Skip to main content

Retired Bishop Gene Robinson On Being Gay And Loving God.

The first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church will start work with the Center for American Progress, focusing on issues of faith and gay rights. "Gay is not something we do," he says. "It's something we are." His book God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage was published in September.


Other segments from the episode on January 14, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 14, 2013: Interview with Bishop Gene Robinson; Commentary on the phrase "the whole nine yards."


January 14, 2013

Guest: Gene Robinson

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When my guest Gene Robinson was elected bishop in the Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003, he became the first openly gay man to become a bishop in the Episcopal Church and the larger Anglican Church. This month he retired at the age of 65.

His consecration was so controversial it threatened to split the Anglican Church in two, and in fact some church leaders did break away in protest. He faced constant death threats. We're going to reflect on Bishop Robinson's tenure, his religious development and being gay. As we'll hear as a young he tried to pray himself straight. He married a woman and had two children before accepting his sexual orientation. He married his husband in 2010, when marriage equality came to New Hampshire.

Bishop Robinson is also the author of the book "God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage." Four years ago, he delivered the invocation at one of President Obama's inaugural events. Bishop Gene Robinson, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and my first question is do I still call you bishop now that you've retired?

BISHOP GENE ROBINSON: Yes you do, actually. A bishop is a bishop for life, even though he or she may retire from being the active head of a diocese, and that's what I've done. And so I will be a bishop with a voice and seat in the House of Bishops for the Episcopal Church, as long as I'm able to crawl there.

GROSS: What does that give you? What kind of power does that give you to have a seat in the House of Bishops?

ROBINSON: Well, I think it is important for every bishop to have a voice, but I would argue that having an openly gay voice in the House of Bishops is extremely important, especially in these times where every denomination, indeed every world religion, is dealing with the issue of homosexuality. And so to have openly gay and partnered, indeed in my case married, gay voices is terribly important for the church as it always seeks to be relevant to the times and to the culture.

GROSS: And what power does the House of Bishops have?

ROBINSON: It is one of two bodies in the Episcopal Church that actually speaks for the church. Unlike, let's say, the Roman Catholic Church, where the bishops or the pope speaks for the whole church, in the Episcopal Church, only when clergy and laity and bishops together speak does the church take a stand on something. And so it's very important.

And of course those who are sitting bishops are very important and are really sort of at the top of the food chain, if you will, in each of their dioceses.

GROSS: So you're 65. The mandatory retirement age for bishops in the Episcopal Church is 72. Why did no choose to retire now?

ROBINSON: A couple of reasons. You know, going back to this having an openly gay voice in the House of Bishops, I never really thought I would retire until age 72, the mandatory age, until Mary Glasspool, the first openly lesbian and partnered and bishop, was elected bishop suffragan in the Diocese of Los Angeles. And for the first time in 2010, I thought: You know, I don't have to keep doing this. There is an openly gay voice in the House of Bishops, and is there something else that I would really like to do and perhaps that God is calling me to do?

And that answer came back yes, and so a couple of years ago I announced that I would retire at the end of 2012, and I've done so.

GROSS: What is the other thing you feel called to do now?

ROBINSON: You know, I've long been really intrigued with what is the proper role of faith and religion in public life. How do we address the issues that face us as a nation? And what might the church, the synagogue, the mosque, have to say to those issues, and what's the proper way of making that input into this larger discussion?

And so I will be working half-time at the Center for American Progress, which is the think-tank that John Podesta, former chief of staff for Bill Clinton, founded in 2003 in Washington, D.C.

GROSS: Is another reason why you retired because of all the death threats that you've gotten since you became the first openly gay, partnered bishop in the church?

ROBINSON: You know, in my statement to the diocese, when I announced I would be retiring, I did have a couple of sentences about how difficult that has all been. But - and the press made a lot of that, as if I had just had enough. And that's really not the reason, although I would be lying if I said that wasn't an extra burden that my husband Mark and I have endured during this time.

They were - the death threats were just plentiful, almost daily for a couple of years, and then more recently, in fact just - you know, I prayed the invocation at the opening inaugural event at President Obama's inauguration in 2009, and it was about two weeks later I got a call from the Vermont State Police, who had almost accidentally arrested a guy who had been driving through this small Vermont town and was in such a rage that he shot the windows out of an empty, parked police cruiser.

And when they caught up to him, he had in his passenger seat, right next to him, he had MapQuest maps right to our house. He had pictures of me and Mark, and he had scrawled across them: Save the church, kill the bishop. And he had a sawed-off shotgun and tons of ammunition.

GROSS: That's just horrifying.

ROBINSON: Yeah, the Vermont police called to say we have a guy in custody, and we're pretty sure he was on his way to your house to blow your head off. So, you know, that - it takes a toll. I mean, I do have to say that we made a decision early on that this is what we felt we were meant to be doing, and at some point you have to just decide that you're going to live your life and follow what you believe God is calling you to do and let the risks take care of themselves.

You know, we live in a time when if somebody wants to kill you, they're going to kill you, and you can either go in a hole and, you know, pull the roof in over you, or you just continue putting one foot in front of the other and hope that you're doing some good in the world.

GROSS: But really it's not that simple because there's levels of security you can have around you. You can have one bodyguard; you can have 10 bodyguards. You can have a gate around your home; you can have bulletproof windows. You know what I mean? There's - it's...

ROBINSON: Well, it's tempting. It's tempting to have that bunker kind of mentality, and, you know, I've always taken this seriously, and it's not that I'm making light of it, but at the end of the day, you have to decide how committed you are. And if you feel like you're in a position, this very privileged position, to be able to help a lot of people that you will never even meet, then you just have to decide you're going to do it.

And, you know, one of the joys of being a Christian or being a person of faith is that you, you believe deep down that death isn't the worst thing. You know, not living your life, that's the worst thing. And death is not, you know, it's not all it's cracked up to be. It's not the end of the world. We actually believe that. It's not the end of the world.

And the God that has been good to you all along is going to continue to be good to you after death. And so it doesn't mean that you take death lightly, but it does mean that it's not the showstopper that it initially sounds like it is.

GROSS: Do the death threats stop when you retire?

ROBINSON: I certainly hope so. But, you know, I don't intend to be quiet. That will both thrill some people and horrify others. I still believe there's work for me to do and thoughtful and faithful things to say to the culture, and I'm going to continue to do that until death does come.

GROSS: Which I hope is many, many years from now.


GROSS: In a peaceful and very elderly way.

ROBINSON: Yes indeed, thank you.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bishop Gene Robinson, and in 2003, he became the first openly gay man to become a bishop in the Episcopal Church of the larger Anglican Church. And he just retired from that position at the start of this year. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gene Robinson. In 2003 he became the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church or the larger Anglican Church. And he has a new book called "God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage." And he has been married ever since 2010, when marriage equality came to his state of New Hampshire.

An issue now in England looks like it's going to be whether gay bishops will be required to be celibate. The Church of England lifted a moratorium on gay men being appointed bishops, but I think now they're deciding whether if gay men are appointed bishops is that only gay men who are celibate and say they will remain celibate. So what does that mean to you, the way that's being handled?

ROBINSON: I have to tell you this infuriates me and disappoints me. Let me try to say why. I don't care whether any couple, gay or straight, has sexual intimacy or not. That's not my business. That's their business. But to require someone to give up this piece of one's life, which is so central to who each of us is as a human being, just seems, it seems cruel, and it also, it bespeaks something that I think is not talked about enough around the issue of gay sexuality, which is that gay is not something you do, it's something we are.

I'm not just gay when I'm making love to my husband. I'm gay all the time. I'm gay right this minute talking to you. And it affects how I relate to the world, how I relate to people. And it comes out of this notion that, you know, it's OK to be gay as long as you don't act on it.

Well first of all, I don't think that's - I think that statement is disingenuous because the people who say that don't act as all as if it's OK to be gay. But taking them at their word, you know, when do you become gay? I laughingly will say to a more conservative audience, you know, OK, so if it's OK to be gay but not act on it, could two men live together? Could we sleep in the same bedroom if we slept in twin beds?

Well, could we sleep in the same bed if we didn't touch each other? Well, could we touch each other as long as we only held hands? I mean, at what point, at what point is it gay? Do you know what I mean? It just doesn't make any sense. And it comes out of what I think is a very male understanding of sexuality, which is you're only being sexual when you're making love.

But the fact of the matter is we are sexual all the time, and this bifurcation of, you know, being gay versus acting on it just seems to me ludicrous at best and cruel at worst.

GROSS: So I figure there's two ways of looking at it. One is to say, you know, it's a ludicrous and a hypocritical way of looking at it because it's basically saying: No, it's fine to be gay, as long as you're not gay.


ROBINSON: Right, right.

GROSS: It's fine to be gay as long as you don't do anything that looks gay to anybody.


GROSS: But on the other hand, you could say well, it's a step forward, you know, because before that it was like no, you couldn't be a gay bishop at all, so, you know, a kind of hypocritical standards of, like, other bishops don't have to be celibate, but gay bishops would have to be celibate, you could say well, it's still a step forwards.

ROBINSON: I suppose. And, you know, when we're in the midst of changing something this big, you have to take the small steps and accept them when they come. But my concern is that it's a step based on a false premise, and until we undo that false premise, which says that, you know, you're only gay when you're acting gay and without realizing that gay is something you are all the time, just as being heterosexual is something you are all the time, then it takes us down a side street that doesn't really help us.

GROSS: I wonder what you think about this. You know, if you think of religion as the institution that is about compassion and understanding and open-heartedness and the embrace of all people, would you think that religion would be kind of like leading the charge on gay rights?

ROBINSON: You'd think, wouldn't you? And I get so frustrated when I see religious people of all ilks and brands acting in ways that it would be hard to construe them as loving in any sense of the word. You know, I think the other thing, too, is that in addition to being loving and, you know, the values that we espouse, there's something about a religious person, again of whatever faith, being open to God's continuing revelation.

Sometimes when you speak with fundamentalists, who are so focused on Scripture, you would think that God had stopped revealing God's self at the end of the first century, when the canon of Scripture was closed, that God had said everything that God had wanted to say to humankind, and all you had to do was read it.

But Jesus says this remarkable thing at the Last Supper. It's recorded in John's Gospel. Jesus says to his disciples: There is much that I would teach you, but you cannot bear it right now. So I will send the Holy Spirit, who will lead you into all truth. Now, I take that to mean Jesus is saying, you know, for a bunch of uneducated, rough fisherman, you haven't done too badly. In fact, I'm kind of proud of you. But don't for a minute think that God is done with you or that God will be done with the people who follow you because God has got so much to teach you, but you cannot bear it right now.

So the Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth. And I think, you know, look how many centuries we spent using Scripture to justify slavery. Look how some religions still use their holy texts to denigrate and subjugate women. But I believe it's the Holy Spirit who has been continuing to reveal God to us in those movements, and what we're trying to figure out right now is whether or not God is leading us to a different understanding of gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people that really does represent God's will, and before this we have just not been able to understand it.

GROSS: Well now, you know, Jesus spoke for himself. He didn't have to consult an institution. He didn't have to get a vote on it. And...

ROBINSON: Yeah, he had it easy, didn't he?

GROSS: No, but really, often when people leave the church, or they leave, you know, you know, the temple, any organized religion, often what they're leaving is the organized part. Like they maintain their faith, but they don't like the hierarchy of their religion, they disagree with some of the hierarchy's decisions, and they want to be able to have a more flexible and personal interpretation of whatever spiritual existence they believe in.

So you've been at the heart of the hierarchy of bureaucracy of whatever you'd want to call it of your faith, you know, as a bishop of the Episcopal Church. So you've worked with it from the inside. And you still have faith in its ability to move swiftly enough through changing - in changing time to speak to the times.

ROBINSON: You know, like so many people, I feel ambivalent about this. On the one hand, I think we really need to pay attention to I think what we're calling nuns now, you know, who check off a box that say they have no religious affiliation. And they would most often describe themselves as being spiritual but not religious.

Here's my take on that: I think people often come to the synagogue, the mosque, the church looking for God, and what we give them is religion, and I think that is a huge mistake. And sometimes we let our fussing around with the institution get in the way of what people came for, which is help in facilitating their access and relationship with God.

On the other hand, if you go off by yourself, then it can become a kind of narcissistic enterprise, and you don't have people around you constantly testing your understanding of God, testing it against the witness of Scripture, testing it against thousands of years of history of that understanding and testing against the experience of other people.

And that's what makes me believe in the church, in the synagogue, in the mosque, because that's the community of people that can help us understand better what our perceived relationship with God is and test it against all those many ways in which we can try to shape it out of our own personality.

GROSS: Bishop Gene Robinson will be back in the second half of the show. This month he retired from his position of bishop in the Episcopal Church. His recent book is titled "God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Bishop Gene Robinson. When he was elected Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, he became the first openly gay man to become a bishop in the Anglican Church. His election was so controversial it threatened to split the church in two. Some church leaders did leave in protest. Bishop Robinson retired from his position on January 5th and has just become a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He will reflect on the place of religion and public life and will remain outspoken on gay rights.

Your new book is called "God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage." And you've been married - as I mentioned before - for two years, ever since marriage equality came to New Hampshire, your state. And at one point in the book you write that one of the reasons why being married - not just a civil union, but actually being married - was so important to you and your now husband, is that if you were assassinated - and there's been so many death threats against you as a gay bishop - he'd have no legal standing. And I thought wow, that is so doubly upsetting. You know, one, the thought that people would even think about wanting to hurt you because you're gay and that, you know, and then on top of that if, you know, if God forbid, something happened, that he'd had no legal claim to your relationship.

ROBINSON: That's right. And this is something that, you know, I talk to gay couples who've been together, 40, 50, 60 years, and they have lived with this knowledge every day of their lives that if something happened to one of them they have absolutely no rights whatsoever over your partner's body, over medical decisions, over burial decisions. You know, early on in my relationship with Mark his family was simply hard fight when he came out and was making a life with me in New Hampshire. I never actually met his father before he died. And early on we put together as many legal documents as we could because had something happened to him I would've been no one, absolutely a nobody with respect to him and his wishes or our wishes. His family would have been able to take him away from me and I would've had no part whatsoever in arrangements or - it's just, it's just part of the life that gay and lesbian couples have endured for all these many years. And to accuse us of having some aggressive inappropriate agenda to remedy these things, it just makes me so sad because it only seems human.

GROSS: So, you know, the inauguration is coming up. In 2009, at President Obama's first inauguration, you gave the benediction at a pre-inaugural event. And when President Obama chose you for that, many people thought it was a kind of way of counteracting or counterbalancing the fact that he had chosen Rick Warren, who was very opposed to gay marriage, to give the inaugural invocation. And this year, President Obama for his second inauguration had chosen a reverend to deliver the benediction who it turns out was very anti-gay, and his name is Reverend Louis Giglio. He's the founder of the Passion Conferences which is a group that ministers to college students. And in the '90s, he gave an anti-gay sermon that's been quoted a lot that was very anti-gay. He said homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of God and it's a sin in the word of God. He said that the gay rights movement is not a benevolent movement. It's a movement to seize by any means necessary the feeling and the mood of the day to the point where the homosexual lifestyle becomes accepted as a norm in our society. And he said that Christians should fight the aggressive agenda of the gay rights movement. And that gay people should turn to the healing power of Jesus as the only way out of the homosexual lifestyle. And on January 10th, the reverend withdrew from delivering the benediction. And I'm wondering what your reaction to this story has been.

ROBINSON: Well, first of all, let's just understand that both the president both has the right to ask anyone he wants to pray and because he's the president, it has real ramifications. I was so honored to be asked by him to offer the invocation at the Lincoln Memorial. In some ways it was, you know, so profoundly moving for me to be standing in the place where Dr. King delivered the "I Have A Dream Speech," where Marian Anderson sang and with Lincoln's words behind me. You know, I was, I didn't care who else was praying, I was just so blessed to be asked.

But it does matter. It does matter. And I don't know if the reverend has changed his mind but the words that you describe from his sermon are alarming and I don't believe are mainstream words. You know, this country has moved greatly on the issue of the acceptance of gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and it's moving more every day. And I don't believe that most Americans would say that it is an aggressive agenda to want equal protection under the law of the Constitution. We are asking merely but only, but not for less than our full civil rights. And these are not special rights. These are not something that we've cooked up in our own head. They were cooked up by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bishop Gene Robinson. He was the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church or the larger Anglican Church. He retired from that position this month, and he has a new book, which is called "God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage."

Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bishop Gene Robinson. In 2003, he became the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church or the larger Anglican Church. He retired from that position this month and now he has a new book called "God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage."

In your book you write a little about your own life. And you write about how when you were born you weren't expected to live. And the doctor said that if you did survive you might never walk or talk. What was the problem?

ROBINSON: My mother is - was, she just died just about a year ago - my mother was tiny and I weighed 10 pounds, which is, you know, you look half-grown at 10 pounds. And there was a terrible problem being born and my mother had the next to the rarest kind of blood and the hospital had none of it, so they couldn't do a C-section. And the sixth doctor that tried to deliver me was successful but had to use forceps and all that and he told me that my head was just totally crushed in and I was paralyzed for about a month.

GROSS: Whoa.

ROBINSON: ...came out of the...

GROSS: Really?

ROBINSON: Yeah. And came out of the paralysis and was given to my parents, but my parents were really poor. They were tobacco sharecroppers in Kentucky and they had no way of doing anything special for me. And my mother just loved me into health. By the time I went into first grade I was reading at fourth grade level. And it was amazing.

And here's the part that most people don't know - now they will, I guess - when I was about 13 years old, this doctor who had delivered me was a pediatrician, actually, and became my pediatrician. And he sat me down in his office - he had always said two things when I went to see him for a shot or a checkup. One was, you sure look better than the first time I saw you, and the second was, I had help from above when I delivered you. And when I was 13, he sat me down in his office and he said, I'm going to tell you something that your parents don't know, no one in the world knows this, but I - I want to tell you this. He said, I looked at you and you were a little monster. You were so misshapen and your head was so crushed in that all I could think about was your 20-year-old mother looking at your monster-like face in your little coffin, and I just couldn't bear it. And I was so sure that you were going to die that I took your head in my hands and mushed it back into as round a shape as I could make it so that your mother wouldn't be so horrified. He said had I any notion that you were going to live I would never have done it, and I just think you ought to know that, that your life was given to you by something far beyond me.

GROSS: That's an astonishing thing to be told. How did you handle that revelation?

ROBINSON: You know, it felt so private for a - I don't think I told anybody that for decades. But somehow it has come to mean a lot to me. And my mother always said, you know, I think God saved you for something. And on the night before I was consecrated bishop, she gave me a card that said, now I guess we know what it was.

GROSS: Wow. So you grew up, I'm sure - did your mother talk to you much about this? Not about what the doctor did...


GROSS: Because he never knew about that.


GROSS: What about being born looking like...


GROSS: No. So you didn't...


GROSS: How did you find out how fragile your life was when you were born?

ROBINSON: Well, all I knew was that there had been a terrible pain on my mom's part. My mother nearly died as well. And it's partly how I got my name. They had picked out a name for a girl. My mother's name is Imogene. My father's name is Victor and so they had picked out this lovely girl's name, Vicky Jean. And they literally came out to my dad and said your wife is probably going to die and your son, your newborn son, is definitely going to die and we need a name for his birth and death certificates. And he was so distraught that he just changed the name, the girl's name, changed the spelling of it to V-i-c-k-y G-e-n-e, figuring that it would matter on the tombstone. And that's how I got my name. So I...

GROSS: Your first name is Vicky.

ROBINSON: Yeah. Yeah. Which, and I grew up in the South where...

GROSS: Or V period.


ROBINSON: ...where they call you both names, right? So I...

GROSS: Oh, really? So...

ROBINSON: Oh, literally. When I go back to the Kentucky I'm still Vicky Gene.

GROSS: Really?

ROBINSON: Yeah. And...

GROSS: A boy, to be gay and then to have a girl's name. It must've been fun.


ROBINSON: Yeah. You know, my troubles started a long time ago.


ROBINSON: So that's how I learned that there was, you know, distress. But I don't think - well, I know my parents didn't even know about this.

GROSS: You accepted Jesus as your personal lord and savior with baptism and full immersion at the age of 12 in the church that you grew up in rural Kentucky. What was your understanding of what it meant to accept Jesus as your personal lord and savior then compared to what your understanding is of Jesus and your faith now as an Episcopal bishop?

ROBINSON: You know, I would hate to be bound by anything that I said or thought or believed when I was 12...

GROSS: That you believed in when you're 12. No, I'm with you. I'm with you.


ROBINSON: And honestly, I would hate to be held too terribly accountable for anything that I think or believe at age 65. I mean we're all learning, right? And we can - any one of us can only, no matter what age, can only absorb a tiny piece of God. And, which is why I try to be patient with not only other Christians, especially those who disagree with me, but people of all faiths, because each one of us - and each denomination, each world faith, only can perceive a tiny piece of this infinite God. And we each know something different about God. And if you put them all together they would still only be a tiny part of what we mean when we say the word God. So I would like to think that I was - I had a 12-year-old understanding of what it meant to believe and lead your life as if God loved you and there was nothing in the world that could come between you and God's love for you and that I still believe at 65 and expect to believe on the day I die.

GROSS: A lot of people say - you know, some people actually believe that gay conversion is possible, that if you're gay, if you go to the right therapist, if you do the right prayers, that you can be transformed into a straight person. You tried that. You tried therapy and you...


GROSS: ...tried prayer and it didn't work.


GROSS: And, I mean, you tried so hard. You were married for how many years to a woman, to a wife who you still love?


GROSS: I mean, not...

ROBINSON: I do. I have a great relationship with her.

GROSS: Right, yeah.

ROBINSON: We were married for 14 years.

GROSS: Right. And you had two children together and so you really (technical difficulty) straight your absolute best shot and...


GROSS: And it wasn't a sham marriage, I mean, in the sense that you really loved each other. You were very close, so explain to people who believe you can, you know, pray it away or use therapy to make it disappear that, certainly in your case, there's, like, nothing you were going to do that was going to transform you into a straight person.

ROBINSON: That's exactly right. And I - not just based on my own experience, but the evidence of so, so many people who have tried this. No one could have prayed any harder, wanted it any more deeply than I did to be different and to be heterosexual and, you know, it's interesting. The evidence is so overwhelming that it can not be changed that even the so-called ex-gay ministries don't even claim to change your orientation anymore. Even in their literature on their websites, they will only now claim to give you the kind of communal support that will allow you to sort of white knuckle it all the way through your life so that you never act on it. Even they've given up the farce of saying that we can make you straight.

And yet, you know, we've still got young people jumping off bridges and killing themselves because they have been told that they are despicable and abominable in the eyes of God and that there is no sin worse than being gay. We've made so much progress and yet we've still got so far to go.

GROSS: So I just have one more question for you about retirement. Although you've retired as a bishop, you still maintain your seat in the House of Bishops within the Anglican Church, but you are rewriting your life right now. You know, you're changing how you're going to spend your days and I'm wondering, like, is it a big, like, kind of identity shift that you're going through? Because I think anybody who either changes jobs or loses a job or retires and goes through a big shift like that, it can be a really transformative experience or there could be a lot of emotional upheaval. I mean, for some people, I think there's like a loss of identity because you had been so caught up in your work.

ROBINSON: You know, I keep waiting for the panic to hit me and I feel a little strange in saying it hasn't. You know, no one's asked me this before, but my thought is that, in order to maintain myself throughout this experience where I am neither the angel that, one, you know, my supporters paint me to be, nor am I the devil that my detractors paint me to be.

I've had to make sure that I held onto who I am versus the role that I play, the office that I hold, the work that I do. And that self seems pretty intact to me and so rather than being in a panic over - oh, my God, what am I going - how am I going to spend my day? I'm just excited about these new opportunities that God has given me to continue to try to make a difference in the world and so, after a good bit of grieving over leaving my beloved diocese, who has been so wonderful to me and the one place in the world where I'm not the gay bishop. I'm just the bishop. I take that self that I've maintained and am ready to go into this new endeavor with joy and great expectations.

GROSS: Bishop Gene Robinson, thank you so much for continuing our series of conversations. It is always such a great pleasure to talk with you. Thank you.

ROBINSON: I'm so delighted to have been back with you. Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: And best to you and good health and so on.

ROBINSON: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Gene Robinson retired earlier this month from his position as Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. He's now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. His book is called "God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage." You can read an excerpt on our website,

You know the expression, the whole nine yards? Well, nine yards of what? Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg talks about the origins of that expression. This is FRESH AIR.


TERRY GROSS, HOST: It's been called the bigfoot of word origins. Where did the phrase the whole nine yards come from? There are dozens of theories, but none has been proven. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has been following the origin story and wonders if it even matters.

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: Where does the whole nine yards come from? In 1982, William Safire called that one of the great etymological mysteries of our time. He himself thought that the phrase originally referred to the capacity of a cement truck in cubic yards.

But there are plenty of other theories. Some people say it dates back to when square-riggers had three masts, each with three yards supporting the sails, so the whole nine yards meant the sails were fully set.

Another popular story holds that it refers to the length of an ammunition belt on World War II fighters. When a pilot had exhausted his ammunition, he said he'd shot off the whole nine yards. Or it was the amount of cloth in the queen's bridal train or the Shroud of Turin, or it had to do with a fourth-down play in football, or it came from a joke about a prodigiously well-endowed Scotsman who gets his kilt caught in a door.

The Internet is full of just-so stories like these. They're often shaky in their facts about ammunition belts or cement trucks, but they come with assurances that the information came firsthand from an old naval gunnery instructor or a Scottish tailor.

It used to be hard to debunk these tales since the only way to track the expressions down was by rooting around in library stacks and newspaper morgues in search of a revealing early citation. But, with the vast historical collections of books and newspapers that are now online, etymology has joined the list of activities you can do in your pajamas.

Word sleuths traced the modern use of the whole nine yards as far back as a 1956 article in a magazine called Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground. Now, they've discovered an even earlier version of the phrase, the whole six yards, which was used in the rural South as early as 1912. That's still how the phrase goes in parts of the South, but it was inflated to nine yards when it caught on elsewhere, the same way the early 20th century cloud seven was upgraded to our cloud nine.

The unearthing of those early sources was deemed important enough to warrant a story in The New York Times, not an organ that ordinarily treats etymological discoveries as breaking news. True, the findings don't actually settle what, if anything, the phrase originally referred to, but they put the kibosh on the stories about World War II and, as for cement trucks, they weren't invented yet, though, actually, none of these stories was very plausible in the first place.

Of course, there could be a real story behind the expression, even if it's no more than a family joke about the long scarves that Aunt Florence used to knit as Christmas presents, but it could also be that somebody just plucked the words out of the air one Tuesday morning. One way or the other, the real birth of the expression was when somebody passed it along without caring what nine yards referred to.

The fact is that, once you've said, the whole, it doesn't matter what words you finish it with or whether they mean anything or not: shooting match, enchilada, schmear, shebang. The whole ball of wax first showed up in the 1880s, but some writers suggest it comes from a 16th-century ritual for dividing up an estate among heirs. If you believe that, I've got a caboodle I want to sell you.

A number of years ago, I started saying, the whole kazonga, just because I liked the sound of it. Nobody ever called me on it, but when I finally looked it up, it turned out to be the name both of an Italian adult comic book and of a Zambian minister who was involved in a fertilizer scam. In the somewhat unlikely event that the whole kazonga ever catches on, you can be sure someone will explain how it originally comes from one or the other of those.

Still, it's hard to accept that it doesn't matter where the expression came from. Whether it's six yards or nine, it has a tantalizing specificity. It calls out for an explanation and there's no shortage of them at hand. Is it merely coincidence that six yards is the exact diameter of a pitcher's mound, the amount of cloth in an Indian sari, the length of a parachute line? But that profusion of possibilities is the secret of the idiom's appeal.

If the whole nine yards had a definitive completion, if it went on to mention yards of cloth or cement or ammunition, it would never have caught on in the first place. It's like a line of poetry. It resonates without resolving, except that we don't think of this as poetry. A poet's image can bubble straight up out of the imagination. We don't expect explanations or back stories. Would it really help to know where Gertrude Stein got pigeons in the grass, alas, from? Let me see. That was the day when Miss Stein and I were walking in the Luxembourg gardens and I started to sit on the lawn, but she said, no, Alice.

But that's just the kind of story we expect when the phrase originates with a collective imagination, so we rummage around in old ships and cement trucks looking for a secret key as if there couldn't be any poetry in everyday language that didn't begin its life as prose.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue