Robinson was in Philadelphia June 12 for a signing of his new book, “God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage,” at the Free Library of Philadelphia. The following day, he participated in a talkback at the WHYY screening of “Love Free or Die,” which traced his life.
The now-retired Robinson grew up in the Episcopal Church, but he did not always have aspirations of church leadership.
“When I was growing up, I wanted to be a pediatrician partly because I idolized my own pediatrician,” he told PGN. “When I got to college, I realized I wasn’t terribly interested in the science of medicine — I was interested in people.”
He entered the seminary and was ordained a deacon 1973 and later a priest. He married and had two children.
Robinson said he long felt the call to serve in church leadership but was daunted by his 1986 coming out.
“I really resisted the call that I felt toward becoming a bishop because I knew there would be hell to pay for it,” he said. “So I had some fairly vigorous conversations with God along the lines of, ‘Are you kidding me right now?’ But ultimately I felt that God would stand with me through this and that we would just see where it went. And I had no idea I would wind up here.”
In 2003, Robinson was elected bishop by the New Hampshire diocese.
He said his election saw both negative and positive reactions, but he never expected the attention he would receive.
“I knew it would be controversial but I thought, in three to six months, it would just all blow over and I would be the bishop of New Hampshire,” he said. “I think in the early 2000s, we were reaching this critical moment where the culture as well as religious institutions were dealing with the fact that the world finally knew gay people and that created a tension between what we said about LGBT people and the people we actually knew. So I think my election just sort of became a lightning rod for all those feelings, both positive and negative. I never had any idea it would be this big of a deal.”
Robinson received death threats both when he first took on the position and during his tenure. But the positive messages far outweighed the negative ones, he said.
“Even still, I get five-six emails a week from some kid from some godforsaken town who sees my election and sees my serving as a sign of hope that one day he or she will one day be able to walk in their own churches and bring all of who they are with them and not just feel God’s embrace, but that of the community. That inspires me more than anything else.”
Robinson said he also gains inspiration from individuals who see the broader implications of the LGBT-rights movement, such as one man who approached him after he appeared on an Australian talk show.
“Some guy came up to me and said, ‘Oh, I saw you on ‘Q&A’ last night, you were fantastic. I’m a Muslim and we’re experiencing the same sorts of exclusion your community experiences. We have to understand the dynamics of what you are trying to do because it would help our community.’ Here was a guy who is making the connections between other oppressions and this particular oppression and that is incredible.”
Although some communities have made connections to the LGBT struggle, Robinson said fear has kept many religious from publicly supporting the community.
“I think there are a lot of people who are feeling very much more accepting of us but they are afraid of the same kinds of negativity that we have experienced and so they are quiet. Those who really support our inclusion need to find their courage to stand up and speak.”
That hesitancy is one of the reasons Robinson wrote his latest book, to help LGBTs and allies explain their advocacy and the issues surrounding it.
“There are a lot of people who are buying it who are a gay or lesbian couple who are getting married but their aunt feels really conflicted about whether to come to the wedding or not, so this is a great book to send to an estranged brother or your aunt or your grandmother who you want to understand. We tend to do this in fragments but this kind of lays out the whole process and ultimately winds up saying, ‘God is all about love, marriage is all about love; there is no reason not to move forward.”
Robinson said he’s optimistic the Supreme Court will agree.
“I think DOMA is going to fall. They know where this is going and I think they may want to be on this side of history,” he said, adding that he predicts Proposition 8 will also be overturned, with the ruling limited to California.
But, although marriage equality is an important issue, it is not the only one that the LGBT and ally communities should focus on, Robinson said.
“Ninety percent of Americans believe it is illegal to fire someone for being gay when in fact, in a majority of states, there are no protections. You can be fired on the spot if somebody sees you at a Gay Pride parade or whatever and there is no legal recourse. A new Employment Nondiscrimination Act is being put forward in Congress and includes transgender people, as it should, and so that is a piece of work we really need to get done. The frightening thing is that most Americans think it has already been done, so it is not even on their radar.”
Robinson also noted the importance of international LGBT issues.
“We need to start caring about LGBT people in other countries. There was a bit of interest in Uganda with the ‘Kill the Gays’ bill, but the fact of the matter is there are over 70 countries where sexuality has been criminalized. In seven countries, you can still be put to death, so I think we need to turn our attention overseas and do what we can to support those people.”
Robinson also encouraged the LGBT community to support the rights initiatives of other minority communities.
“It is time for the LGBT community to stop just thinking of ourselves and start thinking of the other oppressions going on in the culture, whether it be against immigration reform, racism and sexism. I think we need to take what we have learned in our own movement and apply it to other marginalized groups that deserve our support. We can’t expect them to show up to support us if we haven’t shown up to support them.”