took it. I don’t think they took it order to reverse the decision and I don’t think they took it to make marriage equality the law of the land in all 50 states. So why did they take it? I think that they will declare Prop 8 unconstitutional, and will return marriage to California as the lower courts have said. But I think they’re doing it as a way of signaling to the country that marriage equality for everybody is on its way. Because if they had not heard it all, we would still not know where they stood on this. And I think that’s the ruling we’ll get.
There’s another possibility, which is that they could go halfway between California and all the states by saying that marriage equality is the law now in all those places that have civil unions. States that have some category, civil unions, or something like it—where you get all the benefits, just not the word—they could declare marriage equality in those places. I still think it’s a little early. You know, the LGBT legal organizations have been trying to keep this away from the Supreme Court for years. Because what we know is that the Supreme Court is not likely to make some big social change until about a third of the states have made that change locally, and we’re not there yet. Right now, we’re 9 states, plus the district of Columbia. So we’re not there yet—we’re not at a third. So I think it’s too early for them to make that kind of sweeping change.
But the other thing is that everybody is pretty clear that Chief Justice Roberts is thinking about his legacy. And you have to be crazy not to see where this is going. Even the conservatives know that we are going to achieve marriage equality. So all we’re arguing over is time—the timing of it. And I think it will weigh on Chief Justice Roberts about whether or not he wants to be on the side of history or if he wants to be head of the last court that was against it.
So who knows? It’s very exciting, you can argue this all different kind of ways and the fact of the matter is that none of us will know until it comes out. But I’m really hopeful. I’m fairly certain about DOMA. And I’m really hopeful about, certainly California getting marriage equality—if it goes beyond that, it’s icing on the cake.
CP: I read an article on CNN this morning called “A county where no one’s gay.” It’s about this county in Mississippi where the Census Bureau findings show that there are no gay people.
Bishop Gene Robinson: [laughs] Oh yeah?
CP: So they tried to go in and figure out what’s going on, and basically found that there were LGBT individuals—many were just afraid to come out. It really highlighted that people in these rural areas think that LGBT individuals can't live in their hometown, that’s something over the hilltop, if at all. What do you think it will take for this massive shift towards acceptance to reach some of these places?
I think the reason that we are where we are in this movement is because so many of us have come out. There was time where you moved to San Francisco and then came out, or you moved to New York, or you moved to Miami. Increasingly, we see people coming out and staying right where they are. So my guess is that there are very few of those counties left. Clearly, a more rural atmosphere—certainly Southern atmosphere—makes it very much more difficult—Midwestern, ya know, the coasts tend to be more liberal and accepting. But less and less LGBT people are willing to leave. And sometimes staying and being out is difficult, but that’s really what’s going to change people’s hearts and minds.
Harvey Milk once said that coming out was the most political thing you can do. He also said—this is when they were trying to rout out gay teachers in California—and he said you’ve got to come out because once we do, they’ll love us. And that’s what’s really changed. I don’t believe for a minute that there are no gay people in that county. I do believe that it’s not safe for them to come out—the price to be paid would be too great.
But increasingly we’re just seeing LGBT people saying no, I’m gay and I’m staying here—get over it. And for the most part, people do. They think it’s going to be some awful thing and then it’s not. And that’s true of marriage equality as well. Ya know, the anti-marriage equality people basically say it’s going to change civilization as we know it. And then it never happens. The roofs in the churches don’t fall in, and people aren’t running naked through the streets. It’s just pretty much the way it’s always been. And once people see that, they relax and get used to it.