Reverend Dr. Robin Gorsline says he feels a little awkward about receiving an OUTstanding Virginian award after he moved to Maryland. He was supposed to receive the award last year but had to defer the honor because the 2015 Commonwealth Dinner conflicted with the first birthday of a granddaughter.
Robin needn’t worry. His presence is still keenly felt, in Richmond, where he was pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church for a dozen years, and across the state, where he publicly spoke up for LGBT equality as a leader in several faith-based advocacy groups. Besides, Virginians—and everyone else—can stay close to his passionate, humane outlook on life through his three blogs: robingorsline.com (musings on politics, history, faith an
d his own “pilgrim’s progress”); lectionarypoetics.org (poems and religious texts to read and ponder); and sexbodiesspirit.net (views on the nexus of sexuality, spirituality and love).
Moving to a new place for Robin is a very mindful act, not undertaken lightly. His move to Maryland, like the other significant changes of vocation and location in his life’s journey came about after much soul-searching and conversation with loved ones. It was spurred in part by the desire of his husband Jonathan, a psychoanalyst, to be closer to professional communities in the Baltimore/Washington area and in part by a realization, which he came to on a vision quest in Yosemite, that writing is his true life’s work.
In a broader sense, Robin’s quest started in Michigan in the 1970s. He went right from college into a political career when he was elected as a county official in the Detroit suburb of Oakland County. Robin describes it as “kind of like Chesterfield–very prosperous, overall a good place.” Though the Romneys had a home there, the county also had rural districts where Robin saw much poverty.
What Robin saw prompted him to exchange his political aspirations for pastoral ones. “I love policy making,” he says, “but it dawned on me that I was not making much of a difference. In that opening, I felt a call to ministry, work where I could make a difference in people’s lives directly.” Robin had always been very involved in his church, so in 1981 he left Michigan with his wife Judy and their two small daughters to attend the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
At the seminary, Robin had experiences that caused him to think hard about how he was living his life. “If done right,” he says, “seminary tears you apart and makes you spill out what’s inside you.” The catalyst that sparked Robin’s inner upheaval was his awareness of his attraction to men. “At the seminary there was a lesbian professor and a semi-closeted gay professor and quite a number of gay and lesbian couples openly and wonderfully living as LGBT people,” Robin recalls. He came out, and shortly afterwards he and Judy separated and then divorced “as amicably as possible, especially so our three daughters would know they were loved by us both.”
In the mid-eighties, when Robin graduated seminary, the Episcopal Church was not a welcoming institution for gay men. This posed a problem when it came to the next career step of finding a congregation. The closet was not a palatable option. “I could’ve hidden out,” Robin says, “but no—I needed honesty.” So he went to Union Theological Seminary in New York City to finish his dissertation with the intention of teaching theology.
By the turn of the century, a great deal had changed in Robin’s life. For the only time in his life, he didn’t pay much attention to God and turned away from the church. He was working as a senior administrator at the New York City Bar Association and was partnered with Jonathan, a Jewish psychoanalyst from Long Island. Spiritually, though, Robin was restless—in his words, “looking for a home.”
Jonathan suggested that he get acquainted with the city’s Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a congregation within the worldwide LGBT-based religious movement. In 2001, at Jonathan’s urging, Robin promised to go for six months on a regular basis. “I loved it from the start,” he says. After a short while in MCC, the call to the ministry came back full tilt. Because he already had the academic credentials, he was ordained as a minister within a year.
Once again, however, Robin found himself faced with the decision of whether to move. “At first I thought I’d stay and volunteer at the New York church,” he says, “but then one day I got a clear message in the form of a voice booming from the sky saying ‘I need you to stop holding back on Me.’” He prayed and thought about whether to commit himself to the ministry. Finally, he concluded that somewhere a church was waiting for him. When he announced his decision in 2002, his pastor said, “It’s about time” and told him that there might be a congregation for him in Richmond, Virginia.
Jonathan supported the move and Robin’s full return to a life of worship. He had had a spiritual experience of his own and had begun to believe in God. “He was relieved I was serious,” says Robin.
The couple relocated from Brooklyn to Richmond in 2003. Robin was a bit apprehensive at first. Although an earlier trip had left a positive impression, he wasn’t sure how well he would adapt to the culture of the South. “I knew we’d have to make a lot of adjustments,” he says, citing as an example church potlucks that seemed to have pork in everything, a challenge for two New York vegetarians.
They soon came to love Richmond and its MCC church, which Robin found easy-going and a good community. “What I didn’t count on was how difficult it was going to be to create social change,” he says. “There was so much to be done, and the local religious community was sometimes part of the problem.” In New York, many churches were open and affirming and welcomed the MCC’s LGBT perspective. In Richmond, however, MCC was not always taken seriously. “I wanted the discussion of LGBT equality to be part of a broad discussion of race and racism, my big cause,” he says, but he first needed a platform to be heard.
Robin realized that he could leverage his personal influence in the community if he combined his role as an out pastor working on LGBT issues with his experience in politics. An opportunity to do just that opened up when two Baptist women came to his church to talk about working together to create positive attitudes toward LGBT people. Together, they founded ARISE (Alliance of Religious Individuals Supporting Equality) aimed at engaging the local clergy with issues of LGBT equality, as Robin puts it, “not to convert them but to get them to see the other side of the story.”
Although he and the women were passionate about starting the dialogue, ARISE did not get much traction. Robin, the former politician, understood why: “We could only go so far working from the inside. Resistance was just too high. Too many clergy knew that to speak out was a sure recipe for major trouble.” He realized the movement needed to be more visible. So he and John Humphrey, a straight Alexandria attorney, founded a new organization, POFEV (People of Faith for Equality in Virginia), to be a public religious voice for equality.
A defining issue soon arose: the debate over same-sex marriage in Virginia. In 2005, House Bill 751 codified what eventually would become the constitutional “marriage amendment.” Through POFEV, Robin tried to reach out to all clergy, even if they were not necessarily pro-gay, with the argument that the bill imposed unnecessary penalties on a single group of citizens. For Robin, the issue was pastoral as well as personal and political: MCC had held its first same-sex marriage ceremony on Valentines Day the year before. Although POFEV did not stop the bill from passing, a number of important connections were made in the fight, resulting in a broader coalition ready to oppose the “marriage amendment” when it was introduced in 2006.
The campaign also solidified Robin’s sense of himself as a “spiritual activist.” As he explains it, “Religion is not a private thing—it’s about our values as a gathered people. It’s about how we live, which reflects who we are.” An MCC pastor is assumed to be involved in social justice, and POFEV proved a good vehicle for Robin to put his values into action. He served as its President and CEO from 2011 to 2014. “In that role, I spent a lot of time on the back roads of Virginia,” Robin says. That experience deepened his emotional connection to the state and was one of the reasons he found it hard to leave last year.
Today, Robin is becoming increasingly at home in the world of letters. Besides the blogs, which he continually updates, he is working on turning his doctoral dissertation into a book for non-academic readers. As he describes it, it focuses on the works of poet Audrey Lorde and novelist James Baldwin as resources for anti-racist, pro-feminist, pro-LGBT theologies and as a celebration of the “beauty of darkness.”
Meanwhile, in his new world, Robin is working with the MCC church in Washington, DC, teaching spiritual writing and leading workshops and retreats as Writer-Theologian in Residence. He and Jonathan are getting to know their neighbors in a unique community, Greenbelt, a New Deal-era Federal Housing Cooperative now owned by the 1,600 families that live there. Robin describes it as “very progressive.” Not surprisingly, he reports that he and his husband are having success “finding kindred spirits.”
Gorsline and others will be honored this weekend at Equality Virginia’s 13th annual Commonwealth Dinner happening this weekend here in Richmond.