Opening gates: gay rights, same-sex marriage and the church

When Steven Renner was ordained April 25 at Third Lutheran Church in Clifton, it was largely procedural – he had already been in his position as pastor at the church for six-plus years. But Renner’s ordination means much more in the bigger picture in a time when Kentucky is caught in a maelstrom over the same-sex marriage debate. Why? Because Renner is the first gay man in a same-sex marriage to be ordained in Kentucky.

At the very least, it’s a symbolic step forward for the LGBT community in search of equality in a society where the realization of truly equal rights remains elusive. And as Renner sat recently in his spacious office wearing a yellow t-shirt emblazoned with the words “God’s Work, Our Hands,” discussing his ordination and his life as a gay man, the significance was clearly not lost on him.

In fact, he has publicly and repeatedly said he thought his ordination was a day that would never come.

But it did. On a mild but rainy Saturday afternoon, Third Lutheran was packed with parishioners – but other than a notable lack of parking near 1864 Frankfort Ave. and some decorative orange, red and yellow balloons outside the church, there was little evidence anything unique was going on. Inside, however, a ceremony was taking place that would ordain the first same-sex married man into the Lutheran Church in the Indiana-Kentucky Synod, which serves both states.

Amid plenty of singing and scripture readings, photographers and journalists milled about quietly in what was generally a serene atmosphere. Intermittent prayers with call and response from the congregation were part of the ceremony. One of those made it very clear why this particular ordination was so significant.

“For all members of the church, that they may serve you in true and godly lives,” one prayer declared. “For those persons who are LGBT and still awaiting the call, that they might be called soon to serve your church and your people: God of mercy, hear our prayer.”

But at times, the ordination was almost like a roast – it was clear Renner is a well-liked figure at Third Lutheran. And while he has led the church for some time, the difference now is that he is recognized by the synod, a major step not only for him, but for the church and for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

During the ordination sermon, Rev. Tuula Van Gaasbeek, a former pastor at Third Lutheran, noted that many years ago she believed Renner, who has been partnered for more than 20 years with his now husband Sean Patrick, would one day be ordained. She noted, however, that she assumed it would culminate in Renner becoming “the oldest gay man ordained … on the cover of Lutheran Magazine.”

And she said when Renner asked aloud if he was ready for such a step forward in his career as a clergyman, her response was, “Don’t be silly – of course you’re not.”

Even while acknowledging the expected difficulties, Rev. Van Gaasbeek said, “You have the God it takes for you to be a pastor – and this is what you must never, ever forget.”

Following the laying on of hands, Renner, a slight, balding man with glasses, broke new ground, busting through what was referred to by Van Gaasbeek during the ceremony as a “gate” that had once held him and all LGBT clergy members back. For this step forward to come at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is wrestling with the issue of same-sex marriage in Kentucky and other states is fortuitous, if not entirely accidental.

Actually, Renner said, the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) in America, of which Third Lutheran is a congregation, approved of celibate LGBT people being ordained in 2009, but he was partnered at the time – so he waited. Then came the surprise marriage back in October to celebrate his and Sean’s 20th anniversary as a couple.

At that point he already knew his ordination had been approved; by then it was simply a matter of scheduling. The long wait was over.

Renner clearly doesn’t hold himself up as a purposeful example, but he does acknowledge relief and hope that this particular gate has finally opened. Maybe, just maybe, Kentucky is about to open another gate for people like him, who have endured years of discrimination and difficulty just because they wanted to be themselves.

Growing up as a gay Christian

The 52-year-old Renner realized he was gay at about age 10, but it was a time – the 1970s – when being gay generally meant having a well-guarded secret, especially if you lived in a conservative Midwestern state like Ohio. Still, a slender boy who was small for his age, he was seen as different early on, and children can be cruel. He started hearing the word “fag.” To this day, he hears children use this as a derogatory term, and sometimes it can take him back.

“These days, it’s … nothing to do with their sexual orientation,” Renner says. “It’s just a putdown, basically. Then at times it does sound jarring. When I hear it and look at who’s being called that, my heart breaks for them because it just kind of takes me back immediately to being 10 or 11 or 12 or whatever.”

And it was a long road for Renner to find someplace where he could feel like himself. He remained in the closet while attending church with his father and stepmother (as well as several siblings) at a theologically conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod church in Ohio; it was not a place that was welcoming to any liberal views, let alone alternative lifestyles.

“It is the most conservative of the major Lutheran denominations in the United States,” Renner says. “Women are not permitted to do anything except be on the ladies aid society and teach children. They can’t even teach adults. It’s very strict. And they believe in the inerrancy of the Bible; there’s no translation or any of that kind of stuff.”

This, of course, helped to reinforce Renner’s perceived need to stay quiet about his orientation, which he did through high school, all while enduring the bullying. The discrimination against LGBT people is something Renner has a lot of trouble understanding, for many reasons.

“First and foremost, it didn’t surprise me,” Renner says about realizing he was gay. “I couldn’t tell you why. At that time there [were] no role models. I guess to me it felt like … like, Sean is left-handed. Some people … have compared being gay to left-handed people. To me, that’s really what it felt like, especially in hindsight. Left-handed people are picked on. They are made to try to use the right hand. In my mind, it felt natural [to be gay] but I just, again, knew enough not to say anything.”

He continued going to church, but the clashing ideologies ultimately drove him away from organized religion. In his words, he’d become “so fed up with Christians” that he had come to eschew Christianity altogether. He stayed away from Church for about two years, happy to simply be himself, even though he was still keeping his orientation secret – mostly because there simply wasn’t anyone to tell.

But when his parents dropped him off at college at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, things were about to change for Renner – for the better.

On his way into the dorm on his move-in day, he passed by a poster hanging on a bulletin board announcing a meeting of the Gay People’s Alliance.

“They were meeting on Thursday nights,” Renner recalls. “I made a mental note as I went past that I needed to come back and write this down. Which I did, fortunately, because within a half hour it was torn down off the board.”

Renner became active in the group – which, ironically, held its meetings in the campus ministry building – happy to have finally found an oasis of open minds in a desert of conservatism. He made some friends and met some people he could trust.

One of those people came to him at one point from a Lutheran denominational church noting that her congregation was doing a study on human sexuality. She wanted him to speak, as a way of putting a face to the issue for her congregation.

“They wanted to meet a real live homo,” Renner says.

“So I went and was peppered with lots of questions. A lot of them were completely inappropriate questions,” he says. “I left there that night thinking, ‘Steven, why did you do this? You were perfectly fine staying away from Christianity, and then you went into the belly of the beast.’”

The woman apologized later for some of the questioning, but the experience served to reinforce his alienation from Christianity of any kind. For a while.

The following summer, he stayed in Athens. His friend Carol was asked to preach at a church event, and asked Steven if he would attend to support her.

“For some God-only-knows reason, I said ‘yes,’” Renner recalls.

But at this ceremony, which was at Christ Lutheran in Athens, an ELC church similar to Third Lutheran, something changed. His friend gave a stirring sermon, people sang, the organ played. Somewhere along the way, Renner’s wall came down.

“By the time the service ended, I couldn’t stand up anymore because I was sobbing from the realization I had come home,” he recalls. “I was in a service where the minister was a woman. I went back the next Sunday and, unless I was traveling or sick, I was at that church every Sunday for the next five years.

“It solidified for me the fact that not only was I a Lutheran, regardless of what I thought, but that you could be gay and Lutheran – gay and Christian regardless of what other people thought.”

But something else major happened in Renner’s life shortly after he found his oasis – his older brother outed Steven to their parents, who had by then retired and moved to Florida. Renner’s brother asked him to call their parents but didn’t say why.

“So I called them, both of them were on the phone, and they said, ‘What’s this that we’ve heard about you?’” he recalls.

“You mean about me being gay?” he told them.

“So it’s true?”

“Well, yeah.”

The rest of the call didn’t go well: “Up to that point, it was the worst experience of my life,” he says.

Renner’s father would come to accept the revelation much later, but his stepmother, Renner believes, never accepted it. She died in 2009.

His father, however, came to his and Sean’s commitment ceremony and walked him down the aisle. At the reception, the DJ opened up the microphone for toasts.

“The first person up was my dad,” Renner says. “He talked about how he was proud of Sean and I. You could have knocked me over with feather.”

At this point Renner seems to choke up for just a second, but he then says, “I told him afterward, ‘You just gave us the best wedding gift we ever got.’”

Becoming a minister

It was through Christ Lutheran that Renner became interested in ministry. As time went by, he became naturally more and more ingrained. If he was offered a chance to take on a new responsibility, he eagerly accepted.

“Anytime they gave me an inch, I took it,” he recalls. “I even went maybe a half inch more.”

He also eagerly accepted his role as an outed gay man; his new church helped in this.

“I didn’t have a problem being the face of gay rights in Athens, because it was just natural for me,” he says. “While I was in the closet as a kid, it wasn’t where I wanted to be. In some ways I always wanted to go somewhere where I didn’t have to be in the closet.”

He moved to Evansville, Indiana, and in 1993 a program came into being for laypeople to be trained how to lead a worship service and preach sermons. The pastor asked him if he was interested, and he immediately said yes.

After a stint in Allentown, Pennsylvania, he returned to Evansville, which is when he met Sean by chance through a mutual friend. He found Sean to be handsome but quiet, and asked him out. He says he fell in love on the first date.

Around that time, he was added to the lay ministry committee. His and Sean’s involvement with the church continued to increase, but at that time the gate was still very much closed for a gay minister – especially one who was partnered. He moved to Louisville in 2004 to be managing director for the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival. While he and Sean continued to commute as much as possible, they finally decided to find a church they could attend every Sunday – that’s when they found Third Lutheran, and he met Rev. Van Gaasbeek.

“She was five-foot-nothing, from Finland, but was a dynamic preacher and teacher, and the people here were so friendly,” he says. “It was so open and affirming that we were, like, ‘This is the place for us.’”

It didn’t hurt that she had come to Louisville because she could not be ordained in her native country because she was a woman; here, she could. She understood gates and how to get around them.

When Van Gaasbeek decided to leave Third Lutheran a couple of years later to move to Toronto, Renner might have seen his own gate open just a little. But at the time he still could not be ordained as a gay man. No one in his religion could, and he didn’t think that would ever change. Van Gaasbeek did.

“I sat on that couch, in fact,’” he says, pointing to a couch in his office, “and said, ‘Tuula, that’s not going to happen.’ She said, ‘Oh, they’re going to vote in 2009, and I know it’s going to happen.’”

An open gate

She was right. And just a couple of weeks ago, it did happen. The gate finally opened wide for Steven Renner. But he isn’t about to declare any decisive victories for gay rights in Kentucky, not as long as same-sex marriage is still up for debate (a Supreme Court decision is expected in June). Not as long as LGBT people are treated, as he puts it, “like second-class citizens.”

A few weeks before the interview, Renner was filing his and Sean’s taxes – jointly for the first time, since they are now legally married. They still have to file independently for the state, and the federal forms are different than most couples use.

“It’s a lot more paperwork than I think most couples [have to fill out],” he says. “It just reinforces the concept that we are second class citizens in Kentucky.

“When I went to do our health insurance, I had to fill out all these forms that straight married couples don’t. I had to have it notarized not only with my signature but also Sean’s signature. That’s minor, I agree, but it’s still not equal. It’s not the same.”

So, in many regards, the gate is still not all the way open. But it opened enough that Renner has achieved a feat neither he nor many others thought achievable in a state where same-sex marriage is still seen by many as an abomination.

Just last November, after adopting a resolution to support LGBT rights, Crescent Hill Baptist Church (just down the street from Third Lutheran) was ousted from the Kentucky Baptist Convention (KBC), which cited the “authority” of the Bible as its justification. It was a duty, the KBC argued, not a choice.

And, in a April 13 story about Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s signing of the state’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act, called the battle for LGBT rights a “culture war.” It is in many ways a culture war in which the line is being drawn at marriage. The war rages on.

“There are lots of gates that people put up,” Renner says. “Some are to keep people in, but mostly to keep others out.

“While we may have won the race in Indiana, we haven’t in Kentucky,” Renner continues. “If [he and Sean] were traveling … and we get into a car accident and I’m hospitalized, they are legally allowed to say, ‘No, only his relatives are allowed in to see him at this point.’ And that would be pretty horrible. That could still happen in Kentucky.”

So, while the ordination of a gay, married man is a step forward, it’s a small step. Perhaps it opens a few eyes, pushes a few more people off the fence. But it doesn’t come close to achieving the sought after equality.

“It comes back to being a citizen,” Renner says. “Not a second class citizen, but fully a citizen of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. It always bothers me … the idea that gay marriage will jeopardize heterosexual marriage or the concept of marriage. I don’t see how Sean and I being married affects anyone else in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Or the sanctity of marriage. How easy it is to get divorced destroys the sanctity of marriage more than if two women or men love each other.”

One barely noticeable but nevertheless significant detail about Third Lutheran Church is that on one side of the sign out front facing Frankfort Avenue is a rainbow, signaling simply that everyone is welcome. With the ordination of Steven Renner, that openness is reinforced.

“When it comes down to it, LGBT folks are typically the last folks that are welcomed into a congregation,” he says.

Renner told a story about his ordination that is reflective of his long journey, slowly opening gates one by one. His father, now much older and battling macular degeneration, was at the ordination ceremony on April 25. He made a toast at the reception, just as he had done at Steven and Sean’s commitment ceremony.

A sibling told Steven, “Everybody he has come into contact with the last nine months, he said, ‘My son …’” and at this point Renner chokes up again, before continuing. “‘My son is going to be ordained.’ And talked about how proud he was of me.”

That’s a different kind of gate that opened. And if an ultra-conservative man who once saw homosexuality as an abomination can make such a change, perhaps the state of Kentucky can do the same. If Renner’s ordination helps open that gate a little wider for more widespread change and stories like his relationship with his father, he’s all for it. But as pastor of the church who accepts everyone, his long-term goal continues unabated. That goal is to teach acceptance and to teach people to simply love one another. For him, that’s what the Bible is all about.

“What I think it means is there can be somebody, a young person sitting in a Lutheran congregation somewhere realizing that they are not the devil incarnate because they’re gay or lesbian or transgender or bisexual,” Renner says. “That not only can you be who you are, who God made you to be, but you can also be a pastor at the same time.”