Family Run

Family Run: After Being Ousted From His Family Banking Business For Being Gay, Stephen Habberstad Is Starting Over

"I’m trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life ... Life is about experiencing new things, and maybe it's time to do that."

Each month, our Family Run series profiles amazing families who work together in some capacity. From starting businesses, inventing products, collaborating artistically, and beyond, these family members are making positive contributions to the world together, and strengthening their family bonds in the process. 

This month, in honor of LGBTQ Pride Month, we're doing something a little different in order to highlight the important story of Stephen Habberstad — a man involved in his family-run business all his life, but who was suddenly booted after he was outed as a gay man. This is his story of leaving his family-run business to fight for his rights, and starting over with a strength he never knew he had, and with the support of those who love him unconditionally.

Stephen Habberstad's banking career ended — and his new story began — five years ago at the annual stockholders’ meeting for Country Bankers Inc., his family-run business in Minnesota.

Any other time, that relatively short, run-of-the-mill meeting was almost like a social event, simply used to elect new officers, the last three generations of which were always family members.

Unable to attend in person, Habberstad called into the meeting and immediately became unsettled. "...There was a boardroom full of attorneys and family members," Habberstad told A Plus. "And I just thought, 'Oh my God, what's going on here?'" Within a few minutes of Habberstad starting the meeting, the other family members wrested control away from him, voted him off the board, and hung up on him. 

"Well, needless to say, I was shocked … [I] couldn't believe what happened," he said. Realizing his ex-wife and sister had led the charge against him after learning his sexual orientation, he knew he had to fight back against their discrimination. "When you're outed, it's not my style to parade my life or my lifestyle ... That's a private thing," he said. "... It never was my intent to make the papers in Minneapolis, it just happened ... [But] you gotta stand up for your rights. Gay, straight, Black, White — whatever — we all have our rights."  

After calling an attorney friend and asking for advice, he found two law firms, Culberth & Lienemann LLP of St. Paul Minnesota and Sherinian & Hasso of Des Moines, Iowa, who had so much "faith in the case" that they represented Habberstad "even when [he] could not foot the bill." Over the next four or five years, Habberstad's "life unraveled," until the month-long trial.

"Several months later," he said. "We got the verdict that I'd won."

Though Habberstad won his legal case and was awarded $3.5 million, he lost a part of himself in the process. Having devoted his entire life to helping people through growing his family's small community bank, and leading it through difficult economic crises. "I know our community so well. When they walk in the door of the bank, I almost know what they want before they get in my office," he explained. "And I enjoyed that. I enjoyed helping our community … And to have that taken away from me overnight, it's kind of like losing a child." 

What kept him going through it all, however, were his four adult children, Nicole, Brendan, Eric, Alyssa. Though Habberstad knows that time was "hard for them, too," he appreciated how they were always there for him. Whenever they thought he might be feeling down, they'd come visit. "We'd try to carry on some of the family traditions during that period of that time," he explained. 

During the four years Habberstad's law firm was working on his case, because he was no longer employed by the family business, he rented out his house while looking for a job. Habberstad's children, despite "being young people just getting started" and therefore, lacking "great incomes," all chipped in to help their father financially. Habberstad appreciated the "incredibly awesome" gesture, and has since re-payed them after receiving his award. "My daughter stepped up to me after this was all over and she said, 'Dad, you showed us a sign of strength that was unbelievable, and it's something we're proud of and something everybody should live by.'" 

Even when his strength had been tested time and again, that sentiment assured Habberstad he was still "their rock."

Habberstad's four children 
Habberstad's four children  Courtesy of Stephen Habberstad

Habberstad also had the support of his then-boyfriend, now-husband, Ralph Gonzalez, a former military officer. The couple started dating 10 years ago, after Habbsterhad and his wife divorced. "My wife knew I was gay, but we both figured, you know, we'll make it work," he explained. "And we had many, many good years together, and we raised four beautiful children. And then, later on in life, our relationship just kind of didn't work as well anymore, and so we went our separate ways ..." 

Even after their marriage ended, Habberstand and his ex-wife "stayed friends for quite some time," and were well aware of each other's dating lives. Habberstad's wife also begun dating someone, and the couples "even used to get together on holidays." The arrangement "worked with [Habberstad's] immediate family for a while." When it no longer did, his ex-wife ousted him from the family business, and the lawsuit ensued, Habberstad said, "He [Gonzalez] stood by me through the whole process ... he was a big part of my support group." 

Habberstad (right) and his husband, Ralph Gonzalez (left) 
Habberstad (right) and his husband, Ralph Gonzalez (left)  Courtesy of Stephen Habberstad

Though Habberstad has not spoken to either of his two sisters since that fateful board meeting, and has no interest in rekindling a relationship with them, he has said the difficult time strengthened his other relationships, particularly that with his four children and seven grandchildren. "The neat thing about our relationship with the grandchildren is they always ask where Ralphie is, if we are not together," he told A Plus. "Never have they questioned us together. It's totally natural for them."

Habberstad and his grandchildren
Habberstad and his grandchildren Courtesy of Stephen Habberstad

Today — nearly a year after receiving his verdict — Habberstad is "breathing easier" and looking toward the future.

"I've been a banker my whole life, but, you know, I'll figure something out," he explained. "... At this stage, I think I'm gonna do something different ... Life is about experiencing new things, and maybe it's time to do that." Though Habberstad doesn't exactly know what's next for him, he does know where it's going to take place: "A warmer climate than Minnesota," he joked. 

Habberstad added that he is thankful to at least have been outed in an accepting and progressive time in history. Habberstad was married in 1977 when homosexuality was possibly "even still considered an illness," according to Habberstad. "It was just something you didn't talk about," he added. "Growing up with that was very difficult ... When you have the states voting for same-sex marriage, that tells you it's being accepted, and that's a good thing because it's hard hiding who you really are." 

At age 63, Habberstad knows several people his age and older who haven't come out yet. "They've not told their families, and that's a personal thing. You know your family, you know who you are, and I think every person has the right to make that move when they're ready," he said."... I know people in their late 70s that just came out, and it took them most of their life, but it's cool they did." Still, Habberstad noted that perhaps some people will never be ready to come out. 

Despite all the progress made over the past 40 years, this proves just how far society still has to go.

Habberstad surrounded by his children and grandchildren.
Habberstad surrounded by his children and grandchildren. Courtesy of Stephen Habberstad

Though Habberstad went through "four years of Hell," he emerged on the other side having fought for his rights  — and won.  "My advice to anybody is don't feel bad who you are. You were born that way. Feel good about who you are because that's who you are." 

And, just as important, there will be people who love you for who you are. "... Just because my siblings turned against me doesn't mean your entire family is going to..." he concluded. "My children stuck with me, and they were my largest support group." 

Habberstad learned that, when it matters most, "family" isn't necessarily the one you were given, but the one you created. 

CORRECTION: This article originally stated that Habberstad was ousted by his two sisters. In fact it was his sister and ex-wife who did so. The current version has been updated to reflect this change. 

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