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Equality Forum Day 2 (Part 1): “All Are Welcome” (or, “Gandalf is Cooking me Dinner”)

April 29th, 2009 No comments

How did the son of Kentucky tenant farmers, raised in a fundamentalist household without running water, become internationally (in)famous as the first openly gay clergyperson of a major Christian religion? The Rev. Gene Robinson, Episcopal bishop of the New Hampshire diocese, has no clear answer. Instead, he offered the packed house of about 200  at Tuesday’s Religious Colloquy his reimagining of the parting of the Red Sea.

Forget the Cecil B. DeMille version of the Ten Commandments, where Moses (aka Charlton Heston) parts the Red Sea, creating a wide boulevard for the fleeing Jews to march effortlessly across. It’s not that easy. Instead, imagine that Moses tentatively stuck his left foot in, and found just enough dry land to proceed. Then, he placed his right foot in. (No, he didn’t then do “the hokey pokey,” at least as far as Biblical scholars can tell.) He proceeded this way, one step at a time, until the arduous journey was complete. This repurposed parable stands both for Robinson’s own journey and for the slow but relentless push of the GLBT community toward equality, dignity, and justice. (Don’t expect to see the “other side” of  that struggle, he opined.)

In this engaging, often amusing, and always insightful way, Rev. Robinson (with the aid of local lesbian Rabbi Linda Holtzman, who played the tricky role of interviewer exceptionally well) held the dais with ease for almost an hour and a half. Holtzman, informed by Wikipedia — an admission that drew laughter from the audience and an uneasy silence from your humble blogger, who’d also boned up on Robinson via the same “peanut gallery” — asked a series of open-ended questions about his childhood, his faith, his relationships, and his well-known struggles with the Anglican Church. Along the way, we learned the limits of a Wikipedia education; plenty had been left out.

Robinson’s gift, as I see it, is the ability to connect spirituality with the coming-out struggles faced by every sexual minority, and to do so in a way that’s both deeply insightful and extremely accessible. For example, even as a kid he wasn’t able to relate to a stripe of religious fundamentalism that declared certain questions off limits; and as a youth realizing at about age 12 or 13 that he was different (and that he’d better not say anything about it), questions he had in ample supply.

These questions led him, on the religious side, to find a mentor who introduced him to the theologian Paul Tillich, for whom questions and answers exist in an endless dialectical relationship. On a parallel course, his relentless uncertainty about  his sexual identity (or, perhaps more to the point, what to do about it) led him to try a sort of conversion therapy (he “wants his money back”), then to a sort of panic shortly before his wedding, and then into, and finally out of, marriage to a woman with whom he had two children.

Throughout these stories, Robinson’s thoughtfulness emerges. I was especially taken by his description of how he and his wife unravelled their marital vows in a church once he came to accept his sexual identity: They released each other  from their vows, mutually returned their rings, wept, and then took communion together. This seemed to me a very healthy and honest willingness to confront what they were doing, and what they had, irrevocably, already done.

Not surprisingly, much of the discussion centered around Rev. Robinson’s ordination as bishop, and the still-evolving schism in the Anglican communion that it ultimately spawned. Here, the relentless questioner gives way to a man convinced that he’s done the right thing, and who will not “take the bait” of answering this  question: “How does it feel to be the one who has caused the break-up of the Church?” Well, the Anglican Church  hasn’t “broken up,” and in any case, Robinson sees himself as at the eye of the storm: calm amid deadly winds. Every step was “by the book,” he says. It’s other people’s actions and  beliefs in response that have caused the problem that some have sought to ascribe to him.

“But why not wait until everyone was ready, and everything was in place?” the former Archbishop of  Canterbury once asked him.

“When has anything significant ever happened in a way that was neat and tidy?” was essentially Rev. Robinson’s response, pointing to the controversy, some thirty years earlier, over the ordination of women. He also noted that many of the same people who were the most vocal in opposing that change have also led the campaign against him. It’s really about the slow crumbling of patriarchy (what isn’t?), and “they don’t like it.”

Gene Robinson was born for this role. He’s comfortable and consistently amusing before a large crowd. He also has the kind of deep confidence needed to tack through the storms that his ordination has generated. Yet pain, humiliation, and disappointment have been inescapable. It’s by now fairly well known that he wasn’t invited to the Archbishop’s Lambeth Conference last year. But it’s worse than that. In a separate interview, I asked the lawyer’s question: By what authority did the Archbishop exclude you? It turns out that the conference, held decenially since 1867, is the Archbishop’s “party,” and, to paraphrase Lesley Gore, he can “exclude whom he wants to.” It also turns out, according to Robinson, that he was the first duly ordained bishop ever to be excluded from the conference since  its inception.

Admittedly,  the Archbishop has a terribly difficult line to walk these days. (For evidence of how difficult, read this article in the March issue of The Atlantic.) And with specific reference to the Lambeth conference, this difficulty had reached a boiling point: Many prelates boycotted the conference because of  the church’s evolving view of sexuality. Whatever the Archbishop Rowan Williams’s difficulties, though, the reality was a personal affront to Bishop Robinson. Not only was he excluded, but pictures of him were placed at every entrance, so that security could identify and bar him if he showed up. The conference concluded with unintentionally cruel irony: The final blessing was “All Are Welcome.”

Of course, Rev. Robinson wasn’t about to venture where he wasn’t welcome. As a pretty cool consolation prize, he was invited to dinner with Sir Ian McKellen, the great Shakespearean actor now best known as Gandalf and Magneto. “Gandalf is cooking me dinner,” thought Robinson, incredulous. But his brave journey has taken him to fabulous places all over the world, none more so than the Presidential platform; on Inauguration Day, sitting some 20 feet from the about-to-be President, Robinson had a thought that neatly captures both  his own struggle and that of the oppressed more generally: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

I might end this long post there (look for a separate post on the National Racial panel later today), except that I can never resist Shakespeare. Robinson learned from McKellen that the only surviving work in Shakespeare’s own hand comes from Sir Thomas More, a train-wreck of a play that was written by committee. But scholars now generally agree that some three pages were indeed the immortal’s work. In his scene, Londoners were rioting over the presence of foreigners in their midst, demanding their expulsion. Sir Thomas More then addresses the mob, offering a dramatic metaphor that stands as a rebuke to all efforts to create and then demonize the “other”:

“For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.”
Categories: Gay Rights, religion, women's rights Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Puzzled Generation (Part One)

March 24th, 2009 No comments

It doesn’t matter how “out” you think you are. It’s always a work in progress, sometimes involving heavy emotional lifting. But mostly it’s just a minor annoyance, with a splash of nervousness thrown in. Sometimes the whole thing is just plain weird.

Two examples from our family’s recent trip to Florida, the only state demographically more wizened than my home state (Pennsylvania), make the point well enough. One morning, we (OK, I) drove desperately from Orlando down to Naples, mostly because I had scheduled myself to participate in that morning’s round-robin doubles tennis tournament. I arrived barely in time, and thus got to spend about an hour-and-a-half hitting tennis balls with men and women whose mean age was likely 70-75.

Knees and hips had been replaced, but assumptions were remarkably free of updates. At the conclusion of my match, when I mentioned that I needed to get back before my kids overran everyone, one (German) woman said: “So, your wife gives you time to do this?”

Trying to neither sigh visibly nor roll my eyes, I said something to the effect that I was in a same-sex relationship. Of course I then let her off the hook, saying that her question reflected a natural enough assumption. She mumbled something in agreement, and that was that. OK, big deal.

A few days later, now at my parents’ minimum security prison compound (“gated community”), another tennis encounter caused a remarkable case of unresolved dissonance. One of the players (call him “Steve” —  not his real name) was a man who knew my parents (not well), and who last year had used that information as a natural enough conversation starter.

But this year as we were playing, David and the kids showed up for a minute to check out what I was doing. It was clear that the four of us were a family, but this information threw Steve into a tizzy. For a while, he ceased his usual cheery banter. Then he asked me: “Are you the son of [Mr. and Mrs. Culhane]?” “Yes,” I  replied, and didn’t provide anything more. He hardly spoke a word to me after that for reasons I can only speculate on. But it was clear to me that he had little to no experience dealing with this kind of situation.

The faintly unsettling sequence of events reminded me of a comment I’d heard a few years ago, in a radio interview. The interviewee was an older guy whose opinion on marriage equality was simple but right on point: “Well, for a long time we pretended gay people didn’t exist. But now the cat is out of the bag, and once you see people, you’ve got to acknowledge that they have the same rights as you do.” His view was fairly well reflected by several of the other senior citizens on the tennis court with Steve; they were interested in the kids and how we came to become parents, and were empathetic and engaged.

Some older dogs can learn new tricks, it seems. But this post is Part One because there’s a much more bizarre (borderline unbelievable, to me) tale to tell apropos of this subject.  Tomorrow, maybe.

Categories: Gay Rights, Marriage Equality, tennis Tags: , ,