Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop, was the keynote speaker at the Pacific Northwest regional conference for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) in Boise Oct. 4 at the Riverside hotel. About 130 PFLAG members from nine Northwest states attended. Some events were open to the community like the healing and reconciliation service on Sunday, officiated by Bishop Robinson — especially for LGBT people who have been hurt and rejected by their faiths.
In an exclusive interview, Bishop Robinson talked with The Blue Review about marriage equality, religious freedom, Add the Words and more.
What is a gay icon like you doing in Boise, Idaho of all places?
I was in Billings, Montana last year, doing an event that was sponsored by the ACLU and I met [Montana LGBT and faith leader] Greg Smith and he mentioned his involvement with the Northwest PFLAG association and said, ‘would you ever be willing to come?’ I said, ‘yes absolutely.’ They followed up, and here I am.
I have always loved PFLAG. I think in many respects the LGBT movement has failed to understand the importance that families play in this issue.
One of the things that hasn’t been looked at very much, except by PFLAG, is the coming out process for parents of LGBT people. Because, their coming out to their friends as having an LGBT son or daughter is not unlike the coming out process for LGBT people. They risk losing friendships, people that they’ve loved and so on, who may write them off because of that, people who may blame them for making their kids gay.
PFLAG has always been a near and dear to my heart. They can be places and with people who wouldn’t come out for an LGBT event for love or money.
You have spent a lot of time on both coasts. How does that experience contrast with places like Boise and conservative rural regions of the country that are less accepting of LGBTQA people?
I have been saying for a long time now that we have sort of picked the low hanging fruit on the two coasts and the real work now needs to shift to areas of the country that have not had that kind of exposure to openly gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
I find myself accepting invitations in the hinterland, if you will, much more so than preaching to the choir on the coasts. I have been in several locations in Iowa, Billings, Mont., I spoke in St. George, Utah just a few months ago. I think that’s where the focus of the work needs to happen.
Are you familiar with the Add the Words campaign going on here in Idaho?
That’s to add gender expression and sexual orientation?
Yes. To the Idaho Human Rights Act.
So, pretty much all the LGBT organizations have abandoned ENDA [Employment Non-Discrimination Act] because of the overly broad religious exemptions. I think you’re going to see that work move toward just amending the civil rights acts that are already on the books, to add those words.
Interestingly, you’re doing at the local level what I think the next piece of work is going to be at the national level.
Do you think local efforts are as important, or more important, than national level work?
More important, in the sense that we live in a time when people are skeptical, and I think it’s safe to say, anti-government. To see things bubbling up from the grassroots is very much more effective in changing people’s minds than something top down, which runs into people’s reactions to big government and centralized anything.
So, I think in some ways, these local efforts will impel us forward to do this work at the national level. I think it is really critical.
What do you see within different denominations and how the religious community is evolving on LGBT issues like marriage?
So, you have mainline denominations and sort of mainline Judaism having become very progressive on this issue and writing liturgy for marriages and for blessings of same-sex unions and so on. So that’s progressing nicely. While I don’t expect to see the Roman Catholic Church, in my lifetime, change its official stance at least in America, a majority of Roman Catholic lay people support marriage equality. That’s quite astounding. As in other conservative denominations we see the oases of welcome happening in individual congregations.
Probably the most fascinating, I think, is conservative evangelicals. There is a sort of a rebellion underway. Young evangelicals, like other young people in America, have gay and lesbian friends. When you have a friend who is LGBT you’re just not willing to believe all the terrible things said about us because you know them not to be true.
There are [a] considerable number of young evangelicals leaving their evangelical churches over this issue. Those that stay are fighting to change the churches understanding of this issue. I would say that we’ve got progressive movement in all of those areas.
Where do you see the national movement for marriage going?
My guess is that they will finally have to take it up in the 2015-2016 session. By 2016 I would expect us to have marriage equality as the law of the land.
You indicated earlier Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg tipped you off, how so?
She spoke specifically about whether or not the Supreme Court would take up marriage equality now and said that if there were differing opinions at the Circuit Court level then the Supreme Court would have to step in and sort that out. But, if they are all going in the same direction, they wouldn’t have to take it up, and they didn’t this term.
When it comes to public policy, what do you say about religious conservatives who defend discrimination against LGBTQ people by using the Bible as the foundation for their viewpoints?
The specter of religious people arguing for the right to discriminate is just appalling to me. It’s almost like an oxymoron, when every faith, I think, is meant to be inclusive, accepting and affirming. I think these appeals, so-called religious liberty, need to be limited. I would be right with the conservatives on this part of it: no institutionalized religion would ever be forced to preside at marriages of same-gender couples or have to change their beliefs at all. But when you go beyond that, I think you get at the inherent problem of the existence of religions in a secular culture.
For instance, in my diocese, the Dioceses of New Hampshire, in which I was Bishop until recently [retired], our hiring policies were quite intentional and explicit in saying you do not need to be an Episcopalian; you do not need to be Christian even, or a believer of any kind, to hold a position that didn’t require teaching the faith. If you’re the janitor in a church building it seems to me that you should not be able to fire that janitor because he or she is gay, because their position does not require anything to do with the teachings and theology of their employer.
That’s the fight we are having right now. We see teachers being fired, organists being fired when they actually marry their partners, when in fact they’re not doing any teaching or anything to do with the specifics of the religion.
We need to get that sorted out and I don’t think it will be sorted out until we get these court cases heard.
How do you feel about the separation of church and state?
I am so devoted to what I think is one of the pillars of our Constitution and our nation. But I do believe that the separation of church and state needs to work both ways. It needs to protect religious institutions from interference in their own internal affairs by the government. But similarly and conversely, I think the government needs to be protected from inappropriate interference by religious institutions.
We are not a theocracy, we are a democracy, and we are a multi-cultural pluralistic society. I don’t believe that religion needs to be propped up in the ways that I hear more conservative denominations arguing for.
You discussed corporations as people and Hobby Lobby. What are your thoughts about the Religious Freedom movement?
It represents a shift in tactics and strategy on behalf of the more conservative people. I think the courts will have to sort this out. It seems to me that [one’s] religious liberty ends where someone else’s religious liberty begins.
I just found the decision of Hobby Lobby to be repulsive in so many ways, to say that an employer, no matter how sincerely held his religious beliefs, should trump an employee’s access to birth control and reproductive care.
I think it was a terrible decision on the part of the Supreme Court and one that we’ll come to regret and have to reverse. The notion of corporations as people capable of holding religious beliefs is too tortured a construct to even comprehend. It’s hard to even find the words to describe how idiotic that is.
You talked about how the LGBT community needs to embrace transgender people more. What do you mean?
I think what we are learning is that human sexuality is almost infinitely complex. Our attempt to categorize people into neat and tidy boxes is good as a kind of shorthand but at the end of the day it belies the complexity.
We stand to learn an awful lot from the transgender community about the fluidity of human sexuality and about interplay between gender identity and gender expression. I think it holds the promise of opening us up to that complexity, which is a good thing.
How do you feel about the usage of the word Queer for the movement?
I am 67 years old, I grew up in a time when queer was one of the names used against us that made us feel less than. Personally, I don’t use the word very often unless I’m in a context where I can explain what I mean by it. If the whole world meant by it what I mean by it then I would feel more comfortable about it.
I still would not want to be called queer. I don’t think the culture is in a place with that word yet that I feel comfortable using it. I don’t mind if other people do, but it’s got an awful lot of pain associated with it for me, given my age and time that I grew up in.
You were asked to be part of the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration yet not given equal standing with controversial evangelical Pastor Rick Warren. How was that experience?
It was a mind-bogglingly wonderful experience, when the president of the United States asks you to pray. How many people does that happen to, right?
Frankly, I just didn’t feel like it was ditch worth dying in to pit myself against Rick Warren. Both of us sat on the presidential platform for the swearing in. I was 30 feet from the President when he was sworn in. I walked up and introduced myself to Rick Warren and told him I’d be praying for him that day. I didn’t tell him what I would be praying for.
You want to tell us what you were praying for?
No. Not particularly. [Laughing]
I struggled long and hard about to whom to address this prayer. I didn’t figure out a way of including non-religious people, or people who don’t believe there is a God. So, I started my prayer with the words, Oh God of our many understandings. Plural.
I wanted to acknowledge that we have different understandings and it seemed to me that when you are gathering, as a nation, to inaugurate the first African-American President, that we should focus on all that we have in common.
Later, I had particularly Jews and Muslims coming up to me after saying they had never felt included in a public prayer like that before. Several of them had tears coming down their faces and thanked me.
And, I got more hate mail from Christians because I had done that. Because I had a chance to save all those people from everlasting damnation and I wouldn’t even use Jesus’s name and I had betrayed Him the way Judas had betrayed Him. You cannot imagine the amount and the vitriol of the responses I got from Christians.
Speaking of Pastor Warren, and his involvement in the anti-LGBT preaching in Africa, specifically Uganda, what has the Episcopal Church done to combat that?
I would say that the kind of work were doing is very quiet and under the radar screen, where we are working to get fresh water to that village over there and we do it together. Then, along the way, the Africans that we are working with discover that two of the six people who are here helping happen to be gay.
It’s quiet, non-public places where these kinds of issues can be addressed. It’s based on relationships about other things and so in one sense it’s a foil to what’s being done by the evangelicals who literally are exporting hate and stirring up trouble.
I understand [Rick Warren’s] got a big gathering planned in Rwanda next August for African religious leaders and their American counterparts. I’m going to try to go.
What is your intention?
I just want to see it. I want to report on it and write about it. If I can somehow be allowed to attend, I just want them to know that someone’s there watching.
Back in the early ’90s, I actually helped set up the National Peer Education Program for AIDS education in Uganda and at least played a part in turning the AIDS infection rate around.
Then Bush’s faith-based AIDS policy of abstinence-only education reversed those numbers.
The Roman Catholics were the only ones who wouldn’t play with us. The Muslims were fantastic and the Anglican Church. About a third of Uganda [attends the] Anglican Church of Uganda. So, it breaks my heart to see all of this hatred and the kill-the-gays bill.
I think it’s time for the American LGBT community movement to start looking beyond itself and to become more engaged in that way.
What is the best way to talk to people who are so aversely opposed to social justice for LGBTQ people?
It seems to me there is nothing wrong with people being conservative and resistant on this issue. It’s when they try to tell me that that’s what I have to believe as well, that they get into trouble.
The reverse of that is that when we do this work of trying to get people to be more inclusive and more progressive, we need to couch all of our statements in personal language. Like, beginning a sentence with, ‘for me, this is true,’ or, ‘in my experience that is true,’ as opposed to saying, ‘and it has to be true for you too.’ Part of singing the Lord’s song is to tell our story, to tell our truth as we know it, and then let it do the work of changing someone’s mind.
If you try to tell somebody else what they have to believe, all it does is shut them down. They are not going to hear another word you say after that. So, if you actually care about changing someone’s mind on this you have to learn to couch in language that is at least going to keep them listening.
So, do the work with the best intentions and let go of the outcome?
Exactly, because if you don’t let go of the outcome, and the outcome is not good, then you’re doomed to being frustrated and hopeless and then ultimately you get angry and cynical. You get burnt out and you stop doing this work.
But if you let go of the outcome and say, ‘my job is to sing this song with as authentic a voice as possible…’ then, we can do this work forever.
What is your advice to LGBT people who are seeking a faith that is accepting of their authentic selves?
The piece of advice, which may sound really odd coming from a Bishop, is shop around. I would say in virtually any denomination you can find an accepting, affirming place. Even in denominations that officially are not in an affirming place.
Don’t assume that because you’ve been to one church you’ve been to them all. Or, that because you have a bad experience in one church, you’re going to have a bad experience in, either another church in the same denomination, or in a different denomination. What I say to LGBT people is the church you left 10, 15 years ago may not be the church that’s there now, because we’ve been changing.
Eleven years ago, my consecration was just this enormous controversy and people left [the church]. It’s like old news now. We have so moved beyond that and so many people have changed their minds and hearts about this. If you thought an Episcopal Church was like it was back in 2003 it would be terribly out of date. It’s worth LGBT people even going back to a church to see if the church they left, the literal, actual congregation that they left that treated them poorly, whether it’s changed or not. A lot of them have.
Would you repeat your newest favorite saying?
The old part is the first sentence the second part is the newer one, which is this:
In the end all will be well.
If it’s not yet all well,
it is not yet the end.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.