Robinson documentary takes center stage at Sundance

[Religion News Serivce] It’s been years since the incident, but Bishop Gene Robinson’s heart still races when he sees it on film.

Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first openly bishop, was preaching in London when a man in the audience stood and began yelling at him. The heckler waved a motorcycle helmet in his hand as he ranted. Robinson silently wondered if he was hiding a gun or a bomb beneath it.

Ultimately, the man was escorted from the church, but the moment reminded everyone, including Robinson, of the risks of taking a stand.

It’s one of many moments — some suspenseful, some inspiring, some heartbreaking — captured in “Love Free or Die,” a documentary about Robinson that’s premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

“As far as we’ve come in terms of equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, we still have a long way to go, particularly in the central part of the country,” Robinson said in an interview.

“If my story can help a young boy or girl in their teens believe they can have a wonderful and productive life and family, then it’s worth my putting up with a film crew following me around for two years in order to comfort and inspire them.”

The film follows Robinson as the church grapples with how to handle lesbian and gay issues. Robinson’s election brought to a head divisions between liberal and conservative Episcopalians, and between the U.S. church and more conservative members of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Filmmakers followed Robinson to England in 2008, where he was excluded from the Anglicans’ Lambeth Conference of bishops. And they followed him to the Episcopal Church’s 2009 General Convention, where leaders voted to allow blessings of same-sex marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships (where legal) and allow gay men and women to become bishops.

Along the way, they interviewed Robinson, his family and other church leaders, many of whom supported his quest for equality and some of whom did not. In one scene, a woman sobs that she is torn between wanting to do what’s best for the people around her while also remaining true to Scripture.

Filmmakers also interviewed other gay church leaders, including former Utah Episcopal Bishop Otis Charles, who came out after he retired.

“It’s like trying to put on a suit that doesn’t fit,” Charles says in the documentary of trying to hide his sexual orientation.

Sandra Itkoff, the film’s producer, said she was surprised how many people still live cloaked existences.

“Gay people live in many of our communities in seemingly comfortable situations,” Itkoff said, “and we don’t remember how precarious many aspects of their lives really are.”

Robinson sees himself as part of a new generation of church leaders who want to be open and honest about whom they are. He wants to show that people need not choose between their faith and their sexuality.

“The church asks its clergy to climb into the pulpit every week and call people to a life of integrity, but for countless generations it’s asked its gay and lesbian clergy to live a life without integrity while calling on other people to do it, and that just seems crazy to me,” Robinson said. “I think people are drawn to a religion that supports integrity and honesty and openness.”

It’s a message Robinson and filmmakers know could resonate, especially in Utah, home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which opposes same-sex marriage.

“My hope,” Robinson said, “would be the Mormon church and other conservative churches would see the difference between civil rights for LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) people and whatever theological stance the church might take.”

Director Macky Alston called Robinson a “historic figure” who has inspired many to see homosexuality in a new light. Though Alston knew Robinson before they started filming, the bishop still took his breath away at times, particularly during the clash in the London church.

“Tears were just streaming down my face because I had come to already love the guy,” Alston said, “but it was also the moment I recognized that he’s put his life on the line and made himself entirely vulnerable for my freedom.”

It’s a vulnerability Robinson has lived with for some time, and he knows this film could raise his profile even higher. But the exposure doesn’t bother Robinson. He welcomes it.

“My husband, Mark, and I had to decide very early on about the safety issue,” Robinson said, “and what we decided was if you live your life in fear, it’s not much of a life worth living. So we decided to put that in God’s hands and do what we felt was right and speak out whenever we could.”

— Lisa Schencker writes for The Salt Lake Tribune.


  1. The Rev. Dr. Charles H. Morris says:

    I think this wonderful man, pastor, preacher, priest and bishop will go down in history as a real hero of the faith in the 20th and 21st century. I admire him greatly. As a priest of this Church for 54 years and now almost 80, my views on LBGT matters have changed 180 degrees in just the last 25 years or so, including interpretations of relevant biblical passages. Writers and personages of the Bible did not have any inkling of what being gay or lesbian really was. When I finally came to know people of different sexuality than mine as persons, including their biographies, my views gradually and totally changed from judgmental (and being afraid) to accepting and caring–and being concerned about the injustice they face throughout life, and the suffering they endure through no fault of their own. Among my friends and colleagues now are a gay medical doctor, a gay attorney, and LBGT school teachers, deacons, priests and bishops, as well as fellow parishioners. And because of this my life in these recent decades has been richly blessed.

    (Just a grammar note on the writing: It should be “who” and not “whom” in the 7th paragraph from the end.)

    • Rosemary Bagin says:

      To Rev. Dr. Charles Morris,
      I too think highly of Bishop Gene Robinson but could not have expressed my thoughts as well as you have.

  2. The Rev. Gretchen R. Naugle says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I have followed Bishop Robinson’s story ever since he was elected Bishop–and this is a wonderful next chapter–and I hope there will be many more.

  3. thomas mauro says:

    It is well that such a documentary be done. Bishop Robinson’s story is that of a courageous man whose forthrightness is a beacon of social justice and integrity. The film should be widely viewed.

  4. Tlhe Rev. Robert A. Terrill says:

    I think I would like to see the film. He is a couragous man who stood up for what he was and by example, encouraged all of us to try more earnestly to connect who we are with the gospel we believe and preach.

  5. I knew Gene before he was bishop and was honored to have Mark and Gene in my home. I’ve come a long way myself, being a “Southern girl,” sheltered from much and if anyone had said to me 25 years ago that I would marry a woman, have a kid and be a priest who is accepted and loved in the Episcopal Church, I would have said, “no way.” How blessed my life has been and how important that +Gene, my beloved wife, also an Episcopal priest who took those same risks, and others are making a difference in the Church and in the world. I’m so excited about the movie and can’t wait to see it. Charles, I loved your comments.

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