The Rev. Carole Elizabeth prepared this autobiographical statement in May, 2011:
I was born the only daughter of Arthur and Esther Olson on May 18, 1944. Dad was a pastor in the old ELC Norwegian Lutheran Synod and was conservative theologically and socially. My mother followed his lead in all things. I never heard the word homosexuality uttered at school, at church or at home until I left to be out on my own.
I loved my first girlfriend deeply -- I was five and Eileen was ten. It was a matter of heroine worship. Later my loves remained platonic because I couldn’t imagine other options. I wasn't interested in boys, though I thought I ought to be, so I tried without much success.
I went to a variety of schools in the Midwest as my father changed churches every few years, finally graduating from Tucson High School in Tucson, Arizona, in 1962. I left home to go to California Lutheran Bible School "to give God a chance to see if Christianity could work for me". I thought I’d give it a year and then throw it over if I couldn’t make sense of it. There I met my first lesbians who I recognized instantly as “my people”. I was astonished and delighted to find out that I wasn’t alone, that I had people. I met my first lover through another student. We moved in together. The Bible School called my parents to come from Arizona. They outed me to my parents and kicked me out of school.
I held a variety of jobs, took a few classes at Los Angeles Community College at night. I left the church and turned my back on Christianity. Eventually I left my relationship which turned out to be destructive. I spent a summer with my parents in Modesto, California, and attended Modesto Junior College where I was introduced to the drug scene. My parents produced a continual barrage to try to "change me" and make me "normal". Then I fled to Tacoma, Washington, where I attended Pacific Lutheran University -- choosing that area to be near mountains and ocean but flunked out after a year. Discouraged and alone, I didn't know what to do. I didn't fit into the gay scene as I knew it and couldn't live like that. Everyone was into the bar scene and I had had enough of that. I knew I could never be straight, but at least I felt like I knew the rules of that culture, so found a man willing to marry me. He wasn't interested in love but wanted a cook and housekeeper. I wanted respectability, security and to get my parents off my back. I became Carole May.
The marriage lasted eight years and produced a son, a true gift. My husband was cold and distant. I was alone and lonely. During this time I began attending a Pentecostal church where I found a welcoming community -- they didn't know my sexuality. The music fed my soul – I played their grand piano for services sometimes. Then we moved away from that church in Yakima across the mountains to Mount Vernon, Washington. I began attending a Lutheran Church, wanting a Sunday School for my son and established a relationship with a woman who I met there. She had four children, ages 2-8 -- older than Peter. Ruth Ann and I maintained a relationship for two years. Then I was divorced when Peter, my son, was three. She divorced her husband and we established a home for ourselves and our five children. I worked as bookkeeper for a chiropractor, for a horse trainer, and several low-end jobs. We both attended and graduated from Skagit Valley College and then commuted north sixty miles to Bellingham to Western Washington University while running a day care on the side to support ourselves. I took Pete along and found day care near the college so as to have car time with him. I graduated with honors with a B.A. in Education, holding a double major in Psych and Education.
My father died during these years and my mother thought I should drop my life and move to southern California to take his place in her life. She wouldn’t acknowledge the value of my relationship or my family. She kept hounding me that I was “single and free”. Finally, when I refused to come down and spend Christmas with her (I offered to come New Year’s) she did an about face and decided that mine was like any other relationship and no big deal – she invited herself north to spend Christmas at “that woman’s house”. She never said Ruth Ann’s name if she could avoid it. She did not, however, stop her pressure to move away move my “lifestyle” and give Pete a proper life. That never stopped until her death.
During my student teaching, I was assigned to the school where our older children went. Ruth Ann's middle daughter outed me to the school principal who included that information in his report to the college. With this on my student teaching records it was impossible for me to get a teaching job in spite of high recommendations. I did substitute teaching for two years and then came to the realization that I really didn't like teaching in the school setting. It was another crossroads -- a faith crisis as well as a vocational crisis. I knew I was a child of God. I knew God had something for me to do. Apparently it wasn't teaching in a school. Nothing came to mind.
I got sick thinking about it, unable to eat, dizzy when I stood up. A Pentecostal preacher dyke friend came to see me to make a sort of "pastoral call". As she left, she turned and said, "You know, you aren't going to be happy with anything until you go into the ministry." We had never discussed such a thing. I had not thought about such a thing since my Sunday School teacher told me I couldn't be a preacher when I was four. I said, "Come off it -- who'd have me? I'm a lesbian, I'm a woman and I'm divorced." My friend said, "Try the Methodists, they'll take anybody."
It wasn't true, but I didn't know that, so I decided to follow up on her suggestion and get this monkey off my back. I went to see the pastor, Reah Dougherty, at First Methodist in Mount Vernon and told him exactly who I was. I asked him to tell me how impossible this all was so I could get on with my life and go pump gas or whatever I was going to do. He suggested I talk about having an alternative life style (this was 1975) instead of saying I was a lesbian and sent me to see his superior. Through an amazing chain of events, one week later I was enrolled in Vancouver School of Theology in Vancouver, British Columbia, a ninety-mile commute from Mount Vernon. The school bent over backwards to make it possible financially, providing free room and loaning textbooks. I quickly realized I was exactly where I was supposed to be. This was my call. It still is.
There were several other gay students at VST but all were very closeted. I realized that I could not preach that God is calling us to be all that we can be, to be free and open, and then lie about my sexuality. I resolved that I would not be closeted. I spoke up in class and some of the professors asked me questions when they realized who I was. The school was welcoming to me.
The following year I was assigned to be pastor of Nooksack United Methodist Church, which I carried as well as a full load at seminary for the two remaining years at VST. I was ordained the following year in the United Methodist Church, the third woman in the Pacific Northwest Conference to be ordained after finishing seminary.
My third year I was also Teaching Assistant for Bill Crockett, Professor of Theology. He wanted to learn from me about being a lesbian in the world, a gay Christian and how he could teach students to be open to GLBT people in their hearts and in their congregations. He says I taught him a lot about acceptance and affirmation of GLBT people. After I graduated he began teaching a mandatory weekend intensive for freshmen on GLBT tolerance. I helped him a bit with that in the beginning. He has gone on to be a strong force for GLBT advocacy in the Anglican Church where he is a priest.
In 1978 I graduated from Vancouver School of Theology, first in my class. My next pastorate was Central Park United Methodist in Aberdeen, Washington. There was a member of the church who told me the first day that he did not believe "that women should be in the pulpit and he would see me gone." About this time my relationship of ten years ended. I missed seeing the older children but they “sided” with their mother. A couple of the girls did make contact with me later as adults. My nemesis in the church tried many ploys to dislodge me but after a year and a half he began slipping notes under my office door with words like "lesbian”,” queer". I was concerned that he would make such a stink that he would split the congregation and that was contrary to the pastoral care I was committed to give them. I went to the bishop and asked for a midyear move because this man was going to split the church over having a woman pastor. The bishop refused but gave me no resources. I was outed and left the parish to move to Seattle in January, 1980.
My next relationship was with Clare. She had two daughters younger than Pete. I worked for a hospice, developing the first volunteer based Bereavement Followup Program in the nation for Highline Hospital. In June 1980, the United Methodist Church withdrew my ordination -- they defrocked me. They bent over backwards to keep it out of the papers so there was no publicity. They said that if I went to the papers they would refuse information and I would look like a fool. Maybe that wouldn't have happened. I'll never know. I was devastated but decided to stay in the church because no organization was ever changed from the outside. I attended every Annual Conference and made myself very visible. I was there at every ordination service and stood outside the door facing the outside so that the bishop, every clergy person processing and every person being ordained had to walk past me and look me in the eye. I never carried any signs. I didn't need to. Everybody knew what had happened to me and why.
Five years later a number of women had come through the seminaries and been ordained. They had formed a Clergywomens' Support Group. This group was distressed about what had happened to me and the injustice of the laws on the church books about gay clergy (they are still there). They all took a vow that they would refuse to answer any question about their sexuality regardless of whether they were gay or straight. It felt like a bit of justice for me, that one step had been taken because of me. They were all, by this time, GLBT advocates. Later women who joined this group were quickly convinced to also be GLBT advocates if they hadn’t been before joining the group.
I continued to attend church although it was hard. I usually came late, sat in back and left early. I cried a lot. I couldn't believe God had called me only to have me crucified. Yet I saw much good coming of it. People were moving in their attitudes in the church because they were outraged over me, saying that they could see that I had the gifts and graces for ministry. How could it be that a person who was gay could have such things if it was wrong for a gay person to be ordained. I felt I needed to continue to be a sign in the Methodist Church, for people to stumble against, to be a reminder. That's what I was for many years.
In 1985 I attended the first Reconciling Congregations (Open and Affirming) Conference at United Church of Rogers Park in Chicago, Illinois. There two important things happened. The first was that I was so moved by the proceedings that I wrote the words to a hymn. Gerald W. Holbrook wrote some new music for the lyrics. This hymn was used all over the country in Reconciling Congregations, included in liturgical resources. It was later published in the book Shaping Sanctuary edited by Kelly Turney, 2000. The second important thing that happened was that they made a video of people talking about their experiences of being in Reconciling Congregations or of being gay. This was to be a resource for congregations moving into the process of becoming a Reconciling Congregation. I was invited to share some of my story and talk about ordination of gay and lesbian people – how the church refuses, why it’s wrong, how this refusal hurts the greater church, how it goes against God’s call. I did so and felt that I really needed to connect with someone who would see this video and maybe understand this issue better.
In 1987 Pete graduated from high school. At this time I went to him and asked if he minded if I changed my name. I no longer felt connection to his father’s name, nor had I felt that for many years. I had kept the name so my name would be the same as Pete’s while he was in school. I also felt no connection to my father’s name after so many years. I dropped all last names and took my middle name for my last name, going to court and making Elizabeth my legal last name.
Two important things happened in 1989. Pete had grown up, finished high school, and gotten together with a woman named Tami. In April of 1989, my granddaughter Kelsey was born. She has been a joy in my life and we have had a small part in raising her. She is a passionate advocate for social justice of all kinds but especially for GLBT justice. The second thing that happened was that Clare and I celebrated our tenth anniversary. Three months later she left me for a younger woman saying that I made her feel old. I was three years older than her.
In 1990 I met and married my life partner, Adina Tarpley. I met her because she saw the video from the 1985 RC Conference and knew we would be together. Eventually we did meet and fell in love. She has been a constant encouragement and a wonderful person. I got lucky. Adina didn’t have any children although she had lost a child in childbirth. She had hoped that someday she might have a partner with grandchildren. Kelsey was just a year old. Grandma Adina has been part of her life as long as she can remember. My son, Pete, has been as open as he can be. We all grow as we go. When we got married in 1990 he was working out his own personal messes and he scheduled himself to work. Later he came to us when he wanted to get drugs and alcohol out of his life. He lived with us in our basement apartment for a couple of years while he remarried, got on his feet and we helped him get custody of Kelsey. Her mother was dealing with drugs and home was not safe. That caused a lot of healing with Pete and made strong bonds for Kelsey and us. He is very supportive of us.
In 1992 I wrote a play called "The Invisible People" about homophobia in the church. It does not deal with the Bible passages. It deals with this issue: homophobia hurts all of us, gay and straight. This play has been performed many times – all over Washington state, at Pacific Northwest Annual Conference for the United Methodist Church, featured in Denver at the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) General Assembly, in Hawaii, California, Utah, Kansas, Georgia, Indiana.
Until the early 1990's I continued working in the medical field doing program development. More than once I was confronted by discrimination in the workplace. In one facility I was required to wear a skirt once a week although I was the only female employee who had to do so. I did it. I needed the job. I developed an Alzheimer's Unit based on social principles rather than on a medical model, also worked on an architectural team to design a new Alzheimer's facility. I developed a week long orientation program for an organization that had eleven facilities including half-way houses and the drug and alcohol treatment facility where I held several hats, as well as other programs at other facilities.
Then I was drawn into chaplaincy by a psych hospital doing all-involuntary commitment. They wanted to start a chaplaincy program. I had had some chaplaincy training in the 1970’s at Children's Hospital in Seattle and had substituted for the chaplain there when he went on vacation for several years. I was with the psych hospital for five years -- a half-time job. I also worked as an on-call chaplain for four other hospitals during this time including Children's Hospital. After I had been at the psych facility three years, they entered an accreditation process and sent me for additional chaplaincy training. I also needed a denominational affiliation.
I chose the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and met with their ordination committee where I asked to come in by transfer even though I didn't have any ordination papers as the Methodist had taken them back in 1980. One man on the committee said with indignation, "But they can't un-ordain you!" No openly gay person had asked for ordination so they had to take some time to think through the issue but came back to me saying they saw no impediment to me coming in by transfer and saw it as a justice issue that they accept me in this way. That felt good and I also felt that I had helped that group move a step forward.
I found great acceptance in this denomination even among some of the clergy who weren't so sure about me at first. I had sworn in 1980 I would never be closeted again, and I never have been. I took a couple of interim pastorates under the Disciples and also spent a year working in Tacoma for Associated Ministries as Director of their Mental Health Chaplaincy Program.
In 2000 I accepted a call to Pilgrim Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This was a church that had a strong sense of social justice and were excited about calling a lesbian pastor and partner for their parish. I was excited to come. We were surprised by the ferocity of Wisconsin winters but otherwise, we were glad for the move. It was a good fit and the church grew. The Regional Minister of the Illinois-Wisconsin Region where I still live once took me aside and told me, “You need to know that we have a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” in this region.” I responded, “Herb, if I don’t tell, I can’t do my work, so be prepared.” Two or three years later a young woman applied for licensing as a Lay Minister. In her application essay, she came out as a lesbian. The ordination committee in this region was not as open as the one in the Pacific Northwest. Several members were very conservative and anti-gay. They could not come to agreement about what action to take on her application. The Regional Minister and I had had several good talks by this time. He called me and asked me to attend a weekend retreat with the Committee to wrestle with this issue. I was to come as a resource person. On Saturday, one man told me he would not ever accept communion from someone like me. Communion is central for the Disciples. At one point late in the weekend, I challenged the group, “I ask you, can you look at me, now that you know me, and say that I do not have the gifts and graces for ministry? Can you look me in the eye and tell me that God has not called me to be a pastor?” There was silence. But at the closing communion on Sunday, the man from Saturday who had told me he would refuse the bread from my hands came to me and asked me to come to the table with him so we could take communion together. When the young woman’s application came to the vote at the next Committee meeting, it passed unanimously. I had a part in that.
My parish stepped out in a venture to develop the church into a sports complex. This was going well when, in 2004, I slipped on a large pool of liquid dish soap spilled on the kitchen floor. I landed on my head on the concrete floor several times and sustained a concussion and a brain injury. I had to learn to walk and talk again. My first migraine lasted two years. They still recur. Since then I have been recovering. I have not completely recovered yet and may never be as able as I was but I am able to do some things.
I am doing some writing. Last year I published five books of poetry. This year I have published the first in a sermon series, Walking the Way, the Wise Baker. The next book, Walking the Way, The God Job, is nearly done. That one is scheduled to be published in July 2011. We have moved into independent senior housing. We had to give up our house since I could not do my part in keeping it up. There are 100 apartments here and we are quite out. People raise an eyebrow but think we are “adorable”. I’m not sure how to take that. Adina and I have been together twenty-one years. We attend an American Baptist Church since there are no Disciples’ churches within our driving distance. It is open and affirming, but here too, I am active to do my part to lift people’s awareness to the importance of acceptance of all people, including my people. We have several members who are trans and that enriches the congregation immensely.
I pastor a little house church that meets once a month. One of the members is very conservative, one a Biblical illiterate, one an ex-Catholic who isn’t very Christian, my partner who is Christian but also deeply into Buddhism – a real mix. I enjoy a challenge. They are all okay with my sexuality so that isn’t an overt issue, but the lower levels of homophobia still lurk and I am sometimes able to do something about them as well as try to move all of them to a better space for openness, acceptance of others and freedom.
I am moving into being active in a new virtual church, DisciplesNet.org. A congregation based in Indianapolis decided this was the future of the church and they now have 850 members all over the world. They have been talking with me about developing Bible Studies for new Christians and for Christians who don’t know Bible Stories. I am hopeful that some new ministry will come of this. I can’t pastor a church any more – the accident has seen to that but new avenues of ministry continue to open up. God isn’t finished with me yet even though I just passed my 67thbirthday. I haven’t created great movements, but I have made small openings and because of my life, some things in the church and maybe in the world have changed. I thank God for that. Couldn’t have happened if I had been straight!
Biography Date: June, 2011
“Rev. Carole Elizabeth | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed February 24, 2024, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/carole-elizabeth.