Ever since Gene Robinson was consecrated as a bishop of the Episcopal Church in November 2003, it seems to have become de rigeur for gay organizations to have him speak at their confabs or appears at public events alongside their president. He has addressed Log Cabin, appeared at a press conference with Human Rights Campaign (HRC) head Joe Solmonese and spoke most recently to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s (NGLTF) Creating Change Conference earlier this year.
As he speaks to these groups, Robinson, the first openly gay non-celibate individual to attain such a lofty clerical position in a mainstream church seems to be becoming more a gay celebrity than spiritual leader. Note, my use of the verb “seem” in the preceding sentence. He may well be doing excellent work in his New Hampshire diocese–and I certainly hope that he is.
It seems, however, we only read about him in articles and blog posts on gay issues — and not theological ones. I fear that becoming a gay celebrity, he is compromising his chances to change the image people of faith have of gay men and lesbians.
If after all the hullabaloo over his election had passed and he just focused on his job, people would see this bishop not as a man who dwells on his sexuality, but as a bishop like other bishops, just one who happens to be gay. They would thus better see that when one lives openly as a gay man (or lesbian), one’s sexuality is not the defining factor of his life, but just one aspect of it.
The more often he appears at gay confabs, the more likely it becomes that people see him as defining his life by his sexuality.
Seeing Robinson as a gay celebrity reminds me of the trajectory of the career of my favorite TV talk show hostess, Ellen de Generes. Whenshe came out with similar hullabaloo in 1997, making the cover of Time, she appeared to dwell on her sexuality. Nearly every episode of her sitcom the following year had a lesbian theme. Fewer and fewer people watched the show; it was canceled at the end of that season.
Five years later, she launched a daytime talk show where, instead of focusing on her own sexuality, she focused on her guests, using her own good humor and stage presence to draw them out, engaging them in thoughtful and amusing discourse while entertaining her audiences.
Her ratings have soared and her accolades have grown. She has won numerous Daytime Emma Awards. She has simultaneously increased her pop culture presence, appearing in print ads and on magazine covers, most recently Entertainment Weekly. She has accomplished all this simply by doing her job as a talk show host who happens to be a lesbian rather than as a lesbian entertainer.
As a result, people see how normal most lesbians are (well, in Ellen’s case, beyond normal in her ability to entertain), that our sexuality is just one aspect of our lives. That is why Robinson’s prominence on the gay political circuit troubles me. It seems his sexuality has come to define his public life.
He could accomplish far more for gay people just by focusing on his clerical duties. People know him to be gay. Let him show that the first openly gay bishop is no different from his predecessors and colleagues. Let him succeed as Ellen has these past five years, a public figure whose sexuality is incidental to her life.