Reverend Gene Robinson was elected the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop in 2003. After serving 28 years in the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, he was elected bishop on June 7th and served as the ninth Episcopal Bishop until 2013. Before this historical moment, Robinson participated in a lengthy career of spiritual work, AIDS activism and creating inclusive spaces for religious LGBTQ+ folk.
Robinson was born May 29, 1947 in Lexington, Kentucky. At the time of his birth, Robinson was so ill, the doctor did not think he would survive. The doctor had even requested Gene’s father to sign both his birth and death certificates. He was raised by his parents, Victor and Imogene, who worked as sharecroppers on a tobacco tenant farm. They belonged to the Bethany Christian Church, whose founding members were their ancestors.
Living without running water or indoor plumbing, and with our community as our only support, my family loved the church, and it was our primary social outlet. I was steeped in and nourished by a constant study of Scripture, leading to my taking Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior, and my baptism with full immersion, at age twelve. My greatest desire was to lead a Christ-centered life. (Robinson, God Believes in Love).
As he grew up, he became more and more cognizant of his attraction to men. The same month that he graduated with his bachelor's degree, in June 1969, the Stonewall Riots occurred in Greenwich .Village in Manhattan, New York, a pivotal moment in the U.S LGBTQ rights movement. Although he was not aware of the event in real-time, he was aware of his differing sexuality and decided he would follow his vocation and attend seminary.
I was pretty sure that I was attracted to men. ‘Gay’ was not yet a word generally used to describe homosexuals, but I knew what I was, and I didn’t like it. Hardly a minute went by that I didn’t loathe myself. (Robinson, God Believes in Love).
He graduated from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee in 1969 and completed a Master of Divinity degree from the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in 1973.
While attempting “to cure” his sexuality, he decided to marry a woman and together they had two children. In 1975, he and his wife moved to New Hampshire. Over time, he re-engaged with scripture and eventually came to the conclusion that same-sex attraction was no better or worse than heterosexuality. In spring of 1986, he publicly came out.
After a decade of marriage, they separated and he eventually married his ex-husband. In 1987, he met his husband, Mark Andrew, on a beach in St. Croix. He was instantly enamored by his looks and interests. For the next year and a half, they maintained a strong connection and decided to commit themselves to each other. On June 7, 2008, Mark and Gene formed a civil union in the state of New Hampshire. In the same state less than two years later, on January 1, 2010, Mark became his legal husband.
After publicly coming out, he regularly faced death threats and police regularly stationed themselves at his property until he left New Hampshire in 2013. At his consecration as bishop, he wore a bulletproof vest. He continually faced threats and harassment and in 2009, state authorities caught a man with a sawed off shotgun who they believed intended to assassinate Robinson at his home. Although he confronted vitriol and backlash, he also received a plethora of correspondence expressing their admiration and support for openly professing his faith and sexuality.
In 2009, he was invited by President Barack Obama to give the invocation at the inaugural ceremonies at the Lincoln Memorial. Robinson was one of the founding members of an AIDS organization within the Episcopal Church called NEAC, the National Episcopal AIDS Coalition. It was founded in 1988 and one of the earliest religious groups responding to the AIDS crisis. The group continues to focus on educating others about the severity of AIDS and the need for religious ministry for persons living with HIV/AIDS.
The Episcopal Church in many ways took the lead, certainly among the major denominations, in response to AIDS.
After his ordination in 2003, as an out clerical leader, he was being closely watched by the other Christian denominations.
They were really standing by to see if this indeed, in effect, destroyed the Episcopal Church. When it didn’t, over a period of years, I was a bishop for ten years, they began to follow.
In 2010, the Episcopal Church elected another gay bishop in Los Angeles, Rev. Mary Glasspool. Robinson traveled to attend her consecration. There was an active network of gay and lesbian people prior to his election, which provided both emotional and institutional support for Robinson. In the Episcopal Church, the clergy and laypersons nominate and vote on who becomes their bishop. Thus, the persons from his diocese knew him well and they were supportive of his desire to become bishop. Robinson claimed a running joke among queer people within the Episcopal Church was that they struggled to establish an Integrity chapter, the Church’s queer outreach organization, because queer people were preoccupied with running the Church itself.
If you just read the headlines, you would have thought it was about a 50-50 split, because the detractors were quite loud and vocal. But at the end of the day, 5 percent of the Episcopal Church left [about 100,000 people]. You would have guessed it was a far bigger split going just by the headlines.
However, although the split did not break the church into equally divided parts, a large contingent of persons were not enthusiastic about the election of Robinson. Many simply did not feel as though this specific issue was a sufficient catalyst to separate themselves from the Church. Even with some backlash over his consecration, much of the Episcopal Church, including institutional leaders, have expressed a welcoming attitude to Robinson and LGBTQ persons.
We have not only authorized liturgies for the blessing of gay marriages, or just all marriages, but the governing body of the Episcopal Church’s general convention, which includes bishops clergy and laity working together, said they had to be made available in every diocese. For a few years prior to that, it was up to the local bishop, whether he or she would permit that, but then there were some holdout bishops who simply would not allow it in their diocese.
In comparison to other U.S. religious denominations, the Episcopal Church has had a fairly progressive view on LGBTQ equality. In 1976, the House of Deputies and House of Bishops voted, “homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the church.” The Church even includes gender identity as a status deserving of full access to resources and ministry. The majority of people in the congregation support gay marriage. The growing visibility has changed the perspective of many adherents. Across denominations according to the Pew Research Center and Human Rights Center, support for gay marriage has dramatically increased since Robinson became bishop in 2003, even among older generations.
I don’t think I could have withstood the scrutiny and the hatred and all of the destructive stuff that came my way, including many, many death threats, if it had not been for my faith and literally experiencing the presence of God, almost palpably. I would have never been able to do that without God.
In 2008, he released his autobiography In the Center of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God. Elizabeth Adams wrote a biography, published in 2006 and entitled Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Gene Robinson. In 2012, Robinson released another book, “God Believes in Marriage: Straight Talk about Marriage.”
Robinson’s archives can be found/requested at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
(This biographical statement written by Thomas Schwartz from the sources below as well an interview with Gene Robinson on January 18, 2023).
God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage by Gene Robinson (Introduction)
Biography Date: June, 2007; rev May 2023
This short video on the Smithsonian Channel features Robinson's story and the donation of some of his artifacts to the National Museum of American History: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ptxqgKFdLA
“Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed September 28, 2023, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/gene-robinson.