Evangelical Lutheran bishop comes out as gay at National Youth Gathering

In a groundbreaking move, Bishop Kevin Kanouse of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s  (ECLA) Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana region came out as gay to more than 400 youth participating in the ELCA National Youth Gathering. His heartfelt announcement was covered by The Advocate.

Bishop Kanouse publicly explored and shared his struggles with internalized homophobia. When coming out, he said unequivocally, “Being gay is not a sin. My sin was a lifetime of denying that the God who created me, also loves me. It was faithlessness.”

In a letter to the leaders of his Church’s region, Bishop Kanouse described the sermon in which he opened up about his identity at the ELCA National Youth Gathering. He wrote:

More than 400 of our youth and adults were gathered for Bible study, reflection, conversation, and prayer around the call of God in each of our lives. Our study was based on Mark 2:1-12, the story of the paralytic man who sought and received healing from Jesus after a long time of suffering. Several of our youth told their powerful stories of God at work in their lives, I was Holy Spirit-moved to tell my own story publicly, for the first time. This is, in part, what I shared.

Growing up In Pennsylvania, in a very conservative home and culture, I was taught that homosexuality was a terrible sin. I grew up in an atmosphere where I heard the words “fag” and “queer” often in reference to those who were “not like us,” or “sissies,” or “just different… you know.” And people would nod in sad agreement. By my junior high years and beyond I recognized that they were talking about me, but I buried it deep.

I learned early on that I had to hide my true nature… especially because I wanted to be a pastor and serve in the church. After all, pastors could not be gay and serve Jesus. On the one hand, I felt safety and joy in the church, along with a strong sense of call to ministry. On the other hand, church was also where I felt I most had to hide, the most shame. I lived with low self-esteem, self-loathing, and feelings of guilt and rejection.

When I started college, I became good friends with my future wife, Billye Jean, with whom I developed a close, loving relationship. We married 40 years ago, and have had a fulfilling and loving relationship, including two sons and now one grandson. Yet I lived with my sense that I was not being fully honest with myself and others. There was a dark place in my life and it stood between us in ways that I cannot even yet understand.

Bishop Kanouse goes on to describe how he continuously grappled with his identity and his role in the Church, especially as the ELCA’s policies began to evolve towards LGBT affirmation and inclusion.

Still, when it came time to vote on new policies for the ELCA, whereby we would allow the blessing of same-gender relationships and remove the threat of discipline for pastors who blessed such relationships, I voted “no,” feeling incredibly torn. I was afraid. I was afraid I would have to defend my decision to vote “yes” in congregations that would be strongly opposed to gay and lesbian persons. It was safer to hide behind a “no” vote. I was a coward… another sin for which I needed forgiveness.

Indeed, as I visited congregations considering a vote to leave the ELCA over the next couple years, the arguments defending those few scriptures condemning gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual persons sounded more and more hollow. Christians spoke strong, condemning words about people who were like me, by nature. It did not sound like the truth of the Gospel I have been preaching.  It was at that time that I spent a great deal of time in counseling, where I could verbalize: “I am a gay man. I am a beloved child of God, just as I am, created in God’s image and acceptable to God and to myself.” What an amazing amount of freedom and deepening faith have developed in my life over these past five years. God created me as I am, and God loves me completely and fully.

Towards the letter’s conclusion, the Bishop explains why he was moved, after all this time, to open up about his journey to accept who he is to a large group at a youth-oriented event.

I was moved to share my journey with the youth because I know many are struggling with these and other issues of self-esteem, rejection, and self-loathing. I wanted to instill the hope of the gospel among youth who are defining themselves. I urged that none of them would endure that pain for as long as I did.

Guy Erwin became the first openly gay ECLA bishop when he was elected in 2013, but Bishop Kanouse is the first ECLA bishop to come out while already holding the position. GLAAD worked closely with Bishop Erwin, helping him share his story with his faith community and nationwide.

Bishop Kanouse’s thoughtful and personal conversation with ECLA’s youth and regional leaders will have a lasting impact of hope and inspiration to faithful LGBT people and their allies. Significantly, serving as a model of openness, Bishop Kanouse is personalizing the issue of movement toward faith-based LGBT-affirmation and will help change the hearts and minds of those who have not yet been able to accept the LGBT community in their spiritual and personal lives.