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2014

Where Are They Now: Bishop Gene Robinson

Where Are They Now: Bishop Gene Robinson

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Since retiring, he continues to work tirelessly against racism and poverty, as well as advocating for LGBT rights around the globe.

Photography by Gillian Laub

It's been nearly 30 years since Bishop Gene Robinson came out and, after being elected as bishop of the New Hampshire diocese in the Episcopal Church in 2003 (when he was first included as an honoree in the Out100), he became one of the most high-profile openly gay religious figures in the world.

Before retiring from his position in January 2013 and moving to Washington, D.C. Robinson was the subject of Macky Alston's documentary, Love Free or Die. Since then, he continues his life of service by advocating for LGBT rights near and far, addressing topics ranging from the most basic human rights that LGBT people should be afforded, to workplace protection to make sure discrimination is snuffed out completely. We caught up with the Bishop (yes, he keeps the honorific for life) to find out how he's been keeping busy since leaving the church.

Out: How have you been keeping busy since you retired and moved to D.C.?

Bishop Gene Robinson: I'm working halftime as a senior fellow at a progressive think tank called the Center for American Progress; it was a think tank founded by John Podesta, who was Bill Clinton's chief of staff and then was on Obama's transition team. I am attached to the LGBT team, but John wanted me to come and bring a moral voice to all the issues facing us, so I kind of have a wide-open portfolio. I do a lot of LGBT stuff, obviously, but I've also been writing lately about racism, immigrations reform, and poverty. I've been looking a lot at intersectionality: how all the various oppressions affect each other and the fact that we have more in common than that which separates us.

What aspects from your extensive LGBT advocacy carried over advocacy on race, poverty, etc.?

My working theory is that oppression operates similarly no matter where it is or who it victimizes. So it's been interesting to see how the dynamics of oppression work themselves out in the communities of color and handicapped people, women, the poor, and undocumented workers. But if we work together, then all of us stand a chance. My over-arching theme for this part of my life has become: "Is the LGBT community mature enough to worry about things that don't necessarily directly affect us?" Are we only about justice for LGBT people, or are we about justice? What I'm using this platform to do is make LGBT people aware of the similar ways oppression is working itself out with these other groups. We should be supporting them and showing up for their events if we expect them to show up for ours.

With all the progress the LGBT community has made this year, have there been any standout moments for you?

All of us have just been so stunned and delighted by the rapid spread of marriage equality. And yet, one of the things I've been speaking about around the country, is that in at least in 10 states, you can get married now, and then be fired from your job the next day for being gay, without any recourse from the courts. There's no anti-discrimination laws in place in the workplace. So we have this oddity where we've made this enormous progress in marriage equality, but in terms of regular workplace protection and public accommodations, we're still lagging behind. My great fear is that activists and wealthy donors on the two coasts, once we've got marriage equality, will think the work is done -- when in fact it is not. I'm writing a piece right now about how, when we think of gay couples, we think of reasonably wealthy, employed, white, gay men - and in fact, the more common way in which we exhibit ourselves is, a pair of African-American lesbians, raising four kids near the poverty line in Mississippi. And if you live in one of these bubbles of acceptance, it's hard to remember that we've got an awful lot of people in our community that've been left behind.

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Bishop Gene Robinson and his husband Mark Andrew

Where else have you been doing LGBT advocacy if the coasts seem like they're pretty much on the right track?

I spent 10 days this July down in El Salvador working with the emerging LGBT movement there. It was fascinating, heartbreaking, and incredibly dangerous. The country is practically ruled by two violent gangs and the government just protects the few families that control the majority of the wealth. I spoke with one mother whose 15-year-old son they tried to draft into one of the gangs, and he resisted. So, in front of her, they killed him, and then raped his 13-year-old sister multiple times. Then killed her too. All in front of their mother. So it's really interesting to be on the front end of the pipeline of children arriving at our borders, and to see the violent situations that they're living in. You quickly understand why a parent, who loves their kids, would send them north, as dangerous as that is; it's less dangerous than keeping them in El Salvador or Honduras.

Do the LGBT people there have anywhere they can go and feel safe?

The episcopal church of El Salvador, which is tiny compared to the overwhelmingly Catholic majority, is literally leading the way for the LGBT rights, acceptance, and inclusion in the country. It is a just an astoundingly courageous ministry. They had a small pride parade -- I think it was a block long or something -- and then, within three days after the pride parade, four of the people involved were murdered.

I also went to a prison there, which is grim beyond anything you can imagine, and met with the incarcerated LGBT community who have to be kept separate from the other prisoners to keep them safe. I'd say half to two-thirds of them were transgender women that were just remarkable. They're in prison right? And they have prison clothes, and they had tied those prison clothes into the most creative outfits and somehow they got high heels, and they had done each other's hair, and they came in tall and proud, and beautiful. It was just astounding to see in the midst of this grim, grim prison situation.

With the United States' noticeable steady progress regarding LGBT equality, what do you hope happens next year along the lines of LGBT rights?

I think that the next big push for us is around public accommodation and workplace protection. I think where we will be headed with that is an attempt to amend the civil rights law to add sexual orientation and gender expression to its parameters. The other thing that I would say we should pay a lot of attention to, and this is sort of right up my alley being a religious person, is the way the religious conservative right has realized that they've lost the marriage battle, but what they're turning all their attention, money, and activity towards, is that they think they should be exempt from any of these anti-discrimination laws based on religious belief. They're going to attempt, just through countless lawsuits and so on, to skirt around those anti-discrimination laws, by claiming "religious liberty."

What are you doing to help raise awareness for workplace protection and a possible Civil Rights Act amendment?

I'm now attempting to do more of my public speaking and teaching in the hinterlands -- not the coasts, not the liberal bastions, but in those places where acceptance is clearly not the order of the day and the protections are not in place. Since I've retired, I've spoken in Iowa, Idaho, and Montana, and I'm going to North Carolina next month. I think in many ways, we've picked the low-hanging fruit on the two coasts, and now the really tough work begins in those places that have not seen the acceptance and inclusion that we're kind of used to in some places now. Like I said, I'm working hard to have our community not think the work is over when so many people are actually still left behind.

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