How A 90-Year-Old Baptist Pastor Came Out To His Gay Grandson Just Months Before His Death

“He told me he would trade places with me if he could. He told me he loved me.” Grant Rehnberg is now creating a memorial art installation to honor his grandfather’s story.

1. In the last months of his grandfather’s life, Grant Rehnberg received “the greatest gift possible.” The 90-year-old man revealed he was gay – just like his grandson sitting right across from him.

2. Only five months later, Grant’s beloved “Grandpa Jim” was gone.

3. In his own words, Grant remembers the moment his Grandpa Jim came out to him:

4. “Tears of relief fell down his wrinkled cheeks. We looked through a photo album and video of my recent marriage to my husband Bradford. He beamed, saying how proud he was of our ‘wholesome’ and ‘brave’ love.”


5. “Watching my dad’s celebratory and teary-eyed wedding toast, grandpa gripped my hand and leaned forward in his wheelchair to hear every word.”

6. Following his grandfather’s death, Grant was left alone to process the identity his grandfather had kept hidden for so long.

7. James Rehnberg was a Baptist pastor and a proud World War II veteran, having served with the 218th Counter Intelligence Corps.

8. He spent 65 years of his life with his wife Doris by his side.

9. “He knew he could never admit to his homosexuality and serve as a Baptist minister, his deepest passion and means of providing for his family.”

10. “He chose to survive; he chose to hide his true self.”

11. “He told me about the love of his life, Warren Johnson, a boy he played music with at church. He told me God loves every part of us.”

At the funeral, Grant placed a photo of himself and his husband on their wedding day in his grandfather’s suit coat pocket and a red rose on his coffin.

12. “He told me he would trade places with me if he could.”

13. Rehnberg, a multimedia artist, is currently working on a memorial installation titled The Family Connection to honor the special bond he shared with his late grandfather.

14. He hopes the project will help him process his feelings toward a man “whose legacy of religious shame, sexual repression, and fear of one’s true self” shaped his own path.

Today, I live as a legally married, openly gay man. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and DoMA have fallen, but I still experience similar discrimination that my grandfather’s generation knew far too well. Even with our sixty-five year age gap, Grandpa Jim and I were both born into worlds far from perfect equality and security for queer people. Many still live in the dark closet that my grandpa and I ultimately found freedom from.

15. Watch his project’s launch video below and check out the project here.

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Sarah Karlan is the Deputy LGBT Editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Sarah Karlan at
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