Mike Tegeder was 11 years old when he first heard the word “fag.”
It happened while he was stocking shelves for Benno Belzer, a local Jewish grocer, in north Minneapolis. A group of bag boys, maybe half a dozen years older, huddled nearby, discussing their plans to bash a fag that weekend.
“They just kept saying they were going to go beat up some of what they called ‘fags,’” says Tegeder, now in his mid-50s. “I had no idea what they were talking about. But I just thought, ‘Why would you want to beat up somebody just because they’re different?’”
Forty years later, Tegeder sits in the anteroom of Minneapolis’s St. Frances Cabrini Church. Tegeder — Father Mike, as he’s now known — is a priest. He’s been one for 34 years, all served in the Twin Cities. His thin-rim glasses and shock-white, shoulder-length hair give him the look of a college professor. His white collar is nowhere to be seen.
He shares stories, stories beyond those bag boys, those fag-beaters. He talks about the gay subculture he saw when he was a student at St. John’s, shared between teachers and students alike. He mentions that one of those students had to move to New York to find some acceptance, only to be murdered in a Manhattan bar by another man looking to beat some fags.
But Father Mike won’t share the man’s name, because that man’s family still lives here, and even though they know everything that happened to their boy, the embarrassment still exists. The shame, all these years later, remains.
Because, as Father Mike explains, the family is among the 1.2 million Minnesotans who still call the Roman Catholic Church home. And so the shame — all that sin, all that damnation — is what this family remembers when they think about their son. The shame is what their church taught them.
Which is why Mike’s here, talking about it, slamming his finger on the desk and calling out the shame that his church promulgates. Calling out the way his church robs homosexuals of their dignity, the way it stares them down and claims they are “intrinsically disordered.”
“The greatest threats to marriage are the economy, joblessness, alcoholism, drug abuse — there are a lot of threats to marriage, but it has very little to do with homosexuals having a committed relationship,” says Tegeder, who’s also a pastor at the Church of Gichitwaa Kateri. “I know committed same-sex people who are doing God’s work.”
Tegeder knows what the Bible dictates on homosexuality — along with what it dictates about shellfish, and mixed-cloth clothing, and all those other Bronze Age concerns. And he knows there’s no single person responsible for the shame his church lifts from these passages.
But there is one person who could single-handedly end it all in the Twin Cities: His Excellency, the Most Reverend Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis John C. Nienstedt.
“Nienstedt is just so rigid about these things,” Tegeder continues, growing animated. “But, you know — just let go of it. What are we trying to defend? Marriage? Has the Catholic Church protected marriage? I mean, [Nienstedt] has a priest who impregnated one of his staff members, broke up their marriage, and the guy’s still functioning! … Why don’t we take care of our own issues before we start imposing views onto other people who don’t have the same religious beliefs?”
It wasn’t always this way. Archbishop John Roach and his successor, Harry Flynn, led a notably progressive, inclusive, post-Vatican II archdiocese, one balanced on even-handed discussion. They understood the church’s line on certain social issues — reproductive rights, welfare reform — but always kept their doors, and their minds, open.
But in the mid-’80s, with AIDS and “moral relativism” coming to the fore, the church began sidelining priests who’d championed gay parishioners. Pope John Paul II closed rank, and his successor followed suit.
“I’m afraid these men have sex on the brain, and between you and me that’s not the best place to have sex,” says Leonard Swidler, a prominent Catholic theologian and professor of Catholic Thought and Interreligious Dialogue at Temple University. “Issues of birth control, marriage, divorce, married priests, female priests, same-sex marriage — it’s all sex, sex, sex. They’re sex maniacs.”
Few fit Swidler’s caricature of the current episcopacy more naturally than Nienstedt. Born in Detroit in 1947, Nienstedt took to the church early. His parents were devout Catholics, and it took little time for Nienstedt to find his calling, claiming from an early age that he’d someday become a priest.
Patrick Halfpenny, now a monseigneur in the Detroit archdiocese, first met Nienstedt when they were freshmen at seminary school in Detroit. Bonded by a common affinity for hockey, the two formed a fast friendship, one that has continued 47 years to this day.
“From the start, he was a very bright man, with a very good sense of himself,” Halfpenny recalls. “We both come from families that were very devout and serious in the practice of their faith — the church is the place we were first nourished.”