“This is really a man’s play,” observes Bishop Gene Robinson during the intermission of Kinky Boots. We are standing outside the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, and the bishop, natty in a bow tie, is smoking a Marlboro Light and slurping diet soda from a giant plastic souvenir cup. Yesterday, as we walked the High Line and then through Chelsea before settling, finally, on stools at the Stonewall Inn, the bishop had chosen to display himself as the gay icon that he is — the First Openly Gay Person to Be Consecrated Bishop in the Episcopal Church — in a violet shirt with a white collar and a gigantic gold pectoral cross, accessorized with a purple watchband, an ecclesiastical ring, and a diamond stud in one ear. (Passersby might not have been able to summon his name, but many smiled or lifted their chins in recognition of what he represented: a queer man of God.) Tonight, though, in his civvies, his eyes sparkling in his tan, pleasant face, he might be any other retirement-age Broadway geek, the kind of person who during his closeted 20s would have pored over the theater listings in the Sunday Times, drawn to the dancing and singing—and perhaps also to the company of other men who saw in each other something secret about themselves.
Robinson is right. In Kinky Boots, the most vivid and sexually compelling female characters have penises. The story centers on a friendship between two men — Charlie, the heir to a failing shoe factory, and Lola, a drag queen — who find that they share the deep childhood hurt of boys who failed to meet the expectations of demanding fathers and gradually become the men they yearn to be. Robinson sees his own biography in this story, he whispers to me, once we’re back inside the theater and the entr’acte starts up. His father, Victor, a tenant farmer from rural Kentucky, disapproved of Gene’s choices, too — though the worst of them was not his coming out, which occurred in 1986 when he was 39, after having been married for 14 years to a woman and fathering two daughters with her. Nor was it his decision to make a new life with a man, Mark Andrews, whom he met on vacation in the Caribbean. No, the thing that really rankled Victor Robinson occurred much earlier, in the late ’60s, when Gene was an undergraduate at the University of the South and declared himself a conscientious objector. Upon hearing about that, Victor — a World War II artilleryman — got in the car and drove 300 Kentucky and Tennessee miles to have it out with his son. Both father and son were unrelenting; a distance grew between them. Only this past year, over one weepy day touring the monuments in Washington, did they fully heal their relationship. “It’s so great he lived long enough to love me for who I am,” Robinson says.
It is hard to be a human symbol of a social revolution, with your picture in the paper and death threats clogging your email in-box and bulletproof garments under your vestments. Public opinion on homosexuality has, of course, reversed dramatically since Robinson was studying to be an Episcopal priest in Chelsea in the ’70s (not long after the Stonewall riots, to which he was entirely oblivious) and seeing a therapist to try to get “cured.” It’s hard to remember the storm that raged when he was elected bishop of the diocese of New Hampshire in 2003. Robinson — not the person so much as the idea of him — ripped divisions within the Anglican Communion (the worldwide organization of which the American Episcopal Church is a part), made enemies out of longtime friends, and focused the world’s attention, just for a moment, on a band of Wasps whose cultural forebears had included a dozen American presidents but who could not agree on whether a man who had sex with men could oversee a corner of God’s bureaucracy. Robinson’s ascent realigned the Anglican world. The most conservative Episcopalians left the American church; the majority who stayed had to make their peace with the leftward bent of the institution, caricatured with kente-cloth altarpieces and guitar-strumming priests. Others abandoned the denomination altogether, resettling in other churches or in none. Since 2003, membership in the Episcopal Church has fallen roughly 20 percent.
Even harder than being a gay icon, perhaps, is figuring out how to live as a gay icon emeritus. Robinson retired last year from his New Hampshire post, telling his diocese, “Death threats, and the now worldwide controversy surrounding your election of me as bishop, have been a constant strain not just on me, but on my beloved husband, Mark.” Then, this past spring, Robinson announced that the two of them were separating, offering no reason. They’re selling the house they built, and Robinson has moved to Washington, D.C., where he lives in Logan Circle and works part time for the Center for American Progress, trying to help the left frame its issues through a lens of faith and values. He says he’s thrilled, after four decades in the New Hampshire wilderness, to find himself among so many young, smart people, with no need to drive his car. He unapologetically loves the access to power, as well as the free theater tickets (tonight, his came via his friend Jordan Roth, who owns five Broadway houses, including the Hirschfeld). This past spring, he was at the White House for an Easter breakfast and was seated next to Valerie Jarrett. The president asked Robinson for an impromptu prayer after the meal, and though Robinson describes himself as intimidated and humbled, he is also clearly awash in pleasure when recounting the story.
On our walk in Chelsea, Robinson, smoking and drinking another giant diet soda, denied that his role as a gay-movement hero-martyr damaged his marriage or his personal relationships, just as he pushes back on the idea that the pressures of his public role sent him in 2006 into treatment for alcohol abuse. He went into rehab, he told me, simply because he was an alcoholic, not because he was too stressed or too busy. All people suffer, he pointed out. All families suffer. Why should he be any different? Well, I suggested, because to be a movement hero is to be focused on a greater good, sometimes at the expense of more intimate demands. No, he responded: “Mark was very much in this with me. He understood this greater good, and I think he was certainly making as many sacrifices as I was. How we managed that is up for grabs, but generally speaking we were pretty simpatico.” It was Mark, in fact, who kept him from believing too much in his own importance. “He never quite said this, but his attitude was, ‘I don’t care if you are the bishop. Take the garbage out.’ ”