Many people are familiar with the name V. Gene Robinson, who rocked the religious world when he became the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire and the first openly gay bishop in Christendom. His election and consecration in 2003 caused a furor in the Episcopal Church, over which 32 congregations and one full diocese broke from the American arm of the Anglican Church. The ceremony itself had to be choreographed with armed security everywhere, including having them disguised as clergy in the procession. Gene and his family wore bulletproof vests. Photographs splashed across the front page of newspapers worldwide the next day.
But to know the controversy over his election is only a small part of knowing the man, the man who is husband, father, grandfather and one part of a loving gay couple. Bishop Gene Robinson and Mark Andrew have been together for 23 years. I met Bishop Robinson when I was asked to photograph him for a magazine cover and article about his work in Africa fighting the AIDS epidemic. He was warm and genuine with a quick smile and a big laugh and it was evident from the start why he was elected Bishop. His kindness and love emanate from him and his every move.
Although married to a woman for 13 years and fathering two children with her, Gene could not overcome his attraction to men. He came to terms with his sexuality and through much openness and discussion with his wife, they decided to part. But in true Gene Robinson fashion, the couple returned to the church where they were married, and in the eyes of the Lord who first blessed their union, de-exchanged wedding rings and released each other from their vows. Their love and respect for each other remain deep and they are the closest of friends today.
A few years later, after his divorce, Gene met a Peace Corps worker named Mark Andrew while on vacation in St. Croix. He was instantly drawn to him. He says, "I loved the way he went about being who he was." Although a poor swimmer and afraid of the water, Gene adventurously went snorkeling with Mark and recalls," It was amazing how sensitive and attentive he was to me and the fact that I was uncomfortable in the water, and there was just something about the way he cared for me even though we’d only known each other a few days that made me know there was something really golden inside this guy. And I was right. And that has proven itself time and time again over these last 24 years."
Gene refers to Mark as the "rudder to my ship. He keeps me steady, gives me ballast," but then quips, "he might stay in the harbor if it weren't for me," referring to how opposite they are in nature. He finds that to be a strength in their relationship, this complementarity, their yin and yang. He is drawn to Mark for his steadiness, his rationality, and his wisdom. Conversely, Mark is drawn to Gene's sense of adventure, his willingness to do almost anything and, of course, drag Mark along. The daughters who were 5 and 9 when Mark came into Gene's life learned to value him for the same kind of steadiness that Gene adores. Whereas their father and mother tend to be more emotional and passionate in their parenting, the girls have grown to trust Mark for his objective, reasonable, and thought through advice.
As a man of the Church, Gene has been called upon to provide marital counseling or pre-marital counseling to many couples. He explains that "staying in a relationship whether it be a heterosexual one or a gay one, mostly takes a lot of work. It takes a commitment to staying at the table. It takes a real act of will to stay and fight or stay and talk or stay and listen or stay and face what you don't want to face." He adds that finding time to be together, to be able to give one another special time is also critical to maintaining a thriving relationship. Gene is retired now, but still keeps a busy schedule, and he and Mark manage to set aside special time for each other. They enjoying cooking together and have a fabulous garden at their New Hampshire home.
When asked about the support of his family for his relationship with Mark, Gene admits that his parents were slow to come along. They were sharecroppers in rural Kentucky and belonged to a fundamentalist congregation of the Disciples of Christ Church. Their son had been a very religious boy with perfect Sunday school attendance. The world was a different place in 1986 in Kentucky when Gene came out to them. They were very much afraid of what their friends would think of their gay son. But by the time he was elected Bishop in 2003, those same friends were calling his parents to congratulate them and remark on how proud they must be.
Gene recalls, "So they had spent all these years being fearful of what people would feel and then by 2003, it turned out to be not as awful as they had thought. In the meantime, they totally fell in love with Mark." Now they adore Mark. The entire family, parents, children, grandchildren were all there for Gene and Mark's civil union ceremony. When New Hampshire changed its laws to allow for same-sex marriage, the couple's union automatically transformed to a legal marriage.
When asked about God and gay marriage, Gene believes that "God cares about relationships. And God cares about the quality of relationships. I don’t believe God cares about the gender or gender identity of the two people involved. I think that both the Old and New Testaments attest to what makes for a good relationship….mutuality, equality, non-abusive, non-exploitative relationships. Relationships that not only benefit the couple but benefit the community, however large or small the community, benefit that larger community as well. And so monogamous, faithful, lifelong relationships are what I believe the church will come to sanctify regardless of the gender of the two people involved."
And this is exactly the relationship that Gene and Mark have.....faithful, loving, respectful, and committed.