Equality Forum: Eugene Robinson Tells His Story

The gay bishop tells a Philly crowd about his journey.

By Catherine Caperello
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 29, 2009

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Eugene Robinson spoke Tuesday night in Philadelphia for events associated with the Equality Forum.

Photo by Catherine Caperello

A few months ago, after years of controversy over his appointment as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal church, Eugene Robinson gave the opening invocation at an inaugural concert honoring Barack Obama. As he sat 20 feet away from the soon-to-be president, Robinson said Tuesday night, one thought came to mind:

"You've come a long way baby."

Robinson's comments came before a crowd of about 200 people gathered at the Prince Theater for events associated with this week's Equality Forum, a celebration of the gay and lesbian community. His talk was moderated by Rabbi LindaHoltzman – herself notable as the first openly lesbian rabbi in the nation. He discussed his childhood in rural Kentucky and his awakening to his gay identity.

“Growing up and thinking I was gay in that culture was horrifying,” Robinson says, recalling a moment as a teenager when he and his friends who got hold of a Playboy magazine and realized that his friends were much more excited about the pictures than he was.

Robinson said he liked to ask a lot of questions of the narrow, fundamentalist congregation in which he was raised and was told that there were some questions he shouldn’t ask.

“Even at that age, I knew that there were probably some questions that didn’t have easy answers,” says Robinson, “but I didn’t think there was any question that shouldn’t be asked.”

College helped Robinson's exploration. Under the wing of an understanding chaplain, he questioned and challenged his faith -- even as he was trying "to undo this terrible thing" of gay identity by attending therapy twice a week for two years.

“Boy I’d love to see that guy again,” he laughed

Robinson thought he was cured and ready to have a relationship with a woman. Soon after meeting is would-be wife, he admitted to her that all of his previous relationships had been with men. They proceeded with marriage, but Robinson was fearful, he said, “that this affliction would rear its’ ugly head.” Thirteen years and two children later, it did.

“We actually went back to church to end our marriage, we had made those vows in front of God and we did not want to sneak away in the night like it was something we were hoping God wouldn’t notice," he said.

The pair dissolved their marriage, released each other from their vows, gave back their wedding rings, forgave each other, wept and took communion.

It was a healing moment, Robinson said. His ex-wife was remarried a year later, and two months after that Robinson met his partner of over 20 years – a man named Mark.

Holtzman asked Robinson why he pushed forward to be part of the clergy and not just remain a devout church-goer.

“Hell if I know!” Robinson replied with a laugh, calling the feeling a persistent dog nipping at his heels, “God just won’t let us alone.”

But it was a hard road. Even after being duly elected as bishop he was not invited to participate in Anglican events such the historic conference of Lambeth in Canterbury, England. Robinson was the first bishop to be excluded from the event since it’s inception in 1867.

“Frankly, there were so many death threats around my consecration, for about a year and a half or two years, and I had to have security all the time,” recalls Robinson, “That’s when our first granddaughter was born, and we were terrified that she would be kidnapped.”

Robinson never signed up to be a role model, but Holtzman said he fits the part.

“In our generation,” says Holtzman, “there weren’t even the role models to show that one could grow up gay and have a relationship, career, partner and life..”

“If you heard the word 'homosexual', it was whispered and mostly you would refer to people who were that way,” says Robinson. "We actually thought all the good homosexuals were the ones that committed suicide because they were the ones who actually understood how despicable they were in the eyes of God and did something about it.”

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