By Mateo Williamson, DignityUSA
It is difficult to describe exactly what the Dignity Convention of 2013 meant to me. I have tried to accurately relay the experience to some of my friends here in Arizona, but in vain. How do I capture the excitement I felt as I realized I had actually made it successfully to Minneapolis, and furthermore to the correct hotel (in itself a miracle)? Or when I nervously shook the hands of social justice greats like Fr. Bernard Lynch and Fr. Roy Bourgeois? Or, while sporting plaid shorts and a plaid shirt on departure day due to my packing faux pas, I embraced all my wonderful new friends good-bye and nobody even batted an eye? (If that isn’t true friendship, I don’t know what is).
But truly, to even approach what I was feeling throughout that week, the two years prior to the Convention form a significant context. Almost two years ago, I found my way back to the Catholic Church right around the time that I was coming out as a transgender male to my very Catholic family. I will never forget my first time back in confession, tears flooding my eyes as the priest asked me to “put it in my own words.” I could barely whisper the word “transgender” because I felt so much shame based on my family’s early reaction to my coming out. But the priest’s response was not at all what I expected. It turns out he was one of few priests who knew about what being transgender meant. In addition, during the Convention I learned from others that back in the 80’s this priest had allowed for a Dignity Mass to be held at his parish. He was the one affirming priest at that student center, and I had happened upon his confessional. I have no doubt that God was allowing the collective love of Dignity to hold me in that moment, and that has not been the only time I have been touched by this ministry. I had been aware of the existence of Dignity through the internet for several years before my tumultuous coming out experience, and just knowing this group existed became a subconscious sanctuary for me.
A few months later, I was introduced in a chance way to Dr. Eugene McMullan, the editor of the newsletter for Catholics for Marriage Equality of California. We met through the Facebook page of Fr. James Martin, an increasingly vocal advocate for LGBT Catholics, and thus began an internetmediated mentorship that enabled me to grow in my faith identity as an LGBT Catholic at a crucial time when, inundated by Church negativity, I was about to throw in the towel yet again. Eugene introduced me even more to the work of Dignity and welcomed me to write for CME’s newsletter. I fumbled through my first ever biblical reflection, which meant that I was actually reading the Bible on my own for essentially the first time (I don’t believe he was aware of that).
In this way, from my student confines here in Tucson, I connected with Dignity without ever having been to a Dignity Mass. This made my Convention experience all the more magical and full of emotion. I felt as though I was connecting to the rich history of a social justice movement I had only accessed from the outside, and I found myself falling in love with the spirituality of the justice aspect of our faith.
I will admit that the year prior, I had scoured everything I could find about affirming Catholic priests—in particular gay priests. I was desperate to understand why I felt called so strongly to a Church that seemed to deny my full sense of humanity, and I felt that the answer must lie partly in the stories of clergy who had dedicated their lives to this Church and now found themselves marginalized in their own spiritual home. I dug out hidden narratives from the depths of the internet—old scanned testimonies and often anonymous blogs and books. Some of the most exciting moments were when I stumbled upon the stories of openly gay priests like Frs. Donal Godfrey, Geoff Farrow, Bob Pierson, and John McNeill. Every find was like a gold mine to me, making me feel less alone in the juxtaposition of who I was and what I believed. Coming to the Convention brought that alive for me.
From meeting other young adults to connecting with those who have carried Dignity forward throughout the years; from being welcomed among the leather Defenders, to participating in the transgender caucus, the Convention was the most memorable experience of my year. I still feel like it was a miracle that I made it to Minneapolis, in large part due to the generosity of donors to the scholarship fund. I can’t thank you enough for making this experience possible for me.
What makes Dignity so special to me is that by the end of the Convention, I knew I had found a forever home. When I came out, I experienced the loss of family, friends, and community. I struggled to find a place where I felt welcome in my own faith. Dignity helped me bridge the rift between my identity and my faith, or rather, to realize that God never intended for that gap to exist. Being LGBT is not a broken part of who I am, but rather an integral and blessed part of my spiritual self.
I have confidence that one day, while perhaps far into the future, the Catholic Church hierarchy will faithfully uphold the dignity of all people regardless of gender or sexuality, and Dignity will become obsolete as an organization in the most beautiful way, because its mission will be complete. It will someday exist only in history, like a spiritual Underground Railroad, because the message of love that Dignity has affirmed will already be inherent in every Catholic heart around the world. I believe that Catholics of the future will someday be unable to fathom what the Church once professed about women and LGBT people, apart from stories of the past. That day has not come. But until it does, the community that has been formed through Dignity will assure for time to come that there will always be a place to gather where all are welcomed.