A fifth-generation Iowa farmer, Matt Russell was born in 1970 and raised in the rural community of Anita, Iowa. Of the 28 students in Matt’s high school graduation class, 21 had been together since kindergarten. Matt went off to Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, worked for a time at a horse stable in Colorado, then entered Mundelein Seminary near Chicago with the intention of becoming a Catholic priest.

After two years there, however, Matt could no longer picture being gay as something he would hide and suppress for the rest of his life. In fact, he started to realize that it was a gift from God. Withdrawing from seminary, Matt moved to Las Vegas to teach school, then returned to Iowa and began a series of jobs with various faith, social justice, and community activist groups. His mission in life as a gay man of faith was still unfolding.

In 2001, Matt met his partner, Patrick Standley. His path became clearer. Four years later, Matt and Pat bought 110-acre Coyote Run Farmin Lacona, about 40 miles southeast of Des Moines, and began turning it into a model for sustainable farm practices. In the meantime, Matt became the Resilient Agriculture Coordinator at the Drake University Agricultural Law Center, a position he held until 2018, when he became executive director of Iowa Interfaith Power & Light, an organization empowering Iowans to find and implement faith-based solutions to climate change.

Back at Coyote Run Farm, Matt and Pat hired and eventually became legal guardians to Austin and Devon, teenaged brothers who were living with a very challenging family situation down the road. In this way, it’s possible to say that Matt found a way to express his gifts for discipleship, and his faith in himself and God – not as a priest, but as a married gay man partnering with his spouse to create a family of four.

Our OUTWORDS team drove five hours from Chicago to Coyote Run Farm, arriving at sundown. Pat welcomed us, gave us a tour, dinner, and comfortable beds to sleep in. Later that evening, Matt arrived home with Austin and Devon after taking the boys to visit family in California. The next morning, we all rose early, and Matt sat down at the kitchen table to share his story.
Matt Russell: Oh really?
Mason Funk: Yeah. It's really exciting when I was building my very, very first list and I was thinking I want a person from here and a person from there and I knew right away that I wanted some rural people. Literally, you are one of the first people I contacted and here we are.
Matt Russell: All right.
Mason Funk: I'm really excited. Do me a favor and tell me your first and last names and spell it.
Matt Russell: Matthew Russell but I go by Matt Russell, M-A-T-T R-U-S-S-E-L-L.
Mason Funk: Where do you live and what year were you born and if you could answer in a complete sentence?
Matt Russell: I was born here in Iowa in 1970. My husband and I live in Lacona, rural Lacona, Iowa.
Mason Funk: Okay, great. Why don't you just start by telling me a bit about the family you are born into?
Matt Russell: [00:01:00] My family is a very big extended family. I knew all my cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents. My immediate family is my parents, Bill and Connie Russell and I have an older brother … an older sister and a younger brother, so there's five of us in my family.
Mason Funk: Where were you born and raised?
Matt Russell: I was born and raised in Anita, Iowa which is about an hour west of Des Moines. It's a small town, 28 kids in my high school graduating class, 21 of us started kindergarten together so very quintessential rural Iowa. 1989 was the year I graduated.
Mason Funk: I have it in my memory that you as a farmer are a fifth generation Iowa farmer, is that accurate?
Matt Russell: Yes.
Mason Funk: Tell me about that.
Matt Russell: [00:02:00] Yeah. I'm a fifth generation Iowa farmer. Pat and I, my husband, Pat Stanley, we bought this farm in 2005 and prior to that I'd moved back to Iowa in 1999 to work in food and agriculture. Since 1999, I met Pat, we bought this farm. This is our 12th year on the farm. My brother and sister-in-law moved back to Anita and are farming with my parents. They grow commodities, corn and soybean and beef cattle, about a thousand acre operation so again, a typical small Iowa family farm. Then Pat and I are farmers of 110 acres and we do what we call retail agriculture. All of our production goes directly to families. We're selling food, eggs and beef and produce, to families mostly in Des Moines and we're about 40 miles from Des Moines.
Mason Funk: How about previous generations of the Russell family? Who is the first Iowa farmer in your family?
Matt Russell: [00:03:00] The fifth generation goes back on my dad side to my great grandmother's father, so it'd be great, great grandfather is where I go with the fifth generation and that's on my dad's side. My maternal grandmother's, his maternal grandmother's side of the family. By my mom's side, her family were farmers too. My grandpa on my dad's side, he came out of North Dakota met my grandma when she was up there teaching school, visiting her relatives and then they moved back down here.
Just for the most part everybody first two, three generations living in rural Iowa on farms for both my mom and dad's side. I know the one goes all the way back to the fifth generation was grandpa, great, greatgrandpa Bozek.
Mason Funk: [00:04:00] Got you. Hold on one second. My chair, I get really comfortable because I tend to shift so much because we're going to hear this right if I'm moving, Scott.
Scott Drucker: Yeah.
Mason Funk: I'll just move when I'm talking. I got to work fine. I'll just move when I'm … I'll move when I'm talking and then I'll sit still when you're talking.
Matt Russell: Okay. I'd say we might be able to find another chair. I'm not sure we'll find one that's less squeaky.
Mason Funk: Right. Tell me about the fact. You were raised Catholic.
Mason Funk: Tell me about the role that religion and faith play in your family when you were growing up and the fact that you are catholic. How is that part of your family's culture?
Matt Russell: [00:05:00] Church was really a part of my family. My dad, his family was Missouri Synod Lutheran and my mom's side was Catholic. My dad converted to Catholicism when I was 12. Church was part of my life, every Sunday. We were in a really pluralistic community so there were like six churches in my town of a thousand people so we weren't like a Catholic town or a Lutheran town.
We went to church on Sundays, went to bible school in the summertime, and Wednesday night church night all through high school. I chose to go to a Catholic school,when I graduated from high school I wanted to go to a Catholic college so I only looked at Catholic colleges and chose to go to Loras College in Dubuque. Part of the reason I chose that was that they had a seminary, a college seminary. There was this sense that I kind of wanted to be a priest, kind of a sense that I was called to being a priest. Actually, that I was gay was part of what I felt like was that calling.
It was a long journey to understand all of that but even initially was this sense of I didn't come out to myself until I was 19, I knew it but I wasn't admitting it. I just figured out I'm going to grow out of this kind of thing. I lived a pretty good life, I mean, I was a good student, had lots of friends, had a really great high school experience, elementary experience, 4-H clubs. I was always successful, lots of encouragement from people around me, played basketball, started JV junior or freshmen, sophomore years, started varsity junior, senior year. I just had a great youth.
It was quintessential, wonderful, smart, talented, supported Iowa farm kid who happened to be gay.And who happened to gay part was something that took me a long time to wrestle with and figure out. I knew it but I was waiting to grow out of it. When I was 19 I was on a church retreat,it was a TEC, Teens Encounter Christ, with one of my … Michelle one of my best friends from high school,we were on it together. It was actually my freshman year at college. Most people do that retreat when they're high school, their senior year, we didn't do it but the guy who was running that retreat had been our youth leader in our town and he said "Matt, Michelle, I'm leading this over Christmas break, when you're home from college I want you to come," and so we went. We were freshmen in college over Christmas break. Everybody else was seniors in high school on the retreat.
Michelle and I did that retreat together and there's a little thing at the end where you pick up your cross, your TEC cross made out of nails. You can make a little statement to the group. I picked up my cross and I said I never wanted this cross but I'm taking it. Then I just broke down just sobbing and Michelle is holding me but that was when I said I'm gay, it's not going away, I'm not growing out of it, that's who I am.
In many ways … Go ahead.
Mason Funk: Did you say that publicly?
Matt Russell: No, no, no. I said this is my cross and I never wanted it but I'm going to take it. Nobody in the room knew what I was talking about including Michelle. She wouldn't know for 10 or 12 years, about 10 years I guess.
Mason Funk: What was it about that moment that was for you the confirmation that you weren't going to grow out of this?
Matt Russell: [00:09:00] I think it was … part of it was my freshman year at college, I met this girl Kris and she was cool and we kind of started dating, we went to homecoming together. The moment that I realized this is who I am, it's not changing is we're dancing, homecoming dance at college andwe kissed on the dance floor. Up until the moment we're kissing, we're dancing and I'm like this is … I'm turned on by this, right? I can do this, I can do this. We kissed and it was this realization that that's not who I am. To pretend to be is really dishonest to Kris. That if I were to continue down this road that it's not who I am and it's going to be unfair to people on the road.
Seminary and being called to the priesthood, there were a lot of things I was attracted to the priesthood, travel, continuing education, seeing the world, and the most important thing is making a difference in the world like changing the world, helping the world be a better place by committing to this vocation. All of that was really, really appealing. There was also a lot of appeal to being celibate. That this was a way to do all of that to continue to be the guy who everybody loves and everybody supports and everybody praises and then I never had to deal with being gay. I mean I can deal with it but nobody needs to know. I never had to deal with that in a public way.
That was my journey is I'm at a Catholic college and when I came back from that retreat I went and started to explore the seminary. I started praying with the guys who are in the seminary, eating with them, and then that fall, my sophomore year, I joined the seminary. I became one of the seminarians. It really enriched by college experience but in some ways it was a shelter. Again, I had a great college life. I mean, my senior year I was on the homecoming court. I got the Saint Thomas Moore Award which is the faculty awarding the outstanding graduating senior. I loved college, I loved the people I was around.
That was really an environment where there were priests in my life who were helping me navigate what it means to be a gay man.
Mason Funk: Were they helping you overtly?
Matt Russell: [00:12:00] Yeah. Because at that point then like my sophomore year I told the rector of the seminary, I said this is who I am. I said I don't … This is really uncomfortable, it's something that is private and I don't know how to do deal with it. I said,“there's something innate”, and I can remember sitting in his apartment because the priest lived on campus with us and I was sitting at his apartment and said, "You know, if I could walk through that door and on this side be gay and walk to that door and be straight, I don't want to be gay but there's a part of me that realizes that I don't want to walk through that door, that there's something about the way God created me that this is who I am and to walk through that door would be to deny who God created."
For me, the church was so profound and powerful in helping me become who I am, understanding who I am and the people around me, the priest. I had spiritual directors who are sisters, vowed religious women, fellow students, retreats, prayer. I end up in the seminary in college sophomore year, stayed in the formation program until I graduated. I graduated in four and a half years because I wanted to … I got French and history double major and then a minor in music, music education and then I did the seminary stuff. I had the philosophy and religious studies and to pack all of that in, it took me, and I spent my first semester of my junior year in France.
Just lots going on in college but that whole time in formation, celibate, on my path, I hadn't said absolutely, I'm going to be a priest but I kept saying yes, to the opportunity explore of becoming a priest. Graduated from college in December and then spent that eight months working on a horse stable in Colorado coming back farming with my dad that summer before going to the seminary and then went off to study for the Diocese of Des Moines at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago.
My third year, so I went through two years to the pastoral internship, worked at a parish in Des Moines. When I was working in a parish in Des Moines it was a bilingual, so it's Hispanic, Spanish speaking, English speaking. The Spanish-speaking community they called me padre all the time and I really had a negative reaction to that. I'm like, "I'm not a priest yet. I'm not a priest yet." I really reflected on that and I realized part of my reaction to that is I have not said yes to this. I've not made the commitment yet.
When I went back my third year five-day silent retreat starts the retreat or the third year of theology. On that silent retreat I had a Dominican sister who was my spiritual director for that retreat and I shared with her my struggle and she really pushed me, pushed me really hard to reflect on what's going on in my life.
Mason Funk: What did she push you specifically? What do you mean when you she said pushed me?
Matt Russell: [00:16:00] Yeah. This is what was going on is that there were so many things that I liked about the priesthood but I was realizing that part of why I was continuing down this path was because it was a safe place where I never had to deal with who I was publicly. I'm 26, just turned 26 and realizing that … The question she pushed me on is, what do you want to do?
Going back to when I was 19 and this whole sense of wanting to be a priest and feeling like I was called to be a priest, part of what was going on in my head was that part of why God, like part of the plan of God calling to be a priest was making me gay so that was part of the package. Being gay was part of God's signal to me that I was supposed to be a priest, if that makes any sense.
Now I'm 26 years old having had really no romantic experience, relationships, lots of infatuation and attraction, mostly straight guy friends. A lot of them really supportive, like I came out to a few of them and really supportive of who I was. Really bracketed that part of my life and priesthood was a safe way to continue to bracket it and there was a realization that I need to address this and that's what she was really pushing me on. What she is pushing me on was what is in the deepest parts of your heart, what do you want. I was afraid to go there because I was afraid I would find that I actually wanted to be a priest because it didn't … It was this …
She really helped me and I really opened myself up and I had a very profound religious experience. I didn't hear voices but I very much heard, it was a dialog with God, very profound dialog. What I heard was is that,“I love you as a gay man, I created you as a gay man. My love for you doesn't depend on you being a priest, that's up to you. You get to decide what you want to do. I'm calling you to discipleship. That's not negotiable. You are called to be a disciple, to live your life as a Christian, formed as a catholic. As far as how you choose to do that, that's you.”
That was like permission and challenge, right? Challenge to not hide from who God created me. In that five days I made the decision to leave and I did not just quit but I started the process with my regular spiritual director Ed Conan saying "Okay, Ed, I've had this really profound experience, I think I need to leave." I spent the ten-week trimester talking to him and unwinding, talking to the diocese of Des Moines. There were guys who left the seminary. When they had an experience like that they literally packed up in the middle of the night, were gone.
Lots of unhealthy things going on in the seminary and this was 1996. I just recently watched the movie Spotlight, hadn't seen it before but Pat and I watched it here a few weeks ago. That's right on the cusp of what's happening in Boston or what's being exposed in Boston. I knew it in '96, I lived and experienced in the seminary lots of unhealthy hiding who people were.
Mason Funk: Let me interrupt you for a second, okay, so I can probably shift my chair but also because there's just so many things that I want to unpack a bit more before we keep going.
Would there have been a space for you to be publicly to be an out gay priest, celibate, but to be truthful about who you were as a priest?
Matt Russell: No.
Mason Funk: [00:20:00] Okay. Incorporate my question into your answer in some way.
Matt Russell: [00:21:00] I'm on this journey which has been going towards priesthood. What I found was that the journey was really about discipleship. I love all the experiences that I had, I was very proud of all the decisions I'd made, I was very appreciative of all the support I'd gotten. I was being formed. One of the things that one of … [inaudible] who was the rector of the college seminary said to me one time was that my challenge was to figure out how to integrate who I was as a sexual person, my sexuality with the rest of my life. The church really helped me do that, to understand who I was so that by the time I was 26 and recognizing that I need to take a break from becoming a priest because I need to address this part of my life, I had really big toolkit to help do that and had done a lot of exploration with spiritual director counselors and some close friends but I had not told anyone in my family, very closeted in a kind of public way.
There was a lot of space within the seminary to be open about who I was with internal forum. The way the church works as internal forum and spiritual director, rector, this is private stuff and then external forum would be anything that's public and all that. That's a quick and dirty kind of explanation, it's more complicated. Internal forum, very supportive, external forum, no space to do that and that felt really unhealthy to me. When I went in to the seminary, when I signed up for the Diocese of Des Moines, did the psychological battery of exams, talking to the [inaudible] and the NMP and all these things and sat with the counselor and did the interview and everything.
I remember the vocation's director for the Diocese of Des Moines was asking me these questions,“Tell me about who you're attracted to.” I said,“People.” He's like well, are you attracted to men or women and I said both, which was all true. Then he said, who are you more attracted to and I said okay, he's got me in a corner. I thought if this is who God called to be I know I'm gay, I know that's how God created me. If I'm supposed to be a priest then I need to be honest about this because if I'm not then I'm not supposed to be a priest so obviously, God knows what he's doing. I said,“Men.”
That was the diocese. Then when I did the interview at the seminary, the rector, they asked the same questions. I was honest about it. I had no experience, I've had not dated any guys, I had not had any sexual experience or anything. Everything was just as I would say all … I was a sexual person but nobody else was involved. Again, I thought if they're asking me this question, so internal forum I was very honest. Then I start to be honest with some of my friends and classmates and things. It was really dysfunctional because some of my friends who had been out had dated, had had these experiences. When they got asked the questions they lied, and they were like well, we can't say that, if we say that we're not going to be allowed to be priest and things like that, so really kind of dysfunctional situation.
I felt very good because I felt like I was being honest and I had the support to help me integrate who I was as a successful white middle class guy who grew up on a farm and who was on this faith journey, discipleship and who happen to be gay is all being integrated together. At 26 I made a decision to leave. I had to figure out where do I go? Long story short, I end up going to Las Vegas because I had relatives there. I needed to go someplace where I could just not be Matt the guy who's going to be a priest but just Matt so I could start to explore and be out to people.
In that journey when I went to Las Vegas in '96, my cousin Scott, a couple years older than me, spent a lot of time growing up with Scott. He was the person who I said I'm going to tell Scott. When I told him, I set it up like we just played pool at a bar and I was close enough that if he left me I could walk to where I needed to go. It was very strategic in terms of I didn't want to be like just left out. I told him and he was so supportive and he is like thank you, this is …
Mason Funk: Just a second. It just started up a little bit. I wonder if we could close that curtain. Would that help with it?
Matt Russell: Yeah. That might.
Mason Funk: I can see there's a lot of light in there.
Matt Russell: Yeah. Part of it is that even though I'm talking, it's quiet. You know what I mean? There's not like all the blah, blah, blah.
Mason Funk: I suddenly feel like there's a space but okay, we'll see how it goes.. Just tell me, you set it up. Just back up that far. You set it all up so you can walk home if you need be.
Matt Russell: [00:26:00] I totally set it up because … I told all these people in academia and in personal formation, I told my closest friends, I'd had lots of support, I had not yet told Michelle, a friend who … I'd had not that conversation with her but my college friends. I did tell one of the guys, my friend Dan I went to high school with. At the end of my freshman year at college we were playing tennis back in Anita and I did tell him and he was super cool.
It's just this process, very slow deliberative process of bringing people into this part of my life.
Mason Funk: Go back to start with Scott.
Matt Russell: [00:27:00] With Scott I told him and he's … we're sitting in the truck and he was like thanking me, profoundly thanking me for trusting him and for sharing this part of my life with him. Then we talked about it some and then I just remember him as a typical Scott, we're talking and we're done he's like hey, hugs. He reached across and gave me a big hugin a kind of of his suburban ... I have to say that that's been my experience, my journey is as I share this part of my life with people, they're thankful, they’re supportive.
My experience of faith and church and the men who helped form me as … the priests along the way and the sister, religious women and stuff, just really profound helping me get to a place where I embraced who God created. I love who I am, I love the life. I am so in love with Pat.
On that five-day silent retreat I'm deciding okay, God this is who I am. Part of that religious experience was this sense of God saying to me there is somebody out there for you, and I couldn't see it, right? I couldn't see how this would work.How am I going to be this successful person that I want to be, and gay, and in a relationship? It's like cognitively I couldn't figure out how to put the pieces together. There was a sense, it's like trust me, trust me. When Pat and I met in 2001, is when we met. We'd met each other, we dated for about three weeks, we come back from dinner, we're sitting outside his house and he said,“I'm looking for somebody in my life.
My grandparents prayed together. Every morning they got up and put their hands across in bed and prayed. Then at night they did the same thing.” He said,“That's the type of person I'm looking for”, and my jaw dropped and I'm like so this is five years after I've had this experience. I'm like oh my God, this is who God was talking about. This is it,this is my soulmate.
We've known each other for 15 years. We met on Holy Thursday, I was doing the Triduum as a retreat. Brother Cory when I taught high school, I taught in … skip over this. I taught in a Catholic high school. I stayed in Las Vegas for a couple of years and taught at Bishop Gorman High School, a Catholic high school. Taught junior religion, morality first semester, social justice second semester for two years. Brother Cory one of the Viatorian brothers said to me, you should do the Triduum like a retreat, treat it like a retreat, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter vigil, fill in the blanks. That's what I was doing. I went to church Thursday night and then went to the bar and Friday went to church, went to the bar and the whole thing was I dated somebody for a little bit that I'd broken up.
I was really in the place where it's like I don't need to date anybody. I'm headed to Iowa State to do a master's program in the fall. I was really comfortable with who I am. I'm going out tonight. I'm going out during this Triduum just to celebrate who I am, not looking for anything, comfortable with who I am. Holy Thursday I ran into Pat. We said hi whatever. Friday, I'm back at the same bar after Good Friday service and here's Pat in the bar and we started talking. We talked for hour and a half, whatever. We took a little walk, 10 days later we go on our first date. We've been together ever since.
Mason Funk: [00:31:00] Let me interrupt you there for a second just because I see what you mean so it's good for me. I think just to stop you occasionally.
Matt Russell: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah, redirect, whatever.
Mason Funk: Shift a little bit so it doesn't all become one because there's pieces I wanted to just pull out a little bit.
Matt Russell: Perfect.
Mason Funk: One of them is the sister who pushed you so hard. She's a sister?
Matt Russell: Yup.
Mason Funk: Did you ever have any followup conversations with her?
Mason Funk: Really?
Matt Russell: [00:32:00] No. For the silent retreat they brought people in. It was people you didn't know, you were assigned and then on an ongoing basis we had our regular spiritual director that I worked with the whole time I was in seminary. I worked with Father Conan, Ed Conan. We had that long journey together for two and a half years. I can't even remember her name. Just that she's a Dominican sister. I can see her face still but she just listened and then asked tough questions and pushed me. Pushed me into what are the deepest desires of your heart, go there. Go there, that's what God's asking you to do and then I was like no, I don't want it, I don't want it. Because part of it was I felt like if I go there then I'm going to find out that in fact I am called to be a priest and she realized that I didn't, maybe someday I could be but right now, I needed to do other work and she pushed me into that. She pushed me into that, God was there.
Mason Funk: How are we doing with that bird?
Scot Drucker:: It sounds almost like a bird outside.
Mason Funk: Okay, that will work. That will work.
Scot Drucker:: It's right on [inaudible].
Mason Funk: Okay. That will work. We're in a space where people can obviously imagine birds outside.
Matt Russell: Right.
Mason Funk: [00:33:00] That's cool. I'm fascinated by these little secondary characters like this woman. Was it radical in some way, shape, or form for her to push you that hard? Was it a little bit unorthodox for her to say listen to your heart, look inside your heart, for her to really challenge you as opposed to rubber stamping you? Was that …
Matt Russell: [00:34:00] No, I would say that was typical. All of the people in my life, Danny Mark, John Nauman, these priests that were in college and then in seminary and Sister Karen where I went to Las Vegas, I found a Franciscan sister, Sister Karen who was my spiritual director for that time. No, that was typical. That kind of pushing was typical. It's that dance and they're trained spiritual directors and so they listen and help you see where you are in your life and I wasn't there until that moment. I've been coming to that point. I've been pushed at different times, challenged in a lot of ways.
Mason Funk: In some ways your stories are a little reflection of mine, which I love. I've never gotten near … not the priesthood part but did you feel any sense of loss when you realized I'm going to cut ties with this path I've been on, that I've poured myself into. Did you cry?
Matt Russell: [00:35:00] The day I left the seminary was the day that Cardinal Bernardin died. He was dying of cancer. I mean, I'm packing up my car and at the seminary they're ringing the bell, a death toll for Cardinal Bernardin. There was this profound sense that this man who had done so much for the Catholic Church, particularly around social justice, that he died. He is dying, going on to eternal life, they're ringing the bell, and I'm leaving the seminary to go on to my new life, andit was really hard.
I'd come to a place where I could see my future, I could see where my life was taking me and now I'm taking a very radically different direction and a very scary direction because I knew the parts to become a priest. I knew, I've been doing it for almost seven years, I knew what that meant. I had no idea what it meant to start this journey of embracing who I am and figuring that out and letting God lead me there.
It was in some ways that Paschal mystery of death and dying.I remember it on the five-day retreat walking the Stations of the Cross and just feeling that experience with Christ saying, “Hey, this isn't easy, this is a cross but I'll be there. I'm going to be there helping you carry this cross and remember this cross is, as a Catholic, this cross is your path to redemption. This is not just pain and suffering. It is through this challenge that you get to a life that you don't even know yet.”
I mean, all those images, all that Catholic stuff has been what helped me get ready to leave the seminary with the death toll bells ringing, crying, sobbing, having said goodbye to everybody, off to this life that I knew I was being called to but it was new and challenging and it was still a slow process.
Mason Funk: How did you know from an early age that this way that you were a gay man? How did you know that that was how God had created you? How did you know that?
Matt Russell: Well, I mean part of was that kiss with Chris.
Mason Funk: [00:37:00] Fold my … Well yeah, I mean and also fold my question into your answer. I mean just kissing a girl, a woman and realizing that's not your path, that doesn't necessarily tell you that this is how God created you.
Matt Russell: Right, yeah.
Mason Funk: How did you know … how did you have ... believe me and lots of other people I've seen the exact opposite one. This is not how God created me, I hate my sexuality, God hates my sexuality, andthis is a real problem and it's a fork in the road, God and sexuality. You knew it seems like from an early age that that was not the case for you. My question is how did you know that?
Matt Russell: [00:38:00] Yeah. How I knew that being gay was a gift from God and that's eventually, I mean I realized that my freshman year seminary or my sophomore year of college when I told that to the rector of the seminary. I don't get it all but I realized that this is a gift. If I wasn't gay I'd just be another successful straight white guy. I wouldn't see the world the way I see it. I get to be that successful white guy but I also now had this bridge of empathy. Before I was really acting out sexually there was this real strong sense of integrating this and understanding. When I was 14, 15, 16 I recognize I was attracted to men but I just assumed I'd grow out of that. It didn't happen so okay, that's a part of it and then just part of it was the internal forum was so helpful to be able to talk to men who also were gay who weren't sexually acting out with me and to have that journey.
It's hard for me like it is the Catholic Church that helped me do that. That helped me see. It is these priests who had done that work internally as well and the tragedy is that that all stayed internal forum. The tragedy after watching Spotlight is to know that after Spotlight the Catholic Church did … Up until that point, I felt like they were training people to be … they were training men to be healthy sexual people, and then one of the reactions was is that they … the Vatican said, we're not going to ordain like if you're a gay man, you can't be a priest.
I'm like that's the craziest thing in the world because all they've guaranteed is that they're going to now ordain gay men who are completely closeted and never telling who they are and they're just creating that and they said this in Spotlight. I can't remember how they said it but it was like, this is the perfect environment because you have all of this internal sexuality secret stuff, not very many priests are pedophiles but you've created this environment that is absolutely perfect for a pedophile and now you're doubling down on that by saying if you lie about who you are, you can become a priest, if you're honest about who you are, you can't. It's just this crazy making world.
I know I'm off on a tangent but it's all of this together. It's like the church, the people in the church, my faith, that's how I came to accept that being gay is a gift from God. That's who I am.
Mason Funk: Okay, it's not only that God has made you this way but that it's a gift.
Matt Russell: [00:41:00] Right, right. I recognize that even when I was 19 years old, 20 years old, scared to death of anyone ever finding it out but that seed had been planted that like there's something going on here. For me then it was like, well, priesthood is comfortable. Priesthood is comfortable so this is who I'm called to be and then it was as I got close realizing that everything that I liked about priesthood, education, travel, simplicity of life, making the world a better place, all of that, I didn't have to be a priest to do all that. The real reason I was staying on the path of priesthood was not being willing to accept or address this gift.
That's what that sister pushed me into. I wasn't ready till then and then she pushed and I left for a leave of absence but then after about six months, I'd severed the leave of absence. I said to the diocese, I'm not saying I'll never become a priest but I'm definitely on to something else and figuring out what that would be.
Mason Funk: Do you, I don't know if you … Then do you believe on some level that God creates a certain number of people, men, women, as gay, as lesbian? Almost, I mean in that sense do you believe that gay and lesbian men are a part of God's creation with a kind of a specific intent, almost?
You called that, talked about a bridge of empathy.
Matt Russell: [00:43:00] Yeah. I mean you're opening a really big theological discussion. I'll try to not to go clear into the weeds but I mean my spirituality is that God doesn't sit at the computer and write the story. That God creates us, and in time and space, there's limits and we're navigating that the whole time and God's with us in that navigation and how God creates is a mystery that for tens of thousands of years humanity has been trying to figure out and we're really not that much closer now than we were 10, 000 years ago in that mystery. It's when you embrace that mystery instead of trying to figure it out and really … and I think so … at a very evangelical way of looking at the world is that nothing happens that God's not in control of.
I look at it as we're just all in this world together and God is there as our partner in journey and changing hearts and opening doors and so same sex attraction is just a part of the universe. It shows up across the spectrum of life so why wouldn't it show up in humanity? It does. Then God is there using that like so I don't see it as a God like you're going to be gay. I see it as God as like creating the world and it's like this is who you are, Matt, let me help you become the fullness of who you are.
There are people who have … and I don't think of being gay as a disability but I mean, there are people who are created in lots of different ways and certainly, being gay for me was a challenge. It was a challenge and it still is. It's less of a challenge now but … It's like God is on that journey helping us in that challenge. I really reject the notion that the help from God is to help you bury it, right?
It's a challenge to overcome and you need to overcome it and bury it, no. The challenge is, is how do you live authentically? How do you be honest with who you are with other people? How do you express yourself sexually in a way that is honest and life giving? I feel really happy with the way that I've been able to live my life sexually. Had I been a straight teenager, I might have been in sexual relationships that weren't as honest as they've been for me as an adult, so there's a blessing.
Is there some sense of loss that I wish I would have had more romantic experiences in high school and stuff? Maybe a little bit but when I look at the whole arc, it's like my life's been really blessed. I'm 15 years with my best friend who is a person who I love most in the world and we had this life together that's … it's not perfect but nobody's is, but it's blessed and it's incredible. We farm together and we live in this rural community and there's just so many blessings in our lives.
Mason Funk: [00:47:00] Great, great, you did a good job boiling that down. I'm watching the clock and I'm just aware that we have a certain limitations. All of that is incredibly powerful, thank you for sharing that story. It's the last thing I thought I was going to hear out of you.
Okay, I guess … How about your decision to stay in Iowa and to stay because I want to pivot towards the fact that you're a farmer. You didn't meet Matt and set up shop in Des Moines and work at Drake and live in a nice house. What's that about?
I don't want to get too deep into the weed, so to speak, about sustainable farming since this is really not our topic but what's the point of setting up shop with Pat out here in Lacona?
Matt Russell: It's the story of discipleship for me. It's the call, right?
Mason Funk: Tell me what you're talking about.
Matt Russell: [00:48:00] The call to discipleship, it's … when I left the seminary, this profound experience of this, not voices but dialogue with God. It's like my love for you doesn't ... I love you as a gay man, that's part of who you are, figure it out. My love for you doesn't depend on you being a priest, it's about discipleship. You want to be a priest, go for it. You don't, go for it, do other things. It's about are you paying attention to me the creator, are you letting me help you with your life? Are you following the deepest desires of your heart and for me that meant can I make the world a better place?
That, left the seminary, taught high school, in 1999 came back to Iowa, really out of a spiritual sense of sustainability, right? That's part of our call is to figure out how to live on this planet sustainably, this great gift of God, how do we foster this gift?
I realized just like, I want to work in sustainability, natural resources and I grew up farming and agriculture so it's like the big umbrella, call to discipleship, sustainability, natural resources, farming. I'm from Iowa, I grew up on a farm, these are my roots, that's where I need … that's my vocational call in 1999, taught high school for two years, on to the next thing, and I got a chance to work at the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.
I decided already to move back to Iowa and the reason I decided to move back to Iowa is because I've been in Las Vegas, I had friends from around the country, in Chicago. I came back over at summers and Christmas break from teaching in Las Vegas back to Iowa and I was more out. I came out to my parents in '98. Decided, I'd already decided to move back to Iowa, I need to tell them so they have time to … I don't want to tell them I'm gay and here's the person I'm in love with. Let's tell him I'm gay so that when I meet that person if I do, whatever, they don't have to … It's not the whole load at once.
I realized that Iowa was a really healthy place. Las Vegas was very segmented. When you went to the bar, it was like that's a leather bar, that's an older person's bar, that's a white guy's bar, that's young bar, lesbian bar. In Iowa, the guard was just really eclectic. Straight people, there's old people, there's young people, there's minorities, it was really eclectic place, really. In my mind it's like that's so much healthier and then as I started to talk to people I realized that if you were gay in Iowa, it wasn't about being in the gay ghetto, it's about being gay in a community, that's where I'm from. I felt … I'm like you know what, this is really the healthiest place for me to be.
I moved back to Iowa to work in Food and Agriculture, got a job in Food and Agriculture and I haven't looked back since. I'd been to National Catholic Rural Life Conference, worked nationally on sustainable agriculture. Brother David hired me,he's a holy cross brother. I had a very frank conversation with him, I said, "Dave, this is who I am," and I knew him from when I was in the seminary. He was at the parish that I worked in for six months, in my pastoral internship, lived in the same rectory with him, so I knew Dave.
I said, "Brother Dave, this is who I am, this is what I'm dealing with." He said, "That's not a problem." He said, "I'm putting you on the road, you're going to be traveling. What you do in your private life is your business but when you're traveling and stuff … " Basically, he was saying, and I said, "I said so what I want is the freedom to be able to go out in Des Moines and meet people where I live and start dating and not worried about if somebody sees me I'm going to lose my job." He said, "It's not a problem. This is 1999."
Three years later he could not have hired me, the world had changed, the Catholic Church had reacted to Boston. Maybe not three, maybe five but whenever that happened, he couldn't have hire me even today up until almost, I think there's a possibility that the church could hire me. There are institutions in the church that could hire me but for a decade because I'm an open gay man married and now we're married, we have a sacramental marriage in my mind. We had a priest do the service in our marriage in the backyard of Pat's house in 2003 with our families' blessing. We're married, that's our sacramental marriage. When Iowa legalized gay marriage in 2009 we didn't do another ceremony because we're already married, we just filed the paperwork. We filed the paperwork to make it legal.
That's why I'm back in Iowa because it is a really healthy place and there are gay men and women, we're standing on their shoulders, who did this work for decades who are married, divorced, have kids or out in the gay … integrating their lives in the community. We moved down here in 2005. Pat grew up in the city, I grew up in rural Iowa. Pat's like we're just going to keep to ourselves, I'm like no, we're not and I went knocking on doors. Every house we could see I went knocking on doors. I didn't say hey, we're gay, we're coming to live with you. I said, "Hey, we just bought this place. Pat, I'm Matt. Pat, we're moving in here."
We didn't say we're gay. We let them put the pieces together. I said to Pat, if we can either keep to ourselves and let them write the story and trust me they're going to come up with a lot wilder of a story that if we're involved with helping write it so we introduced ourselves to the people, we didn't just honker in, we went out to the community and people embraced us.
I don't know. Maybe thereare some people who were really upset about it. Obviously, they've talked. Pat would say the first couple of years, "How did they know we are?" He'd go to the store and be somebody and they're, "Oh, you're at the Coyote Run Farm." He's like, "How do people knew who we are?" I said, "Pat, everybody knows who we are, trust me, everybody knows." We've been embraced and there's been some … in the 12, 11 years, into our 12th year of living here, there's been some profound things in our community that happened that we'd been a part of and people have welcomed us into that.
We started hiring people to work for us on the farm, I don't know 2007 or something like that and we've probably had two dozen, mostly teenage boys, a couple of girls, some college students but they've been close to a couple of dozen teenage boys from this community that their parents have allowed them to come work, in some ways encouraged to come work for us.
That's Iowa, that's why I moved back.
Mason Funk: Is that really Iowa? In other words, I don't want to get into the states her;, “this state does it”It sounds kind of unique. Would you say it's uniquely Iowa?
Matt Russell: [00:55:00] I think part of what's unique about Iowa is that people are fairly private but that's part of what this is all about. I'm not going to get into your business. You pay your bills, you live in the community the way other people live in the community. Now, we're pretty low key and that's not … We didn't become low key in order to live here,that's just who we are. Had we been much more vocal, had we had the pride flag flying, kind of signage up, we probably would have been, it probably would have been a whole different way of people interacting with us.
I'm not saying it's like a panacea but it is a sense of like and when the supreme court justices ruled unanimously in favor of marriage equality, that's like that's kinda who we are as a state. Now the flipside to that is that was 2009. In 2010, the religious right with a lot of outside money from around the country had a very success political campaign and Iowa had once in its history or twice voted out supreme court judges that's on the ballot but they successfully organized and got the three supreme court judges who were up for retention kicked out. It's not a panacea. I mean the flipside was … but that actually … so the marriage equality thing, that's Iowa.
Judges saying look, we have this history with race and with education, we've been a leader in opening opportunities for people in other parts of the country that they haven't had the opportunities. The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled ahead of the rest of the country on a lot of issues. That's typical but the backlash actually, the religious … and again, here's God working in the world, right? The religious right organizes this thing to kick out these judges and what they really did was they opened the door for people like me to become more vocal.
Pat and I talked about it. I speak around the country, mostly in Iowa, but a little bit around the country. I'm on TV talking about sustainable agriculture and things like that. Up until the judges were kicked out in 2010, I would always talk about Pat but I call him my partner. I talked about the farm and I said, "My partner … I farm with my partner Pat." A lot of people fill in the gaps, right? People who have a clue are figuring out well, they're a couple. People who don't want to or like, "Well, they're farm together. They have a farm," whatever. After the supreme court justice got kicked out, Pat and I talked about it and Pat was very, very supportive. In fact, he's the one who said, "No, you have to." From that point on, every time I speak, I say my husband.
That's what happened, right, is that it created an opportunity for people to organize and be vocal and you had those who were opposed to same sex marriage looking ridiculous. You had people who had been in the shadows. The most profound thing I heard, it was at the Iowa legislature,they were talking about a kind of this debate about whether to ask for a constitutional referendum and letting all the people of Iowa vote on whether to have same sex marriage or not after the supreme court had said you have to do this, so changing the constitution so that you could basically institutionalize segregation and discrimination.
There was this man, he was probably 60 years old, and we just heard from some family who was saying that like, you are discriminating against me because you're making my children go to a school where they have to be taught about this and that. It's like cry me a river, right? Because the next guy who stood up said, he's 60 years old. He said, "I would rather be drugged behind a building and beaten bloody than for anyone to say that the relationship that I have with my husband who I'm now married to but who I've been in a relationship for 20 years with, I'd rather be beaten, spit on, bloodied than for you to take away this relationship."
It's like that happened all over the state. It really moved the needle to institutionalize by the vast majority of Iowans, "Look, same sex marriage is fine." The arguments against it are pretty ridiculous, like we're not … It created this opportunity. It moved us from being safe and saying partner to just saying husband.
Mason Funk: Great. Great stuff. Let me just check on our time. How are we?
Speaker 3: We have 24 minutes.
Mason Funk: Twenty-four, good, excellent. Do you want to shift at all, get up, stretch your legs a little? Take a sip of water?
Matt Russell: Take a sip of water. I'm good.
Mason Funk: [01:01:00] Okay. Okay. I just [inaudible] to change my position. Stretch my legs out. Talk a bit more about your vision of sustainable agriculture as part of your faith.
Matt Russell: [01:02:00] I think it's interesting, I definitely think that God is a part of our lives and miracles are happening all the time and I think the miracles are … most of the miracles that I've experienced are people's hearts being opened, my own and others and just that sense of moving into opportunity. I've often said that … and when I was teaching high school, trying to help the students understand it's like, commit to something. Get excited about something, set some goals, move some place, start moving, start following interests, dreams, do something because it's hard for God to make things happen for you if you're sitting still. If you're moving then things can happen.
Recognize opportunity, go after it, follow the desires of your heart, talk to people, build relationships, all that stuff, that's how God works in your life. Move so that things can happen.
I realized this probably sometime in the seminary that if I had been in charge, if I could have written the script of my life, like here's what I'm dreaming of and I get to write the whole thing, whatever my wildest dreams are, I write the script, here's my life, it would have been so much less interesting than what has actually happened. How things come together and so that your question, how does sustainability and sustainable agriculture fit into my spiritual path. Well, I couldn't be doing this farm without Pat. Some of the incredible things that have happened in our lives together couldn't have happened if we weren't together. That this project, part of what I wanted to do was I worked in food and agriculture for a few years talking about sustainable agriculture and there is this realization, it's like if I think this is possible, why aren't I doing it? There was this kind of call to I should do it, right? I should … if I'm telling everyone this is possible then I should make it happen or try to at least, right? Kind of prove it.
That was already in my head, then I met Pat and then Pat was a zookeeper and this incredible gardener. Animal care, gardening, he was interested in the idea of having a farm and we started down that path together and then, I worked at Drake University in the law school doing food and agriculture out of the agriculture law center. I've been there 10 years and then this farm and so there's this feedback loop, our relationship, the message, sustainability, practicing things on the farm, use some credibility.
I'm one of the five farmers appointed to the USDA's farm service agency. Every state has a state farm service agency committee. There's five political appointees in every state, I'm one of those five in Iowa. Again, it's this kind of feedback loop. Again, it's just opening our hearts, being prayerful, being honest with who we are even when it's challenging and let God … It's that balance between it's free will, it's God's will, it's that mystery of God helping us see opportunities, possibilities, opening our hearts and being there when it doesn't always work out. Finding a way through the pain or the disappointments.
Mason Funk: You mentioned that there have been some, you used the work profound experiences you've had here in your rural community as an out gay couple that these might not have been possible or that for you may be affirmation that the path you've chosen, the place you've chosen, the openness you've expressed have been the right choice and that you've been able to really be contributors, I guess. Can you tell us about a couple of those in some way in maybe general terms, or not?
Matt Russell: No, no. I'm … This is still really raw. A year ago in June our neighbor was murdered. Two miles down the road. They have not charged anyone for the crime but …
Mason Funk: [01:06:00] One sec. Hold on one second. There's voices from downstairs. Okay. Just start again.
Matt Russell: [01:07:00] A year ago in June our neighbor Shirley was murdered. Two miles down the road, Friday morning. Shot with a high-powered rifle in the kitchen. They've not charged anyone but the lead suspect is her son. Bill and Shirley … Bill's Shirley's husband. Bill and Shirley have … We moved in this community, they're one of the neighbors who we met. They farmed our farm. We rented some of our acreage out for the first five years, 40 acres then 30 then 25 then 15 until we were able to manage the whole farm ourselves.
The last three years of that, they and their son had rented our farm. We knew Bill and Shirley. Shirley stopped almost weekly. She might buy eggs, she might buy beef or she might just pop in to say hi to Pat because I work full time off the farm, Pat works full time on the farm, it can be kind of isolating. Shirley was one of those people who just … Pat and Shirley were friends and she would pop in and say hi and see how … She was one of those people that helped Pat not stick … not become isolated out here.
We weren't intimate friends. We'd never had a conversation with Bill and Shirley about our relationship or anything. She ends up being murdered, complete shock. It took us a while to write the card but after … and we didn't go up there. In hindsight, we could have went immediately first few days to go up and see Bill. He made our hay, we wrote him checks, we talked to each other but you know. We wrote him a card, very short, but one of the things we said was how important Shirley was in our lives because she welcomed us and took care of us.
We finally sent the card off about 10 days after it happened, about two weeks after it happened, Bill pulled into the driveway. We hadn't seen him since. He pulls in and we started talking. I'm talking to him and Pat comes up so it's the three of us talking and Bill's breaking down and he looks up at us and he says to us, "Guys, love each other. Every day, love each other. Don't take a day for granted."
Here is this guy who's my dad's age, farmer, who's just lost his wife, probably murdered by their son standing in our driveway honoring our marriage. When I was 19 and I picked up that cross, I couldn't have dreamed, I couldn't, in my wildest dreams I could not have thought that that moment was possible. That moment is possible because there have been a lot of people ahead of us who've done all the work and it's not just the LGBT community. It's those nine supreme court justices, three of whom lost their jobs. It is people in the community who walked with and partnered with people of the LGBT community but it is also people who paid a huge price, but that's the community that Pat and I are part of. How is that not God?
Mason Funk: That happens every once in a while. Okay. Well, I have the standard three final questions and maybe we'll spin off a bit more but I'll go to the final three just so I have enough time. One of them is I guess to that 19-year-old,a young person who's gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender just beginning to step out, what … Some people don't like the word advice but what wisdom from your experience might be shared with this person who's just full of trepidation but at the same time full of a sense of inevitability?
Matt Russell: [01:12:00] Yeah. Well, I think … I'll say advice or insight. I think at 46 the insight that I would want to share with anybody 15, 16, 17, 19, whatever, is that celebrate and embrace who God created and your sexuality is a big part of that. Honor that and respect it and express that in ways that are honest and healthy and respectful of whoever it is that you're sharing that experience with. The gift of sexuality is this tremendous gift that is to be experienced and shared and whether you're gay or straight, transgender or bisexual, pay attention to that and honor it and don't use people. I think that's for everybody.
Now, if you happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, then that can be a little bit harder work but it's worth it. The beauty of sexuality is the same for everybody and the sin or the challenge when we make mistakes around that can be the same for everybody and that path is a little harder I think for LGBT kids to navigate. The world's changing, there's a lot more support which is awesome, which I'm very optimistic for the future because I'm seeing a lot more.
I think what's exciting and hopeful is that this bigger discussion of sexuality is helpful for everyone. For me being gay was a challenge but I'm able to … if I'd been straight, I don't know how the world would have worked for me so I can't say if I'd been straight but as a gay man, my sexuality is one of the key things that led me to and experience God. I think that can be the case for lots of people. There are certainly some of my friends who are straight, we can have very candid conversations about those relationships in their lives and they're coming to express themselves, like they can talk about that same kind of thing. Like this is …
That's the challenge, I think, is to have that be part of how we become who we are and so we can all make mistakes, we can all be sinful around our sexuality but how we are created as sexual people, there's no sin there. There's no challenge maybe but there's no shame. It's who we are and embracing who we are and communicating that to other people and having other people help us come to that is the path that leads to a full life.
Mason Funk: [01:16:00] Great. Wonderful. What's your hope for the future?
Matt Russell: [01:17:00] My hope for the future is, I guess the thing that I think is our biggest challenge is climate change, right? I mean, we're going to be nine billion people living on the planet. We have to figure out how to make this work. The longer … I'm optimistic that we will but the longer it takes the greater the inequality, the greater the suffering, the greater the violence and the conflict. I think people who come out of a minority experience have been the folks who have helped us solve big problems.
I think we've been seeing for at least the generation a lot of leadership coming out of the LGBT community certainly there were folks who used the energy of not being able to be who they are and they've channeled that in ways and I'm kind of on the cusp. I'm on the cusp of people before me kind of that was the energy, right?
People after me, it's not so much like a reaction to having to prove themselves, it's more of seeing the world differently, being able to embrace who … like for myself, being able to embrace who I am and then using who I am to see the world through the eyes that God has given me and then make the world a better place with those eyes. That's the hopefulness. That's the hopefulness for the LGBT community is that these young people who are coming forward, using those eyes, those unique eyes. We all have our own unique set of eyes, our own unique experiences, we're all our own snowflake and God using that and being able to fully embrace that as opposed to just kind of bracking it in and ...
The hopefulness is, is that for young people who are part of the LGBT community is that they're going to continue to use who they are to solve big problems whether it's climate change or violence or conflict or environmental things or socioeconomic things, that being gay isn't the entire life project. Thank God for those folks who came before me, who that was a really big part of their life project and had they not done that work, we wouldn't be where we are. Where we are not frees up me and future generations to use those eyes in really different ways. I'm hopeful.
Mason Funk: That's great. That's great. How much time do we have?
Speaker 3: Five minutes.
Mason Funk: [01:20:00] Oh, good. Oh, good, good, good, good. You might have felt me moving your log because I was afraid we're going to run out of tape but we're good and that was awesome. That was really interesting and unique. It makes me think you need to meet Mary Martin in Chicago because she's a lesbian … We were telling Pat last time she's a lesbian African-American woman. I think your insight is really profound that people coming out of the minority experience can be those agents of change for bigger issues. Wow. That's profound.
Last question, what do you see is the value of project like OUTWORDS?
Matt Russell: [01:21:00] Well, the whole conversation has been more rooted in spirituality and church than I anticipated, really but to keep with that theme, story is how God works in the world. The Bible is a … all the scriptures in whatever tradition are if not mostly narrative, narrative and story is a huge part of it. That is how we communicate with each other as humans both as we live and over time in space, historically.
Being able to have people tell their stories and capturing that so that it can be heard in a bigger audience is just necessary and if we don't capture those stories, we lose a really profound gift that we then can't lean on and learn from and so capturing these stories across the country at this time is really important. Because as I said, we're on that cusp, we're in a generational change that's not just a generational change but the whole paradigm of sexuality is changing nationally for our country but internationally, so it's important to capture those stories.

Interviewed by: Mason Funk
Camera: Scott Drucker
Date: July 20, 2016
Location: Home of Matt Russell, Lacona, IA