As the Episcopal Church consecrated Gene Robinson the 9th bishop of New Hampshire in November 2003, he wore the customary vestments. He was also wearing a bullet-proof vest. What made the occasion controversial, indeed historic, was the Church's acceptance of Gene Robinson as the first openly-gay bishop in all of Christendom.
Robinson is quick to point out that there have always been gay bishops in the Episcopal Church. "There have been a lot of us, let's just be clear," he said. "I'm just the first openly-gay one."
Almost certainly the first Episcopal Bishop with purple nail polish. This was, of course, a special occasion: a celebration late last fall commemorating his consecration as bishop 20 years ago. The congregation of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, in Washington, D.C., is Bishop Robinson's parish these days. These are very much his people; and here he clearly feels more free, perhaps, to be himself – purple fingernails and all.
"It pleases me to no end," he said. "It's fanciful. I love purple. As you see, bishops wear a lot of purple. And I thought, 'You know what? I'm 76 years old. I can get my nails painted.'"
On a more serious note, Bishop Robinson reflected back on the climate in which he had been labelled the most dangerous man in the Anglican Church. "We forget what a big deal it was and how hard it was and how many people were opposed, and the pain it caused a lot of people," he said.
It had provoked immediate threats. The day he was elected, he received his first death threat before he got home: "I got a postcard, and it began, 'You fornicating, lecherous pig.' And that was to continue for two-and-a-half years."
At the time, Robinson was living with his partner, Mark Andrew, who later became his spouse. Robinson had previously been in a conventional marriage, until he and his wife, Isabella Martin, decided to divorce. "We were married for almost 14 years and have two wonderful daughters and two granddaughters. I get to see her and chat with her all the time," Robinson said.
So, when did his daughters learn that dad was different? "They were four and eight. And I sat with the eight-year-old. I said, 'You know what a lesbian is, right?' So, the eight-year-old said, 'Oh, oh, oh, yeah,' – very casual – 'Oh yeah, most men like women. And most women like men. But some men like men. And some women like women.' That's an A+ right there! So I said, 'I've learned that I'm one of those men who like men. And your mom and I have together decided that she deserves a chance to find someone who can love her in that special way. And I deserve the opportunity to find someone to love in my way.'"
It's all history now – almost 37 years since the divorce and since he came out publicly in his church; 20 years since he became a bishop; nine years since he and Mark divorced. And through it all, Bishop Robinson has become something of an institution. The Smithsonian wants to display his vestments. And he's often invited to speak at Washington's National Cathedral.
Koppel said, "What a dreadful life your predecessors must have lived, the gay bishops who were not identified as such."
"I can tell you from my own experience, and it's one of the things that led to my coming out: it's an awful thing to stand in a pulpit and encourage people to live authentic lives when you know you're not being authentic," Robinson said. "It's why I felt God called me out of the closet."
"Do you ever feel, 'You know, there's more to me than my sexuality'?"
"I didn't want to be the 'gay bishop,' I wanted to be a good bishop," said Robinson. "But I realized I wasn't in control of that. The media was going to make me the gay bishop whether I liked it or not. So, what I decided was, if I was gonna be the gay bishop, then I'd be the best damn gay bishop that I could ever be!"
Controversial? Oh, yes. Hundreds of parishes left the Episcopal Church. And it would be nearly seven years after Robinson's election as bishop before Mary Glasspool, a lesbian, was elected Suffragan, or assisting Bishop, of Los Angeles.
Now, though, there are five openly-gay bishops, including Bishop Thomas Brown of Maine, and Bishop Jeff Mello of Connecticut. They are all also married.
Bishop Robinson, who is retired, refers to them as his legacy.
Bishop Brown said, "I remember two different senior clergy assuring me that the fact that I was gay was not a concern. And of course, it was a concern. But compared to what I think it might have been like for Mary and for Bishop Robinson, it really wasn't a concern, that people had moved, that we got clear that the church was not gonna fall down. The people in Maine, I show up every Sunday at a different church. The first thing they say is, 'Where is Tom?' Because they really want my spouse there.'"
"I was never told, 'If you're gay, it's gonna be okay,'" said Bishop Mello. "But I heard over and over and over again – 'God loves you.' My relationship with God is what got me through it all. And that's my greatest concern right now, when you say, are we tired of talking about our sexuality? I'm tired of it until I remember that there are still kids out there whose lives are being saved because they're seeing people who are living their lives openly."
Koppel asked, "Fifty years from now, what are they gonna say about Bishop Robinson?"
"That he was a prophet," said Bishop Glasspool. "That he was courageous. And I think it costs a lot."
She described her own experience: "There was a period in college where I thought maybe God hated me because I was feeling erotically attracted to women. Finally, kind of in the middle of the night, God said to me, 'No. It's about love. And I love you.' If God hadn't said that to me, I don't think I'd be here."
Bishop Brown said. "I think Bishop Robinson, actually given the history of our church, I think in 50 years there will be a date on our calendar that will have his name to it, which is to say that he will be recorded in the calendar of saints."
Which brings us to the story of. In 1998, Matthew was 21, gay and a devoted Episcopalian, so perhaps it was inevitable that he would become something of a symbol, even a martyr, in the eyes of that church's first openly-gay bishop.
One night, two young men took Shepard out onto the prairie and beat him unmercifully. "And then they did a very strange thing: They literally hung him on a fence, so that the first person who discovered him at first thought it was a scarecrow," Robinson said. He died six days later.
It was such a gruesome event, such a blatantly anti-gay hate crime, that Shepard's parents were reluctant to bury his ashes, for fear that the gravesite would be desecrated. It wasn't until 20 years later, in 2018, that they turned to Bishop Robinson to ask if the National Cathedral might take their son's ashes.
And there they rest.
presided over by Bishop Robinson. "He's safe here from the grave being desecrated," he said.
Thousands attended the memorial, many from the LGBTQ community, not always welcomed by their own churches. In addressing Matthew, an emotional Bishop Robinson was also speaking to them: "I have three things I want to say to Matt: Gently rest in this place … you are safe now … oh yeah, and Matt, welcome home. Amen."
Koppel asked, "Who were you crying for?"
"Oh, gosh. I was crying for all of my community who have died violently, punished for being who they are, loving who they love," Robinson replied. "I feel like my whole life took me to that moment. 'Cause I've been living my whole life with a foot in the church and a foot in the gay community, trying to explain one to the other, trying to get them to come together again. And for that two hours, it happened."
Bishop Robinson's commitment to the gay community and to his church have already been memorialized at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. Nothing nearly as grand as the National Cathedral, but a modest chapel has been named for him. Next to the chapel is a columbarium, a repository for the ashes of select members of the congregation. There's a box with Gene Robinson's name on it. "There's something just lovely about knowing that that's all settled," he said. "And it's, you know, just right next to the altar of the Bishop Gene Robinson Chapel. How could I want more than that?"
"They're gonna sanctify you at some point or another," said Koppel. "You're in danger of being sainted."
"It's really embarrassing," he said.
"Of course not. I feel like the least saintly person ever," Robinson said. "I know I'm not pure as the driven snow. But in my life, I'm happy with what I've done with what God has put in front of me."
For more info:
- The Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson, bishop-in-residence, St. Thomas' Parish, Washington, D.C.
- Bishop Mary Glasspool, the Episcopal Diocese of New York
- Bishop Thomas Brown, the Episcopal Diocese of Maine
- Bishop Jeff Mello, the Episcopal Church in Connecticut
Story produced by Deirdre Cohen and Robert Marston. Editor: Ed Givnish.
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