Booklet cover“We work our butts off, take care of our family, go to church, knit, and fall asleep before the ten o’clock news is on. That’s the gay lifestyle.” Recently married in California, John and Kyle have been affirmed by friends, family, and their local Lutheran church community, but they remain frustrated by the reticence of the national church (ELCA) to become fully inclusive.  “I’m tired of being debated,” says John. 

Kari Aanestad tells the story of John and Kyle in today’s installment of LGBT faith stories. The Joint Synod Inclusivity Committee of the Minneapolis area and St Paul area synods of the ELCA offers these ten stories in a booklet as a download on their website.

On Monday, August 17th, the ELCA meets in Minneapolis for the commencement of its 2009 church wide assembly.  The convention will be closely watched for action on gay marriage and gay clergy.  I will be in attendance and will offer live blog updates from the hallways.

Here are links to the earlier stories in this series:

Introduction: Listen to the stories of gay Christians

Wounded Healer

Some kids have two moms

Couple meets in Gay Men’s Chorus

Mom and Dad, I’m gay

Lesbian feels unsafe and unvalued in church

Rejected by the People

A martyr for the cause

“We have been used by many groups to divide, drive wedges, and scare people, and I’m emotionally drained,” John says.  Listen to the story of John and Kyle.

Kyle Hanson answered the door dressed in light jeans and a tan, button-up shirt. His partner, John Stumme, stood up holding their two-year-old daughter, Sofie, and walked toward me. Sofie insisted on wearing a light pink swimming suit over her polka-dotted turtleneck and green pants. Looking at her light blond hair, large blue eyes, and rosy red cheeks, there’s no denying she’s cute. She is introduced to me.

Kari,” she repeated back. “Snowman!” she exclaimed, offering me a stuffed snowman. “Kari and snowman,” she began singing while dancing around the living room. I sat down and their dog JD jumped up onto the footstool of the chair in which I sat.

“So,” I began, “what’s your story?”

John started to speak, but only barely. His hands and voice shaking, he was full of emotion.

“I can’t really talk about this without getting upset,” he said. “It’s just too personal for me when it’s an issue of the church. I grew up in the Lutheran church. Both of my parents and my sister are Lutheran pastors. My dad also worked many years with the former American Lutheran Church
Headquarters and in several academic settings. My mom was ordained later in her life and now serves a multicultural parish in North Minneapolis.”

“Being a Lutheran is, sometimes unfortunately, an inextricable part of who I am,” John continued. “There have been times when I’ve wanted to walk away from anything Lutheran because I’m tired of the whole debate [about homosexuality in the church], I’m tired of being debated, but I can’t just walk away. Lutheranism really is an integral part of who I was as a boy growing up and who I
am now.”

John said he “always felt different from other boys” but did not question his sexual identity until college. He got married shortly after graduating from college and said, “I didn’t have the courage and didn’t expect to find the support I would need to come out at that time.”

He and his wife Mona had three sons together and were married for almost 13 years when they both realized they needed to end their marriage relationship.

“Mona knew I had always been questioning my sexual identity. To some extent she always knew she had married a gay man.”

John met Kyle about seven years after his coming out and divorce. Kyle was singing in a cabaret in Saint Paul one very hot July evening. While on stage Kyle joked, “It’s so hot out; I’ll go home with anyone who has air conditioning.”

After the show John approached Kyle to thank him for his music and said, “Oh by the way, I have air conditioning.” They laughed, clicked instantly and began seeing each other.

“I really knew we were perfect for each other when I was at John’s house for the first time,” Kyle said “and I saw the Lutheran magazine sitting on his counter.”

They’ve been together seven years this July.  As is it for John, Lutheranism is also a core part of who Kyle is.

“I grew up in rural Minnesota — Willmar to be exact. My entire family was a part of the Lutheran
church. For us, the church wasn’t just a place for Sunday activities; it was our social life too. We even got out of school on Wednesdays to go to church.”

Kyle moved to South Dakota to attend Augustana College and began grappling with his sexual identity. He received some support from a few professors and a small group on campus, but his coming out experience was mostly a painful one. Immediately after graduating from college Kyle became a youth pastor in the Twin Cities and helped lead contemporary worship services. During
that year he finally talked to his friends, family and staff about being gay. After coming out to his church, the staff gave him two options: he could either leave his position as youth pastor or he could tell the congregation on Sunday and let them decide.

“I had just come out to my friends and family and, well, myself,” Kyle said. “There was no way I was going to stand up in front of all of those people on a Sunday morning and come out.”

Kyle decided to leave his position, but continued playing piano for the congregation. “It was a very painful experience because I was very involved in the lives of some of those kids, and they were really confused that I had to leave, but I couldn’t be honest with them as to why. They would see me playing piano every Sunday and wonder why I wasn’t doing my other jobs. I just think it’s sad that church staff were comfortable with me as a pianist but not comfortable with me as a leader.”

Kyle quit going to church for quite some time after that. “I didn’t feel welcomed or respected.
If the church that I loved so much didn’t respect who I was, how on earth could I respect the church? ”

Soon after leaving the Lutheran church Kyle moved to California and began worshiping at an Episcopal church. “It was actually quite a painful experience to start worshipping again. I would often cry during worship. The Episcopal church left many times for silent prayer during the service. I was able to sort of make peace and find a way to reconnect with God during those times.”

He eventually returned to Minnesota and after learning of his return, the church that had previously asked him to leave, asked him back to be music leader. For the past seven years John and Kyle have been active in John’s mom’s church in North Minneapolis, which has a large Hmong community. Kyle is the music director, and John ran a Saturday program for Hmong children there for many years.

“Snowman!” Sofie shouted. She ran toward me and again offered her stuffed snowman. Sofie came into John and Kyle’s lives two years ago when they decided to adopt through Lutheran Social Services (LSS). They met for an initial interview and were told they might have to wait longer than
most couples because they were “different.” In September of 2007 they wrote a four page profile and submitted it to a database filled with about 50 other profiles of hopeful parents. The next month LSS contacted them about a pregnant couple who had read their profile and wanted to interview John and Kyle, along with two other straight couples. Soon after the meeting LSS called John and Kyle to tell them the couple had chosen them to be the parents of their baby. By November, Sofie was born.

“We were told it could take years, and then within two months we had our daughter,” Kyle said.

In addition to Sofie, John’s 16-year-old son, Gabe, lives with them in their beautifully renovated Minneapolis home. Mid-interview, Gabe came down the stairs and introduced himself to me. His thin frame and kind blue eyes resembled John’s. Gabe started a Gay-Straight Alliance at his middle school when he was only in 7th grade.

“Hey Dad,” Gabe said, “I just found out the alliance I started is still going on at that school.”

John smiled and said, “The only time Gabe ever got into a fight was when someone teased him for having a gay dad.”

John and Kyle, along with their families, flew out to California to get married this past October. John has six Lutheran pastors in his immediate family alone, four of whom were present at the wedding.

“In fact, my mom performed our wedding ceremony,” John said. “Our wedding day was incredible.
The ceremony was held on a beautiful vista overlooking the bay and Golden Gate Bridge. It was so sad, however, to see many other couples being married at city hall, without family surrounding them to share their special day. We received all sorts of wedding cards,” John said. “We even received one with a man and a woman’s hands intertwined on the cover.”

“What’s even funnier than the cards is we actually can’t legally get divorced,” Kyle said, looked at John and laughed. “The state of Minnesota doesn’t recognize that we’re married, and the state of California won’t divorce us unless one of us is a legal resident there.”

After the trip to California John and Kyle held a blessing service and celebration at their church in Minneapolis, which was followed by a potluck put on by their friends and many of the older church women.

“It was really powerful to have people affirming who we are as a couple in a church setting, all singing hymns together. It really meant a lot to us,” Kyle said. “We were simply celebrating the love and commitment between two people.”

When the newly married couple returned home from California, they found a giant banner on their door reading “Just Married! John and Kyle, husband and husband.” It was hand-painted and decorated by their neighbors and neighbor’s children. John reached for a photo album to show me a picture of the banner. He flipped through other pictures from their wedding day. One picture showed John and Kyle holding hands. Standing behind John is a row of family members, three of whom are wearing clerical collars. In the picture below it Kyle is placing a wedding ring on John’s
finger. Both men are crying. Despite the love and support they receive from their Lutheran families and communities, John and Kyle struggle with the greater Lutheran church’s hesitancy to accept and recognize them.

Kyle works in a building in downtown Saint Paul that houses the offices of a Christian church. “The church has this new advertising campaign. They’ve made all of these giant banners where in one corner is a picture of children, another corner is a picture of people of all ethnicities, another picture is a nun with children, and the final picture is a gorgeous mom, dad, and baby. In the center it says ‘We’re all one body.’ There’s about ten of these lining the hallway of our shared building. I walk past them every day. Each time I chuckle to myself and think, ‘We’re not all one body because there’s not a picture of me and my family up there.’”

“The church likes to say ‘We’re all a part of the same body, except for you.’ I’m tired of being the exception,” John said. “We have been used by many groups to divide, drive wedges, and scare people, and I’m emotionally drained.”

“Even despite the movement of individual churches toward being welcoming, the past eight years it has been very painful to be a part of the Lutheran church,” Kyle said. “Both John and I attend these debate forums they have at synod assemblies. We listen to some people talk using terminology such as ‘the gay lifestyle’ and ‘those gays’ and ‘them’ without knowing we’re sitting in the room right with them. They talk like they’re authorities when they have no clue about our
lives or our relationships. We work our butts off, take care of our family, go to church, knit, and fall asleep before the ten o’clock news is on. That’s the gay lifestyle.”