First Catholic LGBTQ Youth Summit Succeeds Despite Church Ouster

May 20, 2015

The first LGBTQ+ Catholic Youth Summit successfully took place in Minnesota’s Twin Cities metro area last Saturday–despite the fact that the local archdiocese canceled their plans to meet at a local Catholic parish.

More than 100 people gathered Saturday for this inaugural Summit hosted by the LGBTQ+ Catholic Student Coalition in partnership with Justice Office of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and Consociates and OutFront Minnesota. The Column reports it featured Mass, workshops on creating safe spaces in Catholic schools, discussing LGBT issues in faith contexts, and the sharing of personal experiences.

Organizers of this event designed to bring together young people to discuss building a more inclusive church originally planned to hold the Summit at the Church of Christ the King in Minneapolis, but a decision from the archbishop forced them to move to the nearby Edina Community Lutheran Church.

Archbishop John Nienstedt mandated the change because Kristen Ostendorf, fired from a Twin Cities Catholic high school in 2013 when she shared her orientation and relationship status with faculty members, was the keynote speaker.  Nienstedt claimed the youth attendees  would be “confused about the truth of [church] teaching,” reported The Column.

Others, however, felt that Nienstedt’s concern was unwarranted. Michael Bayly writes at his blog, The Wild Reed:

“The young people who comprise the LGBTQ+ Catholic Student Coalition are quite impressive, wouldn’t you say?…These young people are clearly embodying the gospel values of concern for the marginalized, compassion, inclusion, and justice. Also, their efforts to facilitate respectful dialogue reflect the leadership style of Pope Francis. Given all of this, one would think that these students and their efforts would be supported by the clerical leadership of the archdiocese. Not so…

“Indeed, when it comes to questioning voices and differing opinions around issues of sexuality and church reform, the general response of the chancery under Archbishop Nienstedt (who, it should be noted, remains under investigation for allegations of sexual misconduct with adult men) has been to censor, denounce, and ban. In the context of our shared journey as Catholics, such actions are egregious missteps on the part of our clerical leadership.

“One can only speculate on the impact that the chancery’s banning of the summit from official Catholic property will have on the young members of the LGBTQ+ Catholic Student Coalition. Their Facebook statement puts a positive spin on things, but I’m sure that many of the young people involved are feeling hurt and rejected by the message that has been sent by the chancery’s directive.”

Bayly notes Pew Research Forum data, released the same day that Nienstedt made his decision, confirming that because young people feel churches exclude LGBT people, this new generation is increasingly abandoning the pews.

Parker Breza

Parker Breza, a student organizer behind the Summit and its hosting organizer, the LGBTQ+ Catholic Student Coalition, confirmed this harm in an interview with MinnPost. Citing a desire to build bridges between LGBTQ and Catholic communities, Breza continued:

“I’m gay, and I’ve gone to Catholic school my whole life, and I’ve been raised Catholic, so I know how hard it is to have to turn on some parts of your identity and not, depending on which space you’re in…it was very important to us to hold it in a Catholic space, because it’s a Catholic event…

“[F]rom what I’ve been taught through my Catholic education, Jesus loved those who are marginalized by society, he was constantly working for those who were not accepted by the majority, and so I think he would want this event to happen. He wanted to provoke dialogue and to have conversations that people weren’t willing to have, based on what was considered OK at the time. So I really do think if Jesus was around today, he would want this event to be at Christ The King and he would be there.”

Twitter recorded excerpts from the keynote by Ostendorf as she told the attendees:

“Silence and isolation are not who we are…The fear that prompted Jesus’ death didn’t win. It never does. God’s own son, Jesus, lived honestly and asked us to be our whole and best selves…Together let us bring up these fears…Let us make our churches more welcome and open.”

To achieve the goal of an inclusive church requires the slow, diligent work exhibited by those involved with the Summit. Their clarity of mission is refreshing. The Summit leaders were willing to to delve into the complexities of human life.

This Summit proves once again that high school students are a bright light for the church’s future–if the church can respond to their concerns. With each anti-LGBT statement by Catholic leaders, more and more youth leave.  Parker Breza and his peers seem to already know what Archbishop Nienstedt does not: Jesus stands with LGBT people and would attend the very events being expelled from our church property. Dialogue and question-raising are not problems for the church, but rather, they are expressions of love for it.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Bishops Oppose Trans-Inclusive Athletic Policy While H.S. Student Supports It

December 19, 2014

Opposing voices who attended the early December board meeting

High school athletics in Minnesota became more transgender-inclusive last week despite opposition from the Minnesota Catholic Conference and other groups.  Yet, a brave student at a Catholic high school in the Twin Cities editorialized in the school paper in favor of the new policy.

The board of the Minnesota State High School League voted 18-2 for a new student policy that makes trans women eligible for female athletics at almost 500 schools in the state. Guided by a “consistent or sincerely held gender-related identity, the policy sets forth a process for determining a given student’s eligibility and adds appropriate language to existing eligibility policies. This policy is being lauded by LGBT organizations, according to the Star Tribune:

“Monica Meyer, executive director at OutFront Minnesota, which advocates for transgender issues, said, ‘All students want is a safe place to just be who they are. That includes in the classroom, on the court or field.’…

“OutFront Minnesota Communications Director Jean Heyer said, ‘We have heard trans kids are playing sports right now, and we have heard that there are kids who will try out now that the policy is in place.’ “

However, religiously-affiliated schools are exempt from the new policy and Christian groups led opposition to the anti-discrimination measure. The Minnesota Catholic Conference teamed up with the Minnesota Family Council and others in a campaign, claiming the policy would cause great harm to students and athletic competition. There were also ads employing the now-common tactic of discussing restroom use. One email from the Minnesota Catholic Conference, reported by The Column said:

” ‘The Policy will potentially cause more harm to the very students it purports to help because it enables a false understanding of gender that does not promote physical or psychological well-being.’ “

In further letters from the Catholic Conference to the Minnesota State High School League board, executive director Jason Adkins said the now-approved policy supports “gender confusion” and because it is not required by state or federal law, is really “propaganda” for a “harmful ideology.”

Parker Breza, the In-Depth Editor of The Knight Errant, the student newspaper of Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School, St. Louis Park, Minnesota, wrote an essay for the paper supporting the new policy. Breza explained the problems that trans students experience in school:

“Transgender and gender nonconforming students are faced with a binary––a male/female gender spectrum––defined world every second of everyday. For the majority of students, this is not an issue: this two-sided way of thinking has been ingrained in us from a young age, leading us to accept it without much thought. For some, however, being forced to conform to the gender binary, or not allowing them to identify where they actually belong, causes stress, anxiety, depression, and sometimes, much more.

“But this is such a small minority of individuals, so many do not even pause to think about the consequences of an unwelcome environment for trans* (the asterisk denotes the vast spectrum of terms and identities that fall under the trans* umbrella) identified students.”

Breza goes on to make an important Catholic argument in support of the new policy:

“As a Catholic school, we know the importance of breaking down systems of oppression and fighting the marginalization of historically underrepresented groups. No matter how small a group, no community deserves to be subjected to exclusion, harassment, or violence. By not taking a stand for trans* students and their rights, you are condoning trans*phobia.”

That Catholic officials in Minnesota are disappointing in their public advocacy is not new, given the 2012 referendum around marriage equality. Their arguments rely on debunked science, while ignoring or even attacking the real experiences of transgender people and their allies. Their campaigns against equality under the law rely on fear rather than truth, turning to anti-LGBT agendas rather than the Gospel to inform their efforts.

As more trans youth are liberated to come out and live authentically, Catholic leaders at all levels should forgo the political fights and instead figure out how the church’s schools can provide welcome and inclusion for all.  Catholic leaders need to listen to students like Parker Breza, whose faith defines a path of acceptance, justice, and equality.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Fired Minnesota Teacher Speaks Out on the Danger of Silence

September 13, 2013
Kristen Ostendorf

Kristen Ostendorf

“I don’t feel like telling the truth should cost me my job.”

Those are the words of Kristen Ostendorf, reacting to being fired from a Minnesota Catholic high school after she publicly revealed that she was a lesbian and involved in a relationship with another woman.

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) reports that officials at Totino-Grace H.S., in Fridley, a suburb of the Twin Cities, have been tight-lipped about their response to the firing.  MPR states:

“The school released a statement saying the matter is a private one between employer and employee.

” ‘Like all Catholic schools and organizations, Totino-Grace follows the teachings of the church and the employment policies of the Archdiocese,’ it said in part.”

Interestingly, this is the second case this year of a Totino-Grace staff member leaving the school because of revealing involvement in a same-sex relationship.  William Hudson voluntarily stepped down as school president when he disclosed to school board members his long-term commitment to another man.  Ostendorf taught English, religion, and was a campus minister and swimming and lacrosse coach.

The silence of the school officials contrasts strikingly with Ostendorf’s claim about telling the truth. In a MinnPost interview, Ostendorf spoke eloquently about the destructive power of silence:

“I’m not a big fan of silence. I’m not a fan of leaving the unnamed elephant in the room. I think silence is a huge problem. There’s been criticism of Bill [William Hudson] for having ‘kept a secret.’ And I think, really? He was doing a job he was called to do. But let’s say he was keeping a secret, and I chose to not keep a secret. We’re both gone. And the sad story is, I’d like to be the last person to be fired for who I loved, or for the gender of the person I love. But I won’t be, probably, and the silence around it terrifies me.

“The truth is, there are 800 kids who started school two weeks ago. They have a job to do, and they have to do it well, and they will. They have to press on. Still, I’m gone, and my desk is empty, and everybody knows it, and nobody’s talking about it. That’s something I wake up at night thinking about: the silence. Silence is the undoing of lots of good things, and I would err on the side of truth. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”

In the same interview, Ostendorf comments about another form of silence in the church:

“As far as I can surmise, the rule I broke was saying out loud that I am in a relationship with a woman. It is OK in the church to be gay, though one would really not say that aloud.”

MPR also reported on another Totino-Grace staff person, Chad O’Leary, a youth minister, who resigned in 2010 after telling school administrators that he was gay.   They also describe these types of departures as part of a national trend:

“Firings at Catholic schools over same-sex relationships appear to be on the rise nationally, according to Francis DeBernardo, executive director of Maryland-based New Ways Ministry, a group that advocates for LGBT employees in Catholic institutions.

” ‘In 2011 there was maybe two or three cases like this. In 2012 there was probably six. And now [this year] we’ve had well over a dozen,’ he said.

“DeBernardo says that’s in part because gay marriage has become legal in more states, like Minnesota, and that has gay employees of Catholic schools speaking up about their relationships.

” ‘The arrival of public affirmation of their relationships is going to bring out more and more of these cases,’ he said.”

For a listing of the known dismissals of church workers because of LGBT issues over the past few years, click here.

Michael Bayly, a prominent Catholic LGBT  Twin Cities’ advocate, put these firings into spiritual context in his blog post at The Wild Reed:

“I’ve followed a number of cases where LGBT people have either resigned or been fired from Catholic institutions. And as difficult as the situation was initially for these folks, they’ve actually moved on to a much better place in their lives. For one thing, they’re no longer closeted. And, let’s be honest, why would we want anyone to remain in a situation where they can’t be their true and full selves? That’s a terrible way to live. I know as I lived it for many years. Oh, to be sure, we can justify it by saying something like, it’s better to be ‘on the inside’ doing what we can to help others.

“Well, let me tell you, that only lasts so long. Ultimately, the best way we can help others, say, for example, young people at a Catholic school, is to live a life of honesty and integrity. That’s what Kristen Ostendorf has chosen to do after eighteen years of being in a work environment that, as she says, required her to ‘hide and compromise and deny who I am.’

“I’m happy that Kristen is out of such an unhealthy environment. I’m sad that such environments still exist – especially within a faith community that claims inspiration from the life and message of Jesus. There’s a major disconnect there, to be sure. “

Silence is unhealthy and secrecy breeds many negative consequences.  Instead of castigating those who speak with honesty and clarity, our church should be honoring these people for helping us as a community to move closer to the truth.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles

Star-Tribune:  Gay teacher no longer employed at Totino-Grace

MinnPost:  Fired after she came out to colleagues, Totino-Grace teacher leaves dissonance and silence behind

The Wild Reed: Thoughts on the Firing of Kristen Ostendorf

Huffington Post: Kristen Ostendorf, Minnesota Catholic School Teacher, Allegedly Fired For Being Gay

Pioneer Press: Another gay educator out at Totino-Grace High School

Minnesota Public Radio: How Totino-Grace discovered, then fired gay veteran teacher

Minnesota Becomes 12th US State with Equal Marriage Laws

May 14, 2013

Marriage Equality Advocates Celebrate in the Minnesota State House

Minnesota becomes the 12th state in the US to adopt marriage equality into law today, just six months after voters defeated a constitutional amendment to define marriage heterosexually. In both campaigns, Catholic advocates and opponents played a central role in shaping the marriage equality conversation.

After a successful House vote last week, the Senate voted 37-30 yesterday to pass the bill. Legislators now send the bill to Governor Mark Dayton who is expected to sign it this afternoon. The New York Times reports on the victory, and turnaround, in Minnesota:

“In a way, Monday’s vote was a startling shift in the conversation in this state. For much of 2012, Minnesotans had been debating an amendment to the state Constitution that would have done the opposite — define marriage as between a man and a woman…Minnesotans in November rejected the amendment and sent majorities of Democrats to both chambers of the State Legislature, setting off an intense new push to legalize same-sex marriage.

“‘That whole constitutional amendment backfired on them,’ Amy Britain, 46, said Monday…She said it proved that Minnesotans, like many Americans, had changed their views on marriage.”

At Queering the Church, Terence Weldon notes the importance of Catholic efforts by Minnesotans involved in the struggle:

“This is not new: Catholics have been prominent in marriage victories elsewhere, as have other faith groups…But it is true that for a long time, it appeared that church groups were overwhelmingly opposed, and only fairly recently has faith–based support become reasonably widespread. Minnesota, I suspect, is one example where the religious support has been particularly telling…

“I’m not going to even attempt to offer a run-down of all the people and groups who have contributed, or how. But for some indication of just how much there has been, cross to yesterday’s post at The Wild Reed, ‘Drawing the Circle Wide‘, written in anticipation of today’s success and giving an extensive list of some of those people, with pictures, whose hard work has now paid off. Then cross to today’s post at Sensus Fidelium, ‘It’ll be legal by August 1st‘, where you can read more about the legwork done by Catholics for Marriage Equality MN…”

Leading up to the 2012 elections, marriage equality advocates fought fiercely to defeat an anti-gay amendment being voted on while the Catholic hierarchy spoke and spent heavily to write discrimination into law. Today, once the governor signs marriage equality into law, all Minnesotans will be able to marry while religious liberty protections remain in place.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

The Best of 2012 in Catholic LGBT News

December 31, 2012

Thumbs_upYesterday, we posted our list of the worst of 2012 in Catholic LGBT news.  Today, as promised, we end the year on a positive note by presenting our list of the BEST of the previous year.  Much good has happened in 2012, with Catholics at all levels of the church speaking out for justice and equality for LGBT people.

Thanks to the 286 of you who voted in our poll to determine the selection and ranking of these best news stories.  The percentage following each story is the percentage of people who chose this item as one of their top five.

The Top Ten

1. Catholic lay support aids marriage equality victories in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington State. 23.08%

2. Priests in Minnesota and Maryland publicly counter the local hierarchy’s opposition to marriage equality. 14.69%  

3. Berlin’s Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki suggests that the church should treat gay and straight couples similarly9.09%  

4 & 5.  TIE                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Bishop Richard Malone in Maine announces that the diocese will not take an active political role against the state’s marriage equality referendum. 8.39%                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Surveys show increase in support for LGBT issues among Hispanics, especially Catholics. 8.39%

6. At New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium, Australia’s Bishop Geoffrey Robinson calls for the church hierarchy to re-think its sexual ethics teachings8.04% 

7 & 8. TIE                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    The University of Notre Dame gives official recognition to a gay-straight alliance after years of student activism. 5.24%                           Austrian Cardinal overturns a pastor’s decision to bar a gay man from serving on a parish council. 5.24%

9. Catholics in Media Associates gives its top award to TV’s Modern Family, a show featuring a gay family. 3.85%  

10. Maryland priest who denied communion to a lesbian woman at her mother’s funeral is removed from pastoral ministry. 3.5%  

Editor’s Note:  One item which we neglected to add to the list for voting was that Vice President Joe Biden, a  Catholic, endorsed marriage equality, paving the way for President Barack Obama to do the same.  Biden also referred to transgender equality as “the civil rights issue of our time.”  We feel these should deserve some mention on the list of the best Catholic news of 2012.  We regret that we didn’t include them for voting.  Mea maxima culpa.

Other items

Cardinal Francis George apologizes for comparing the LGBT community to the Ku Klux Klan. 2.45%  

Ontario requires all schools, including state-supported Catholic schools, to institute gay-straight alliances. 2.1%  

Jesuit author James Martin endorses Spirit Day, a national program to end bullying of LGBT youth. 2.1% 

Pastor at Most Holy Redeemer parish in San Francisco reverses his earlier decision to ban drag queens from parish events. 1.75%

Students at Stonehill College, a Catholic campus in Massachusetts, win a new and improved non-discrimination policy. 1.4%  

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Minnesota Teen Supports His Friend in Confirmation Controversy

November 25, 2012

Last weekend, we reported the story of a Minnesota teenager, Lennon Cihak, who is being denied confirmation because he took a stand in support of marriage equality during that state’s recent ballot initiative.

An interesting development has occurred in this story:  one of Cihak’s confirmation class peers has refused to receive confirmation as a  gesture of solidarity for his friend.  What makes this development even more interesting is that the second teen, Ryne Kisch, does not share Cihak’s support of marriage equality.

D-L reports:

“Jay Kisch said his 16-year-old son, Ryne, did not agree with 17-year-old Lennon Cihak’s support of same-sex marriage, instead withdrawing from the confirmation process at Assumption Church here ‘out of compassion and concern’ for Cihak.

“ ‘They don’t necessarily share the same viewpoint on gay marriage, but yet they’re good friends and very supportive of each other,’ Jay Kisch said.”

Yet, the priest who denied confirmation to Cihak, Fr. Gary LaMoine, made a public statement that Kisch agreed with Cihak on marriage equality, which Kisch and his family have denied:

“In a letter to the parish made public last Friday, LaMoine said both Cihak and another ‘candidate,’ meaning Ryne Kisch, withdrew from the confirmation process ‘because of their disagreement with the teaching of the Church concerning marriage.’

“ ‘My son feels like he’s been maligned,’ he said. ‘No one even asked him why he didn’t want to go through the confirmation process. I think it was just assumed that he believed in gay marriage.’

“Although Ryne, who has been a friend of Cihak’s since kindergarten, says he does not support same-sex marriage, he still wanted to stand with his friend.

“ ‘We disagree on the views but we can still be friends,’ Ryne said. ‘I decided to stick up for him.’ ”

LaMoine–and indeed the entire church– can learn a lesson from Ryne:  you don’t have to agree to be able to stand in solidarity and communion with your friend.  Love can transcend all differences.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Update on Catholic Financing of Marriage Equality Opposition

November 19, 2012

Church financing to oppose marriage equality is in the news once again as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) updated its report on Catholic funding to reveal that Catholic institutions provided $2 million this year to try to forestall marriage for lesbian and gay couples in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington State.

An earlier version of this report was released before the election. The full, updated report is available on the HRC website.

In a statement announcing the report update, HRC noted:

“The historic results of last week’s elections only highlight the growing disconnect between the fair-minded Romany Catholic laity and the anti-LGBT Church hierarchy. A 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll found that nearly 60 percent of Catholics support marriage equality. In fact, polling indicates marriage equality is one of the least important issues Catholics are currently concerned with. That same poll, from Belden Russonello, found that 83 percent of Catholics feel their bishops should not influence their vote.”

The report breaks down the funding by state.  It complements a report by Equally Blessed released before the election which details funding to oppose marriage equality by the Knights of Columbus.

Chad Griffin, HRC President commented on the report:

“The American people went to the polls and affirmed one of the core values of the Roman Catholic Church: the belief that all humans are worthy of dignity, respect, and love. The Church and NOM [National Organization for Marriage] can continue pouring money into discriminating against LGBT people, but the writing is on the wall for their anti-equality agenda. The Roman Catholic hierarchy should be focusing on taking actions that actually improve people’s lives, not spending precious resources on spreading malicious lies aimed at tearing down an entire community of people.”

(As an aside, in a HuffingtonPost blog entry, Griffin cited one of ten reasons that marriage equality was so successful this election cycle was because “Faith coalitions were on our side:”

“In 2008, our opponents talked like they had a monopoly on faith. This year, the prominent voices of pro-equality faith leaders like Reverend Delman Coates and organizations like Catholics for Marriage Equality made a huge difference.”)

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, where the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis spent $650,000 in a campaign to support a state constitutional ban against marriage equality, a group of concerned Catholics is calling for greater transparency and accountability.

Minnesota Public Radio reported on a meeting of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, where one leader, Martha Turner, asked participants to share their concerns about archdiocesan spending so that the group can start a conversation with the archdiocese:

” ‘We would like to hear your stories,’ Turner said. ‘We want to hear from you, we want to hear your experiences and your concerns about how the money is used that you donate to your parishes and that some of which ends up in the archdiocese.’ “

As Catholics begin to ask for more transparency and accountability, church leaders are going to find that they will have to be honest or that Catholics will vote with their pocketbooks by refusing donations.  What would be interesting to know is how much Catholic money was raised FOR marriage equality efforts.  As the number of Catholics who support marriage equality continues to grow, the total of their individual donations to marriage equality campaigns will is sure to grow.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry









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