Today marks the sixty-fifth birthday of Bishop Vicky Gene Robinson, who, in 2003, became the first non-celibate openly gay Anglican bishop.
Robinson has been featured in the 2012 Sundance documentary "Love Free or Die," as well as 2007's "For the Bible Told Me So," has been the subject of a book, and has written a book of his own. He's also been included in Out magazine's "Power 50" list as one of the most influential LGBT men and women in America.
Growing up on a tobacco farm outside of Lexington, Kentucky, Robinson realized at a young age that he was different from his peers. Still, he pushed those feelings aside and dated women during college and continued to bury his same-sex attractions while studying at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. In his early 20s, Robinson even saw a therapist about the issue until, after two years, he felt he was ready for a serious relationship with a woman.
This woman was Isabella Martin, whom Robinson met during a seminary internship at the University of Vermont. He told her that he had questioned his sexuality, but believed that the therapy had cured his desires. She assured him that, if his sexuality did become an issue somewhere down the line, they would deal with it. The couple got married in 1972, moved to New Hampshire, had two girls, and lived happily. Robinson served as a straight priest for nearly a decade.
Then, after 13 years of marriage, with his 40th birthday looming, Robinson once again began having doubts about his sexuality. With his wife's support, Robinson explained the situation to his two daughters (then 4 and 8), and the couple split in 1986.
In 1987, Robinson met his lifetime partner, Mark Andrew, while on vacation in St. Croix. The two purchased a house in New Hampshire and stayed very close with Martin and her daughters as they began their life together. Robinson remained active in the church and, in 1988, became executive assistant to the then-bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson was open with his sexuality during his seventeen years in that position, but faced heavy scrutiny when presented with the opportunity of becoming Bishop.
In June of 2003, when it was announced that he he had been elected as New Hampshire's bishop from among four candidates, Robinson received standing applause from the clergy and lay delegates. However, his ordination could not be finalized unless he won the consent of bishops and diocesan representatives at the church's General Convention. His election forced a showdown in the Episcopal Church of the United States, which had grown increasingly torn over the issue of homosexuality over the previous two decades.
Although the Episcopal Church had had gay bishops before Robinson, none were open about their sexuality before they were elected. Some church leaders, though recognizing his talent as a clergyman, found his sexuality so immoral that they lobbied against it. Others viewed his election as "the last straw" and stated they were leaving the Episcopal Church. When he was approved by the General Convention, he received so many death threats that he was forced to wear a bullet-proof vest at his consecration.
Nearly ten years after his designation as Bishop, Robinson's election and subsequent approval continue to make waves in the Anglican community, as well as other churches. Last year, he announced plans to retire early, explaining that the stress of controversy was too large a burden:
Death threats, and the now-worldwide controversy surrounding your election of me as bishop, have been a constant strain, not just on me, but on my beloved husband, Mark, who has faithfully stood with me every minute of the last seven years...While I believe that these attitudes, mostly outside the diocese, have not distracted me from my service to you, I would be less than honest if I didn't say that they have certainly added a burden and certain anxiety to my episcopate.
Still, in a world where religion and homosexuality are seemingly always at odds, as illuminated by the recent media frenzy surrounding North Carolina pastor Charles Worley, Robinson's story shows that this need not be the case. Once he retires in 2013, he plans to continue his work on college campuses and public forums, counteracting tragic stories of teenagers who have taken their own lives because of religious persecution.
In many ways, his job is to undo the hatred that religion's dark legacy of persecution-- of which Charles Worley is a product-- have spread. As Robinson said in 2003:
The church has faced many crisis over its life. I would say we've probably grown the most when we've been in some sort of crisis... Of course, we will never be the same again. Ten years from now we will be different again. And ten years later, will be different still. The church is a living breathing organism. We worship a god that is alive and well and living among us. So why shouldn't we be changing.
Happy 65th, Bishop Robinson!