Saturday, April 19, 2008

Thank You, +Gene

I’ve just listened to an amazing interview of Bishop Gene Robinson by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet, I recommend it. Hearing him on the radio immediately took me back to the summer of 2003 when the confirmation of his election as the bishop of New Hampshire came before the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (an event that takes place once every three years). The summer of 2003, as the confirmation of +Gene’s election ushered in a new chapter in the Anglican Communion sexuality wars, I was also at a transitional moment within an already transitional year. I had begun gender transition the Spring of ’02 in Massachusetts and had decided I needed a year away from the two other processes I was in the midst of, that toward priestly ordination (“The Process,” as it’s often labeled, which cracks up my non-Episcopal friends) and my doctorate. My partner was finishing a post-doctoral fellowship in my hometown, the San Francisco Bay Area, in 2002-3, and with all the changes in our lives we had decided I needed to take time out and be with her and other members of my family. At the end of this strangely magical year in California, we were now preparing to return to Massachusetts where other major life “processes” would come back to the fore.

Part of the lead-up to this re-entry involved a summer language course at Cal Berkeley, preparation for a German language exam for my doctoral program back in MA. Three mornings each week, shortly after dawn, I would drive from the South Bay up to Berkeley in “Mo,” a “Great White Whale” of an “Olds Eighty-Eight” hand-me-down received from my dad a couple years earlier. As Mo’s cavernous, blue velour interior bore me up the highway in oceanic heaves, I would listen to radio reports on +Gene and General Convention. Some of the extreme comments from the right wing of the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion were hard to listen to, but +Gene’s courageous calm, accompanied by a refusal to be a doormat, endeared him to me forever. Thank God for him, I thought then and, indeed, now. When he was judged, I couldn’t help but take it quite personally, as did so many LGBTQ people. I identified with +Gene particularly because of the ambiguous place in which my ordination process stood at that time – I was out to my bishops, the Commission on Ministry and the Standing Committee, but the following year I would be meeting with them all again. All had been very respectful and supportive, but I also knew that there were no guarantees. As the controversy over +Gene’s process intensified, I couldn’t help but wonder if my own ordination process would grind to a halt. That November of ’03 after our return to Massachusetts, I was ecstatic when +Gene was made a bishop. I wasn’t in New Hampshire that day, but my heart was with him. It helped carry me through the intensity of re-entry and toward a joyous Spring: in June of 2004, I was ordained to the diaconate. Priestly ordination would follow in January of 2005.

The Autumn between my ordinations I heard +Gene speak at a packed forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He shared the stage with Rabbi Steve Greenberg, author of Wrestling with God and Men and interviewee in the film Trembling Before God. Both were extremely moving and articulate. After the event, I made my way through the crowd to meet +Gene. I told him how much I was inspired by his honesty, courage and faithfulness. I also asked him to please pray for transgender people in the Episcopal Church and beyond. He gave me a big hug and assured me that he would.

This week all of this came back to me as I listened to the interview with Terry Gross. At one point (at about 17:20 in the 38-minute-long interview), Gene says, “on behalf of gay and lesbian people, bisexual and transgender people, I’m not willing to let myself be used as a doormat or as some meaningless symbol just so someone can say they included me…. I’m not willing to be treated as less than human.” Terry Gross immediately asks him about his inclusion of bisexual and transgender people, not only in that instance of the interview but also in his new book In the Eye of the Storm: “and, in a way, a lot of people probably think you’re making your case even more difficult by including transgender people, because even a lot of people who accept homosexuality would draw the line at transgender — that would just be too much for them — so I think it’s interesting that you’ve been inclusive of them too in your statements about sexual orientation and gender, and I’d like you to explain why.” +Gene responds by saying, “in Jesus’ day people would have made the argument that, you know, all of this is nice words, Jesus, but you know we have to draw the line at lepers. Or, you know, I really like the way you deal with everyone, and you’re so kind but, you know, we just have to draw the line at prostitutes. Jesus was always in trouble for including everyone in God’s love and he spent most of his time with people at the margins — people who were oppressed, people who had been told for countless generations that they were not loved by God. And almost everything he did was related to bringing that good news to them. Which, by the way, didn’t sound like good news to the religious authorities of his time. But it did sound good to those who were marginalized.” He continues, “the fact of the matter is, gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are among those who have been marginalized both in the culture and in the church. You know, we’ve got a lot further to go, frankly, around issues of bisexuality and transgender folks, simply because they are less known to us, and so I’m not willing to jettison those two more perhaps controversial, or certainly less known categories of people just because it would keep me out of trouble. Jesus was always getting into trouble—he said, expect to get into trouble if you follow me, and so I think I’m in pretty good company.”

I very much appreciate that response, particularly in these months in which the transgender community continues to smart with anger from being dropped from Employment Nondiscrimination Act (which didn’t pass congress anyway). In fact I wonder if Terry Gross would have asked that question had the ENDA crisis not occurred. But what strikes me the most is +Gene’s insistent acknowledgment of bisexual and transgender people. He is certainly right that we are “less known” than our gay and lesbian counterparts; we are just emerging into public discourse both within and outside faith contexts (e.g., a previous blog entry ‘Transgender Moment?’). Those of us who contribute to this blog do so – not without trepidation for the amazing hostility that can be present in the church as well as outside it – precisely that we may be more known, and that our voices might join ongoing ecclesial conversation. So thank you very much, Bishop Gene, for your witness, inclusion and support. I continue to pray for you, and would very much appreciate your continued prayers as well.


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