Gay bishop's love story comes to Sundance

Documentary explores LGBT rights, religion and the risks Robinson faces.
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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 gay bishop, was preaching at a church 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 risk he is taking in 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 and the rift within the church after his election as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. The film will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday, and Robinson will be in Utah next week, talking about the movie and meeting with local clergy.

"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 told The Salt Lake Tribune this week. "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 LGBT issues. Robinson's election brought to a head divisions between liberal and conservative members of both the Episcopal Church in the United States and the worldwide body of which it is a part, the Anglican Communion.

Filmmakers followed Robinson to England in 2008, where he was excluded from a global gathering of bishops called the Lambeth Conference. And they followed him to the Episcopal Church's 2009 General Convention, where leaders voted to give bishops discretion to permit 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 Episcopal Diocese of Utah Bishop Otis Charles, who regrets not coming out sooner.

"It's like trying to put on a suit that doesn't fit," Charles says in the documentary of being closeted. Though Charles didn't come out until he retired, he has long spoken in support of fully including gay and lesbian worshippers and ministers.

Sandra Itkoff, the film's producer, said she was surprised, in making the movie, 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 who 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 people and whatever theological stance the church might take."

The film's director, Macky Alston, looks forward to hearing what Utahns think of the documentary.

"I'm really excited about the screening in Utah," Alston said, "because I think a lot of folks are religious, and I think this film can really speak to them."

Robinson and the filmmakers are also eager to hear from leaders of Utah's religious communities. As part of his trip, Robinson plans to meet with area clergy. Alston declined to say who might attend the private meeting, but Robinson said his main goal will be to hear others out.

"Mostly, I want to listen to them, most especially to those who disagree with me so I can better understand what stands in the way of our finding common ground on this issue," Robinson said. "The more I understand those who oppose us, the better I'm able to speak, I think, to their concerns."

Alston called Robinson a "historic figure" who has inspired many to see LGBT people 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 and his trip to Park City could raise his profile even higher. PBS has already agreed to air the documentary, Itkoff said.

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."

Now, he hopes others will speak out, too, even if it's just to one person at a time. —

Hear Otis Charles preach

Former Episcopal Diocese of Utah Bishop Otis Charles will preach at a service at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, 4595 N. Silver Springs Road, Park City. It's one of a number of events surrounding the premiere of a documentary this week at the Sundance Film Festival about Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop, titled "Love Free or Die." Charles, who came out as a gay man when he retired, is interviewed in the film. Robinson was supposed to preach Sunday at St. Luke's and attend the premiere but will now not arrive in Park City until later in week due to the death of his mother.