NOTE: The story below appeared in the Concord Monitor as a two-part profile on July 19 and July 20, 2003. It is no longer on the New Hampshire newspaper’s Web site and is reproduced here by permission.
 

Years of rejection, now understanding

Bishop-elect has accepted his homosexuality


By ANNMARIE TIMMINS
Monitor staff



First of two parts

Gene Robinson spent nearly half his life refusing to be gay. His 1950s upbringing convinced him that yielding could only lead to suicide or a life of drugs, alcohol and rejection.

"It was so abhorred that those who understood how condemned it was by God just did the logical thing and did themselves in," Robinson said. "Suicide was something we thought the good homosexuals did."

The Rev. V. Gene Robinson, 56, has found a third way to live happily as a gay man for the last 15 years, one that saw a positive end to his marriage, a close relationship with his daughters and unheard of success in a church that has called his homosexuality a sin.

Robinson, of Weare, is on the brink of becoming the world's first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church. For that to happen, his election by the Diocese of New Hampshire must be approved at the national church's General Convention next month.

That possibility has divided Episcopalians. While Robinson was nominated on the strength of his ministry, his confirmation hearing will probably become a debate about the church's position on homosexuality.

To some extent, it already has.

Robinson's nomination would have gone unnoticed by the New York Times and The Today Show if he were not gay. Newsweek's recent cover story on the country's growing acceptance of homosexuality contrasted Robinson's candidacy with Oscar Wilde's 1895 jailing for gay relations. Some Episcopalians have left the church because of Robinson's nomination while some people have joined it for the same reason.

Robinson refuses to participate in the gay debate. He no longer rejects his homosexuality, but neither is he willing to use it or his candidacy as a platform for gay rights.

"I want to be a good bishop," he said. "Not the gay bishop."

 


Young man's secret

Robinson was a seventh-grader outside Lexington, Ky., in the 1950s when he realized he had a secret to keep. He and friends were paging through a smuggled copy of Playboy.

"There are two things that I remember like it was yesterday," Robinson said. "I could tell my reaction to the pictures was different, and absolutely simultaneously, I knew that I had better pretend otherwise."

He did - to almost everyone - for the next 25 years.

Robinson was born in Lexington, Ky., in 1947, in a delivery that went so wrong the doctor told his father he needed a name for the baby's birth and death certificates. Charles and Imogene Robinson had counted on a girl, so Robinson's father named the baby Vicky Imogene Robinson.

Robinson survived and went home to his family's farm outside Lexington, where his parents worked as tobacco sharecroppers. The family used an outhouse, water from a cistern and did laundry in a cast-iron tub over an open flame.

Sundays, the family worshipped at the Disciples of Christ church, a denomination relatively unknown in the Northeast but with many parishes in the West. Robinson was active in the youth group and considers his baptism at 13 one of his most powerful and emotional experiences.

Robinson's parents and sister, Karen Robinson, still attend the same church today. The community in church and out has become a strong source of support for his family.

"My parents have received letters and phone calls. . . . There is an overwhelming sense of acceptance," Karen Robinson said. "They may not all approve of his lifestyle, but they love him and they love my parents. That's been a nice surprise for them."

The small rural congregation couldn't afford to hire a minister, so it relied on students at a nearby seminary. Robinson remembers being inspired by the young ministers' enthusiasm for theology and ministry, but the story of Robinson's traumatic birth had already pointed him toward medicine.

Even after Robinson lived, no one expected him to grow out of his paralysis or reach adulthood. "Because my life was saved by a pediatrician, I went to college thinking I'd be a pediatrician," Robinson said.

Princeton University offered Robison a half scholarship, but he turned it down when the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., offered him a full ride. It was an all-male liberal arts college owned by the Episcopal Church, and it attracted students much wealthier than Robinson.

"I didn't have a fancy car," he said. "I didn't have a car at all."

But he thrived.

He joined a fraternity that during the 1960s pledged an African-American member. He fell in love with the Episcopal Church for its liturgy, music and historical connections to the apostles. That was missing from his own church back home, which dated only to the Civil War.

 


Therapy

Robinson revised his career plans in favor of ministry when he realized that it wasn't the science but the healing powers of medicine that he appreciated. He was less settled about his sexuality. He dated women but still wondered if he wasn't gay.

"I was so terrified that this might be true that I just completely buried it," Robinson said.

After college, he continued to bury it at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. But it got more difficult.

"I was able to admit a little more to myself my attraction to men," said Robinson, who was in his early 20s at the time. "But I desperately wanted to get married and have kids. So I got into therapy to change myself."

Robinson saw a therapist twice a week for two years until he believed he was ready for a relationship with a woman. He fell in love with Isabella Martin during a seminary internship as the chaplain at the University of Vermont.

She was called Boo, and Robinson confessed to her within weeks of meeting her that he had had doubts about his sexuality. He told her his significant past relationships had been with men but that he believed his therapy had cured those desires. They were engaged within a few months.

"Just before we got married, I became fearful that this (the sexuality question) would rear its ugly head somewhere down the line," Robinson said. "She assured me that we could deal with that if it happened."

With Boo, Gene Robinson returned to New York for his last year of seminary, happy and optimistic. He already knew he wanted to be a church leader, and his friends believed he would be. The Rev. Robert Odierna, rector of the Good Shepard Episcopal Church in Nashua, met him that year and had a sense almost immediately that Robinson would make bishop one day.

"Even from the very beginning, I thought he always had such great wisdom and insight," said Odierna. "He is one of the most talented priests I've ever met. I believe that is a God-given gift for Gene."

Robinson spent the first two years after seminary as a curate in a New Jersey parish. His wife commuted to Harlem, where she taught school. Michael Roeske, a gay Episcopal priest in Boston, was a teenager in the New Jersey parish when Robinson arrived. He grew close to the couple during their 13-year marriage.

Roeske said last week that he witnessed nothing in those years to prepare him for Robinson's revelation that he was gay. "They really did have a great marriage," said Roeske, who remains close to Robinson. "I thought they were a younger version of my parents, and my parents were happily married for 37 years until my mother died."

 


Midlife crisis

In 1975, the couple left New Jersey for New Hampshire, where Boo's family had a farm in Temple. They took about seven acres and opened a girls camp and horse farm. For several months each year, Robinson used the property to run a retreat center, where he led spiritual programs for women, youth, intergenerational groups and diocesan committees.

Two daughters arrived, Jamee and Ella. Robinson took on additional church responsibilities, overseeing the youth ministry program for several dioceses on the East Coast. He succeeded at life as a straight priest for nearly a decade.

In 1985 Robinson began examining his life choices for reasons that he still cannot explain, even to himself. His best guess is that he was headed toward 40. As he had feared, his doubt about his sexuality "reared its ugly head."

"I think one of the questions that comes during middle age is am I living my life the way I want to live it for the rest of my life?" he said. "If not, perhaps I ought to think about changing it now because I don't have as much time left as I used to."

The prospect filled him with excitement and dread.

Robinson believed he and his wife could find deeper love with other people, but he had never imagined living away from his kids - and he hadn't resolved the matter with God. He turned to the Bible for guidance and prayed. A lot.

"As a priest, I took a vow to see the Scriptures as the word of God," he said. "And I believe they are."

Robinson read the Bible's seven passages that reference homosexuality and considered that they'd been written before anyone had imagined the sort of committed, monogamous gay life he desired. To Robinson, the passages condemned rape and gay sex with prostitutes or children - not consensual gay sex.

The passages "focus on how we treat and live with people," Robinson said. "Especially those with whom we've made commitments. The things it condemns - rape and child abuse - we'd be against today."

With Boo's understanding and support, the couple revisited the church in which they had married and undid their wedding vows. They recited the words again - pledging still to honor one another - and returned the rings. They could fulfill their promises of honor, they decided, by letting each other go.

Nearly 15 years later, Robinson hasn't forgotten those vows, and he and his ex-wife remain close. She's also close with Robinson's longtime partner, Mark Andrew. She supports Robinson's election as bishop.

When Gene and Boo split, their daughters were 8 and 4. The couple agreed he would be honest with their children about his reasons for leaving. He talked to Jamee, the oldest, first, with the help of a picture book about a gay man, his partner and his daughter. Robinson remembers he had to order it from Denmark because there was nothing similar in the United States.

When Robinson finished the story and kissed Jamee goodnight, she told him that she hoped he'd find a new mate, just as the man in the book had. Together, Jamee and her father read the book to Ella. Long after the fact, Robinson learned that both daughters wrote about the experience in their college entrance essays.

"I am so proud of him," Ella Robinson, 21, said last week. She is living with her dad in Weare this summer, working at a summer camp and helping him answer letters from well-wishers. "There were some people who looked at our family situation and really judged it. But I learned early on how important it is to be yourself, no matter the consequences.

"God made us who we are supposed to be."

 


(Tomorrow: Robinson's talks about life with partner Mark Andrew and why he wants to be the bishop to New Hampshire's Episcopalians.)

Saturday, July 19, 2003

 


 

Priest finds himself at the center of a storm

Robinson could be first gay bishop


By ANNMARIE TIMMINS
Monitor staff



Second of two parts

Weare

Gene Robinson usually spends Friday nights in his kitchen with Mark Andrew, his partner of 15 years, cooking for friends. It's not always that dull. Sometimes they turn on the television to the political talk shows and yell, even throw things at the screen.

Welcome to Robinson's "gay lifestyle." As unremarkable as it is, the growing focus on it is overshadowing his 30 years of ministry and threatening Robinson's bid to become an Episcopal bishop.

"In the diocese here, I was selected for all the things I've done . . . and there was very little reference to my sexuality," he said. "All the critics now across the nation want to sweep away all of those skills with some throwaway line like, 'We don't doubt his expertise and faith, but. . . .'

"It drives me crazy."

The Rev. V. Gene Robinson, 56, of Weare was elected bishop of the New Hampshire diocese in June, but to win he also needs the approval of the national church at its General Convention next month. He would be the church's first openly gay bishop.

This is the farthest Robinson has come in his seven tries for bishop: He's been a finalist twice, and lost his last bid, in Rochester, N.Y., in 1999, by only a few votes. But some bishops across the country have already promised to vote against him because he is openly gay, and they are finding support among their Episcopalian parishioners.

For some, Robinson's love of another man is unnatural, sinful and a threat to family life. The bishops of South Carolina oppose it for being "outside the bounds of marriage." Robinson can't reconcile those views with the close relationship he shares with his ex-wife, his daughters and his parents.

When his oldest daughter, Jamee, married recently, Robinson walked her down the aisle, and his partner escorted his ex-wife. "Nothing in my story discourages marriage," he said. "I simply don't understand how the relationships I've worked so hard on undermine anyone else's family life."

 


Instant attraction

Robinson was a divorced father of two vacationing alone in St. Croix when he met Mark Andrew, a Peace Corps member from Washington, D.C. They struck up a conversation by the hotel pool, where everyone congregated at night.

"It was an instantaneous attraction," said Robinson, who was 40 at the time. "I loved his engagement with the world. He had been off in the bush, hooking up a slide projector to the battery of a Jeep so he could teach the local people about the whole concept of germs."

Robinson had acknowledged he was gay - to himself and to his family - a year before, after suppressing suspicions most of his life. His wife of 13 years had remarried by the time Robinson met Andrew, and he remained close with her and their daughters.

Andrew wasn't as far along in his struggle with his sexuality.

He hadn't come out to his family or his co-workers, and doing so promised heartache. Still, the two dated for the next 18 months, traveling between Washington and New Hampshire. Sometimes, Robinson brought his young daughters, ages 6 and 10, with him.

"When we went to the zoo, the girls were fascinated that Mark had eaten most of the animals there (while in the Peace Corps)," Robinson said. "He told them how greasy hippopotamus was. When we ate dinner, they'd always make him regale them with stories of West Africa. The grislier the better."

Andrew's family was less understanding when he moved in with Robinson. His father never accepted his son's homosexuality and refused to allow Robinson to visit. Andrew continued to see his parents alone, something Robinson encouraged but regretted.

By the time Andrew's father died, however, his mother wanted a better relationship and asked Robinson and his daughters to come to her husband's funeral. "She was so eager to reconcile, to know us," Robinson said. "She's incredibly supportive. She's like a grandmother to the kids."

After Andrew moved to New Hampshire in 1989, he and Robinson settled into a life familiar to many divorced parents with shared custody. They attended the girls' school events, helped with homework and took care of them every weekend. Robinson and Andrew remember a lot of board games.

"This is why the whole 'gay lifestyle' phrase drives me nuts," Robinson said. "It's code for being out until 4 in the morning and doing drugs and who knows what. For us, life was about making sure the laundry was done on the weekend so when we took the girls back they had clean clothes for school."

Robinson and Andrew have lived most of their life together at the end of a quiet road in Weare, in a contemporary house they had built with entertaining in mind. Their kitchen is open and big enough to allow them to work the stove and socialize with friends. The centerpiece in the dining room are the orchids Andrew is growing.

The house's back wall is mostly windows, which look over a deck and raised flower beds that Robinson and Andrew have spent years cultivating. Those beds reveal the only evidence that Robinson has been overwhelmed by the hundreds of encouraging letters, emails and phone calls he has received since being elected: He is way behind on his weeding.

 


A gifted priest

Robinson has never withheld his story in New Hampshire - Andrew was at his side when he attended candidate meet-and-greets. But neither has he spent much time telling it because in New Hampshire, Robinson has made a reputation as a gifted priest, not a gay priest.

"Everybody knew (he is gay) because it was in his profile," said Cathie Talbert, the co-chair of the search committee that chose Robinson as one of its five finalists for bishop. "But . . . our conversations with Gene were far ranging. We talked about future plans and his vision for the diocese. The sort of questions you want to ask the person who might lead your diocese."

Robinson came to New Hampshire from a parish in New Jersey in 1975 when he and his then-wife opened a summer camp and retreat center on her parents' farm in Temple, in the southwestern corner of the state. From his Sign of the Dove Retreat Center, Robinson led spiritual programs for lay people and diocesan committees.

What he's done since fills three pages in his resume.

He's best known - locally and outside the state - for his work counseling clergy and guiding parishes in conflict. Members of the bishop search committee appreciated Robinson's ability to go into disagreeing parishes and reconcile factions. Robinson has written curriculum responding to racism and taught teenagers about tolerance and AIDS. He currently serves as an assistant to Bishop Douglas Theuener.

Even his critics have acknowledged his strengths as a priest.

"He is one of the most talented clergy in the church and a powerful candidate for bishop," the Rev. Todd Wetzel, executive director of Episcopalian United, has said. The organization, however, finds Robinson's sexuality so immoral it is lobbying against his election.

Robinson faced scrutiny and heavy media attention the two previous times he was a finalist for bishop. The scrutiny and attention have been more intense this time, however, because Robinson is closer than he's ever been to becoming bishop.

Reporters from as far away as England and Australia want interviews. The Today Show had him on immediately after he won in New Hampshire. Critics - and supporters - are mounting lobbying campaigns that rival the efforts of presidential contenders.

Andrew, who is much more reserved than Robinson, has found it uncomfortable at times. It's helped that his co-workers at state Department of Health and Human Services, where he is an administrator, have stopped by with kind words. Even those he doesn't know well. And Andrew and Robinson's 21-year-old daughter, Ella, are helping answer the hundreds of e-mails and letters that have poured in since Robinson's June election in New Hampshire.

Most of them have been positive. Like the woman who wrote from the prison in Goffstown to say she was neither gay nor Christian but was hopeful for Robinson. "She wrote to me, 'If they could love you, maybe they could love people like us, in prison,' " Robinson said.

The well-wishes encourage him, but something else reminds him why the scrutiny is worth it. "Mark and I have been showing up at congregations on Sunday and the reception is fabulous," Robinson said. "People are so excited about the future of our ministry. I really love empowering people to be God's loving arms in the world. I'll be really relieved when this is over so I can get about that more."

First, he'll need to get enough votes at next month's General Convention, when thousands of the country's Episcopalian leaders and lay members gather to decide several church issues, including Robinson's election.

Robinson's supporters are prepared and in place with a strategy they believe will help. Thousands of them will attend the convention wearing buttons that read, Ask me about Gene.

 


(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 603-224-5301, ext. 323 or at atimmins@cmonitor.com.)

Sunday, July 20, 2003

 

 

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