Elsie Gauley Vega was born on April 1, 1928 in Cerro Gordo County, Iowa. She has spent her life, and especially the last 30 years, teaching about and advocating for LGBT people and causes. Elsie herself came out as a lesbian later in life; she has used her own experiences and education to bring greater awareness to LGBT issues in her two faith traditions, the Methodist and Catholic churches.
Elsie was born into a farming family with 10 children; she is number 8 of the 10. Her paternal grandfather came to Iowa from Ireland, fleeing the potato famine, and married a German-Swiss woman in Iowa. Her maternal grandfather was born to a Cherokee woman just after his mother had crossed the Mississippi River on the Trail of Tears; Elsie’s maternal grandmother was Scottish. Her paternal grandfather homesteaded a farm two miles north of Sheffield, Iowa, which is where Elsie’s father was born, and all of his 10 children, including Elsie.
Elsie always knew she was a lesbian from a very young age because she did not react to boys the way her sisters did. “In our country grade school, I spent a lot of time standing in front of the big dictionary, looking at [the words] lesbian and homosexual.” Her first relationship with a woman was in the summer of her sophomore year in high school, a “passionate ‘sweet sixteen’ romance.” She was a tomboy who preferred to be outdoors as much as possible when she was growing up. Once, one of her sisters asked if Elsie would rather be a boy, to which she replied, “No, it’s just easier to climb trees and hay mounds in boys’ clothes!”
When asked if her parents were aware of her sexual orientation, Elsie thinks that her dad might have known. She thinks he would have preferred for her to marry or partner with another woman and stay closer to home, rather than moving far away as she ended up doing. Elsie recalled that there was a same-sex female couple in her farming community as she was growing up, maybe 8 or 10 years older than her. They had a little farm and participating in the farming practices of the community; the women helped other farmers harvest their crops, and received help from the other farms, as was the practice in farming communities. Elsie remembers that the nature of the couple’s relationship was not really discussed, and that the other farmers did not much mind as long as they showed up to help with the harvest.
After graduating high school as the valedictorian, Elsie attended college at Westmar University in Lemars, Iowa, where she double-majored in English and Philosophy, with minors in religion, speech, science and education. It was there that she met the man she would marry. As strongly as she knew she was a lesbian, Elsie knew just as strongly that she wanted to be a mother. In those days, with no artificial insemination options, she married a man.
After college, Elsie taught junior high and high school English for three years, then moved from Iowa to Texas with her then-husband. He earned a graduate degree at Texas A & M, then the couple moved with their daughter Amy to Panama, where Elsie’s husband had grown up. When marrying her husband, Elsie converted from the Methodist denomination she had grown up in to Catholicism. She now calls herself “either Methodist-Catholic or Catholic-Methodist.”
While in Panama, Elsie and her husband had three more children: Elena Maria, Eduardo, and Eugenio Manuel. Elsie now also has six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Elsie divorced her husband after the family moved back from Panama, after 15 years of marriage. She felt it was not fair to him to be married to a lesbian. On the advice of a lawyer, Elsie waited until the family’s return from Panama to initiate divorce proceedings; she was advised that Panama was such a patriarchal culture that she would lose custody of her children if she divorced her husband in Panama.
Back in Iowa, Elsie joined the Golden Threads pen-pal program for lesbian seniors (ages 50+), and met her girlfriend who lived in South Dakota. After some time corresponding, Elsie moved to South Dakota to be with her girlfriend around 1990. As it turned out, Elsie’s girlfriend was not out openly, and Elsie left the relationship, but stayed in South Dakota for some time.
During Elsie’s first “closeted” years in South Dakota, she was very active in the UMC (United Methodist Church). She was elected Lay Delegate to the Annual Conference for four years. UMW (United Methodist Women) locally and district-wide elected her Chair of Social Action, sending her to Denver and Philadelphia. As Lay Delegate, Elsie worked with other congregations to make Rainbow Stoles to take to Annual Conference. The stoles were so popular, and people kept asking for so many of them, that Elsie cut up the rainbow tablecloth she had brought for their display table to turn into more stoles. A happy memory was a pastor who brought his young son, who asked for a stole for his teddy bear!
Elsie moved back to Iowa in 2007 and moved into Ecumenical Towers next to the Senior Center in Iowa City. Soon thereafter, Elsie realized that the Senior Center had many wonderful amenities, like a beautiful library, classes all day long, and a television studio! She started a TV show called “Neighbors and Friends,” with the goal of introducing the community to their “neighbors and friends” who were LGBT.
Elsie noticed that most of the programs that the TV studio worked on were recording musical performances, but she wanted a way to reach LGBT seniors and relevant news. It occurred to her that heterosexual people had difficulty with non-heterosexual population, and she wanted to demonstrate that straight people already know a lot of gay people, they just did not know it yet! Church members, choir members, choir directors, organists, pianists: these are just a few of the church folks that may be LGBT that people would not consider thinking about as anything other than straight. Part of her message is that we should take a step back to realize that 1 in 10 of us is likely to be gay. For instance, the woman who wrote “American the Beautiful” was gay, but very few people knew that; Elsie wanted to share that kind of knowledge.
Elsie has followed LGBT support groups in various denominations over the years; she finds them spiritually helpful, particularly because her own denominations (whether Catholic or Methodist) do not officially support gay marriage. There are, however, groups within those denominations, and their hope and work for change. Within the United Methodist Church (UMC), Elsie said in 2004 that if the UMC calls human sexuality "a gift from God," it should not deny that gift to homosexuals. "To say that single people must be celibate, and then not offer marriage as an option for gay people is to condemn them to a lifetime of not enjoying God's gift of their sexuality," Vega said. "That's one of the most inhumane, high-handed things I've ever heard.” Her age has given her the freedom to speak out, and she can't think of a better way to spend her remaining years. "I bring it up all the time, because how else is it going to change?" she asks. "Why am I living, if not to address this extremely grave error in Christian teaching?”
[Writer’s note: when interviewing Elsie for this profile, I told her of the upcoming likely split in the United Methodist Church because a smaller group of traditionalists wanted to maintain their condemnation of homosexuality. She had not heard that this split was happening, as it is fairly recent news. I asked Elsie for her opinion on the split, and she laughed and said “It makes me laugh because in 10, 15, 20 years, those people are going to find out they have a bunch of young people who are LGBT, and then what? It’s so sad, pitiful and ridiculous, because year after year, a certain percentage of kids are always gay.]
When she returned to Iowa in 2007, she initially tried to attend a United Methodist Church near her apartment, and was gravely disappointed in the pastor’s lack of support for or even mention of LGBT people. Elsie currently attends the Full Circle Catholic Faith Community in Iowa City, a community of “alternative” Roman Catholics with ordained women priests. The Full Circle Faith Community is supportive of married clergy, female clergy, LGBT relationships, and ordination of lesbians and gays. Several Catholic priests have joined because they wanted to be married and continue to be priests. The original name of the group is Roman Catholic Women Priests.
(This biographical statement written by Kristen Whitson from an interview with Elsie Gauley Vega and edited by Vega.)
Biography Date: August 2020