Gay Rights In America: Past, Present And Future

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Salt Lake City has unanimously passed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment and housing. And a measure legalizing same-sex marriage is moving forward in Washington, D.C. Eugene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, weighs in on the state of gay rights in America.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan, in Washington.

Theres been mixed news of late for gay rights advocates. President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard Act, which extends federal hate crimes protection to people attacked for their sexual orientation. Voters in Washington State granted same-sex partners the same rights married couples enjoy. Gay marriage legislation is moving ahead in Washington, D.C., but it is stalled in the New York State Senate. Last week, voters in Maine repealed gay marriage in a referendum. And more than 10 months after the election of President Obama, dont ask, dont tell remains the policy of the United States military.

Of course, gay rights are not measured only by the passage of one law and the defeat of another, but it seems like an interesting moment to talk with Eugene Robinson, a man whos been at the center of controversy since he became the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church.

We want you to tell us whats happening on gay rights where you live, in your community or in your church. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later on in the program, West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton will join us here in Studio 3A.

But first, Reverend Gene Robinson, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, joins us from the studios of New Hampshire Public Radio. And thanks very much for coming in. Nice to talk to you again.

Bishop GENE ROBINSON (Episcopal Minister, New Hampshire Diocese): Im delighted to be here, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: And since we last spoke in January, it seems as if the divisions within the Episcopal Church on the issue of gay bishops, if anything, theyve only gotten deeper.

Bishop ROBINSON: Im not sure if thats true. I think that those who have been unhappy with the direction that the Episcopal Church has been taking perhaps continue to be unhappy. But the fact of the matter is the vast, vast majority of the Episcopal Church is getting on with the preaching of the Gospel and feeding of the hungry and caring for the poor, as were called to do.

I think there is a new kind of peacefulness, really, in the Episcopal Church, as evidenced in its general convention this summer. You know, six years ago, when my consent came up for a vote, there was a lot of anxiety and so on. But that vote was quite clear. Three years later, at our general convention, I think the Episcopal Church was wondering, well, maybe we didnt do the right thing. Weve gotten a lot of negative input from overseas and around the Anglican Communion. But by this summer, it seemed to me that the Episcopal Church had decided, yes, indeed, the full inclusion of gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people is what we are meant to do. We are meant to love all of Gods children, and that includes Gods gay children. And so, I actually sensed a real peacefulness.

CONAN: I wonder what you made of the announcement by the Catholic Church that those unhappy - those Episcopalians unhappy may want to come over to their side of this ancient divide.

Bishop ROBINSON: Well, I - you know, I certainly wish them well if they want to go. I have to say that gathering a group of folks based on their disdain for both gay and lesbian people, as well as women, is not a great basis for a church, I dont think. It seems to me that God wants us to be expansive in our love of humankind and not making second class citizens out of, what, roughly half the world being women, and gay and lesbian people. It seems like a terrible reason to be reuniting.

And I also think that the pope may be opening up some - a can of worms here that he may not even understand in the sense that if I were a celibate Roman Catholic priest, I would look over at these married Episcopal priests coming into the church with their wives and their children and wonder, well, if its okay for them to be married and have children and still be a priest, why isnt it okay for me?

CONAN: Just some of the interesting questions that arise on this. But I wanted to ask you more broadly, given what weve seen at the polls and in legislatures of late, theres been a feeling, I think, by gay rights advocates that, yes, they are eddies, there are backwaters, but nevertheless they feel theyre on the right side of the tide of history, if you will forgive the metaphor. Do you still think thats broadly accurate?

Bishop ROBINSON: Yes, I do. You know, most of what Ive learned about our own movement for full civil rights as gay and lesbian people, I learned from the civil rights movement of the 60s, this is really to be expected. We are trying to change the way people think, and they have thought that way for a very, very long time. As more and more of us come out and people know us to be human beings, to be their teachers and their firemen and their lawyers and their next-door neighbors, as more and more people get to know us as human beings, people are less and less likely to treat us as the other because they know us that way.

You know, 20 years ago, most people in America would have told you that they didnt know anyone gay. Well, they might have worried about, you know, weird Uncle Harold, or they might have mentioned those two lovely spinster ladies who have lived together down at the end of the street forever. But they didnt know anyone who was proud and unashamed of their sexual orientation as a gay person. Now, theres hardly a family left in America, is there, that doesnt know some family member, some coworkers, some former classmate to be gay.

And so, as that begins to take hold - when people talk about this issue, its not just an issue anymore, because Sams face comes up or Sallys face comes up. And the things they are - that they used to be willing to say or think about homosexual people, theyre no longer willing to think that because, frankly, they know thats not true of Sam or Sally.

CONAN: Gene Robinson, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, is with us from the New Hampshire Public Radio. If youd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And lets go to Greg, Greg calling us from Salt Lake City.

GREG (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to find out -just last couple of days, the Salt Lake City Council unanimously passed an ordinance - made it illegal to discriminate against gays in housing

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

GREG: and in visitation and all of these things that theyve been - you know, the gay community has been looking for. And strangely enough, the LDS Church has actually backed it. They were big donators, as you know, to Proposition 8 in California. So, again, you know, this is the step in the right direction. But, boy, weve got a long way to go before gay marriage is legal and sanctioned by the state.

CONAN: Just a reminder, Proposition 8 was to overturn gay marriage in the state of California. But Bishop Robinson?

Bishop ROBINSON: You know, Im so encouraged about what just happened in Salt Lake City, Greg. I was there not too long ago and talking with some of the leaders there. And there seemed to be an indication that the Mormon Church was at least at the very beginning of rethinking their stance on this. And they realized that with their input into the Prop 8 fight in California, that their standing as a national denomination really had suffered from that. And I think this may be the first gentle melting of what has been a pretty solid opposition on their part, and I really congratulate them for that.

GREG: Yes.

Bishop ROBINSON: Once you start treating gay people like human beings, theres kind of no into it until we have our full rights.

GREG: Yeah. It was a big black eye for the church, I think, when they supported the Proposition 8. And I think this is, again, a step in the right direction for everyone involved. But we've got a long way to go.

CONAN: Greg, thanks for the call.

GREG: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it.

And Gene Robinson, you used the expression civil rights. As you know, this became an issue in the battle over Proposition 8 in California, where it was not - just not the Mormon church that was opposed to the gay rights issue, but a lot of African-American churches, a lot of African-Americans who resented the application of the term civil rights to an issue that they thought this did not have any parallel.

Bishop ROBINSON: The discussion with the African-American community is very complex. And I'm the last person in the world to say to the African-American community what they should be thinking or doing. What I will say is that the dynamics that operate in any kind of oppression are similar. And the way in which we took our prejudice against black people in this country and turned it into laws and customs and Jim Crow laws and voter registration restrictions is the same kind of dynamic that goes on when we favor heterosexual people over homosexual people. We don't allow them to serve openly in the military. We don't allow them the secular privilege of marriage.

And remember, we're talking about the secular state here. No one is saying that a church or synagogue or mosque has to preside over a gay wedding. What we're saying is that marriage is a civil institution. When you get divorced, you don't go back to the church or synagogue for your divorce. You go to the courts, because it is, indeed, the state that effects the marriage. And that has gotten very confused in this country because we have deputized clergy of all stripes to act as agents of the state.

But when you go to a wedding, you don't know when the civil part begins and ends, and the religious part begins and ends. And I think if we could separate those two things, many, many people who are opposed to gay marriage and will never be a part of one will see that the civil right to marriage is something that is due all of our citizens. And really, it is something that religions should stay out of.

We're always worried in the separation of church and state debate, that the state will impinge on the church. But I think this is an instance in which the church is trying to impinge on the state and impose its own values on the civil society.

CONAN: And just to stem the flow of the emails, which I know were coming, I think Bishop Robinson is absolutely right very broadly on the question of divorce. But, yes, there are religious courts that do have jurisdiction over some Jewish marriages. So

Bishop ROBINSON: Yes, you're right. Thank you.

CONAN: But here's an email from Cathy(ph) in Catonsville, Maryland. I'm a Unitarian Universalist. My church has been out front in the fight for gay rights and the right to marry. The first of our seven principles is we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Make no mistake, she writes, this is a fight for civil rights.

And, well, we'll continue this conversation when we come back from a short break. Our guest is Gene Robinson, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire.

If you'd like to join the conversation: What's happening on gay rights issues where you live? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Our guest today is Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. And we're talking, well, about gay rights - not just in his church, but broadly in the United States of America.

How do we measure progress and what is happening where you live? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And let's go next to Jennifer, Jennifer with us from Macomb, Illinois.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JENNIFER: Yeah. I belong to the Episcopal Diocese of Quincy. I'm sure Bishop Robinson is familiar with the fact that this is one of the dioceses that broke off. However, a small portion of us have been remaining faithful to the Episcopal Church, and its just really exciting to finally, actually worship as Episcopalians not under the auspices of the prejudices and the, you know, the meanness, basically, that was going on before.

CONAN: What happened in your congregation?

JENNIFER: We had a vote and a small majority - well, a small majority decided to leave the Episcopal Church.

CONAN: And what did the minority decided to do?

JENNIFER: And the minority decided we wanted to stay Episcopalian. And right now, they have the church building and they have all the property and weve been meeting in a Lutheran Church, but its been very, very vibrant for us to meet there. We had the first woman priest says mass in this town ever three weeks ago. And this Sunday were having the same person come back, and so itll be the second time in this town a woman will have said mass. And its very exciting. Its very exciting.

CONAN: And do you see this division healing or widening?

JENNIFER: Well, probably widening, unfortunately. I know that right now, were having to go through courts - the court system to get our stuff - you know, basically, the churchs property back.

CONAN: And that rarely promotes healing.

JENNIFER: No. No. And its very sad because just the acrimony thats going on between the two congregations, and thats not what Christ taught us to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JENNIFER: And, oh, its - it really is taking away from the mission of a church.

CONAN: And Bishop Robinson, once it gets to the point of a, you know, when lawyers got involved, its rarely a good sign.

Bishop ROBINSON: It is rarely a good sign, and it is tough to know how to play this out. But, you know, what I would say to Jennifer, as she well knows, three of the four dioceses - including her own - that I have attempted to leave the Episcopal Church, are the three dioceses that still, to this day, refused to ordain women to the priesthood.

And what I would say to her is when youre in the middle of all of this acrimony and unfortunate turn of events, having to turn to the courts and so on, I want you to think about of the little girl who was in church and sees a woman standing behind the altar celebrating the Holy Communion and what that means to that girl, that her gifts for ministry are every bit as fine and God-given as the little boys who is next to her, and think of the change that youre making in that kids life and in so many others.

Theres no wonder to me that it feels vibrant to you, because it is exactly that. And I think that you are putting people in touch with the living God who wants to include all of Gods children.

CONAN: Hmm.

JENNIFER: Well, thats were trying to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Jennifer, good luck with that.

JENNIFER: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Heres an email we have from Mark in Phoenix. Here in Arizona, Prop 102 was passed by voters in 2008 which amended the state Constitution to define marriage to be only between a man and a woman. This is quite frustrating to my partner and I, as we have been together now for over five-and-a-half years. I feel there is still intolerance of gay marriage here in Arizona, but I feel that we are making baby steps towards marriage equality. I would like to see gay marriage fully legal before we die, similar to Canada, Sweden and Norway and a handful of other countries.

And Arizona, of course, I dont have the number of the top of my head, but well over a dozen states have amended their constitutions, which, of course, is going to make it extremely difficult to un-amend them.

Bishop ROBINSON: Thats true. You know, we were talking about the civil rights movement of the 60s before, and I find that movement so inspiring. Black Americans across this nation went out into the streets knowing that they were going to face snarling dogs and fire hoses and sometimes death, and they did it anyway because they kept the big prize in mind. And that was their full citizenship in this country, their real freedom as promised in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And so I think, you know, its going to take some time. Some of us may not - Im sure Im older than Mark.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Bishop ROBINSON: Some of us may not live to see it, but its enough that we take our place in this great march forward, because, you know, we know where this is going to end. That - I know where this is going to end. Its going to end with the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the life of the society and in the life of our religious communities.

I believe thats where God wants us to go. And, you know, Im always nervous -even as a religious person - to claim that I know what God thinks. But everything that I read in a Holy Scripture tells me that that Gods love is more expansive, deeper, wider, broader than anything we can imagine, and that God is so much better at loving us than we are at loving each other. And so I think as we move forward in this, we just need to keep that prize in mind, both for our religious institutions, as well as for the culture.

CONAN: And you may have that optimism. Nevertheless, I wouldnt pretend to know anything about Gods plan, or if there is one. But nevertheless, a political strategist can look at whats happened and say every time voters have had the opportunity to vote on this issue, they have voted the other way.

Bishop ROBINSON: Well, does anyone think that the elimination of Jim Crow laws or the Voter Registration Act would have survived a popular vote in the South or perhaps anywhere else in America in the early 60s? I think not. And the notion of putting anyones civil rights up for a vote is just preposterous in the American dream. After all, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights protects the vulnerable minorities from the will of the majority. So I think the prior question to be asked is: Is this an appropriate thing to put up for a vote in the first place?

CONAN: Lets see if we can get another caller in. Lets go next to Ashley(ph), Ashley, with us from Kansas City.

ASHLEY (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

ASHLEY: My question was, recently on the blogosphere, theres been a call for a moratorium on donations to the Obama campaign and to the DNC

CONAN: Democratic National Committee. Yeah.

ASHLEY: Yes. Sorry. And - until Obama makes good on some campaign promises.

CONAN: Primarily dont ask, dont tell, I would think it would be

ASHLEY: Dont ask, dont tell, DOMA

CONAN: Thats the Defense of Marriage Act.

ASHLEY: And - yes. And so I was wondering at what point do you - does the bishop think its time to kind of act with your feet, or if this is a good strategy for getting civil rights and getting the administration to you sit up and take notice?

Bishop ROBINSON: Its a great question, Ashley, and a really important one. I think theres a differencebetween picking a fight with the president and holding his feet to the fire. And I would be the first to get in line to hold his feet to the fire about the promises that he made to us. On the other hand, I think it is simply crazy to pick a fight with, obviously, the most gay-friendly president we have ever had and may have for a long time.

Ive been to Washington, to the White House, and have talked with people. I still firmly believe that President Obama has it in his mind to keep his campaign promises and to the things that he told us he would do and to eliminate these draconian measures that have been enacted before.

What he doesnt want to do is what Bill Clinton wound up doing, which is, for instance, proposing the inclusion of gay soldiers in the military. And what we wound up with was dont ask, dont tell, which is actually far worse than what preceded it. And lets remember it was Bill Clinton under whom the Defense of Marriage Act was signed. I think President Obama is committed to doing this slowly and well so that we dont have that kind of reaction. And I think for us to pick a fight with him at this point is simply against our best interest. Now, if he doesnt come through on that, I will join right in with you. But lets - I mean, lets get a grip.

CONAN: All right. Lets

Bishop ROBINSON: Hes only been here for eight months.

CONAN: So how long?

Bishop ROBINSON: So, I think that well see the end of dont ask, dont tell sometime mid next year. I think thats appropriate. We heard from Barney Frank just yesterday that it looks like its going to be attached to a defense appropriations bill. I think the administration has made really good on its testimony against the Defense of Marriage Act already. And I think we will see these things taken care of by the end of President Obamas term. But I think by the end of next year, well see several of them already underway.

CONAN: Ashley, thanks very much for the call.

ASHLEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Lets get in a call from New Hampshire. This is Sidney(ph), Sidney calling us from Hooksett in New Hampshire.

SIDNEY (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to say that as I thought about this issue, to me the word marriage connotes a partnering of two different things, whether its a cheese and a wine, a great sauce with a meat, any one of this and one of that that got well together. And Ive just been wondering why is it that this word marriage is so important to homosexual couples? I have no problem with them having every single legal right that a heterosexual married couple would have, but the word marriage troubles me because it does not mean or connote two of the same things.

Bishop ROBINSON: Marriage, the word, does have a lot of power. But I think I would ask you back if the word doesnt mean all that much, then why do heterosexuals want to hold on to it as their very own? I think words do matter. And what it matters for us is this: It has a lot to do with respect and recognition. If my partner is in a car accident and Im running into the hospital to make medical decisions for him, I dont want to have to stop and explain what a civil union is, and what the parameters of that and what are my responsibilities and what are my obligations.

If I say that Im this mans husband, then its very clear what my rights are. I can get into the hospital. I can make those decisions. Anything less than marriage is simply not equal, and we learned a long time ago that separate is not the same as equal. And I think thats why this word means so much to us. And at a time when marriage clearly is in trouble - and by the way, it was in trouble a long time before gay people wanted to be married. At a time when its in trouble, it should be kind of refreshing that so many gay and lesbian couples want to embrace that institution and to live fully into it and live by all of its obligations and to have these kinds of faithful, monogamous lifelong intentioned relationships sanctioned in marriage.

CONAN: Sidney

SIDNEY: I have no problem with people being in a lifelong, faithful monogamous relationship. But I guess I would ask the same question of homosexual couples, why - that you ask of a heterosexual couple, why the word marriage - when it does connote two different things - and I think that society, we are - where we can easily grasp what a civil union means and - or (unintelligible) other than marriage.

CONAN: Sidney, I suspect were not going to change any minds here in the next couple of minutes. But thank you very much for your phone call.

Bishop ROBINSON: I think it is important to note, Neal, that the definition of marriage has actually changed quite a lot over its history. Most recently, of course, only 30 or so - 40 years ago, in most states, President Obamas parents could not have been married because interracial marriages were not tolerated. And so, this notion that marriage has always been the same thing since the beginning of time is just simply not true. And I would say that this is just the latest evolution.

CONAN: Our guest, Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. Youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And as we mentioned near the beginning, there are cultural yardsticks that we use to measure this, as well as these legal issues that weve been talking about in votes in various places, referenda, votes by state legislatures, votes by Courts of Appeal, for that matter. As you look at popular culture, do you -there are more and more gay characters on television, it seems, and in the movies. Do you embrace that? Do you accept that? Or - some people would say on the other side, might say with this another cultural imposition from the coasts.

Bishop ROBINSON: I think it is just simply the development of our time, you know. Everything has its moment, and this is the moment when perhaps even coming out of the AIDS crisis - you know, that was a terrible and awful thing. But perhaps the one bright light coming out of that is that so many Americans discovered that they knew someone gay because they got sick and they died. And it began this kind of feeling in the gay community that we have to stand up and be who we are. And religious people have really played an enormous role in this, because as religious people, we believe that God loves us as we are - not because were perfect, but because were Gods children.

And to face into the kind of criticism that has always come from religious institutions has been a big task for us. I mean, lets be honest. Ninety-five percent of the discrimination that we experience come at the hands of religious people and religious institutions. And we have let the Christian right speak -or at least attempt to speak, purport to speak for all Christians everywhere. And the fact of the matter is that many Christians and Jews - and Muslims, even, today - are finding their way through their - those sacred texts and understanding that they do not necessarily say what they seem to be saying, and that indeed this is just another progression in Gods - in our perception of Gods love for us all.

CONAN: Yet there are plenty of people, as you well know, who will say - we have 30 seconds left, so I hate to bring this up at this moment, but read Leviticus, and say how can that not mean what it says it means?

Bishop ROBINSON: Well, perhaps we can talk about this after the break, but some of the people who are saying that couldnt find Leviticus in the Bible if their life is dependent on it.

CONAN: Well, some of them can, too. But in any case, we have Ofeibea Quist-Arcton coming up with us after the break. Perhaps well discuss it next time you join us on the program, sir.

Bishop ROBINSON: Terrific.

CONAN: Gene Robinson, thank you very much for your time today.

Bishop ROBINSON: Its been my delight. Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Gene Robinson, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, joined us from the studios of New Hampshire Public Radio in Concorde.

Coming up - well, as we mentioned, you usually hear her stories as she travels through Rwanda, Guinea and through Senegal. Shes made the capital of that country, Dakar, one of the best known bylines in broadcasting today. NPR West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joins us right here in Studio 3A. If youd like to speak with her about her stories, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. Im Neal Conan. Its the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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