By Mark Matson
I am thinking of a memory from more than 15 years ago. I was attending Mass at my local Newman Center. The parish had the practice of including women in the rotation of preachers. Marie was preaching this particular day. I always found her reflections to be thoughtprovoking. This day was particularly so. She was telling a story from her childhood to make a point. I found myself trying to translate her experience as a little girl to mine as a boy. It occurred to me that this is what women in our Church have to do most of the time. And then I thought how the People of God are being denied another whole part of the spectrum of the divine on Sundays, that of the feminine.
I like to think of myself as an advocate for the full inclusion of women in my Church. I don’t go so far as to call myself a feminist. That feels pretentious. However, my spirit was really encouraged by the presence of so many women at the last Convention in Minneapolis, the most I remember. The Convention was preceded by a “women’s retreat.” Before that event, our Board of Directors met to conduct business and the upcoming retreat was mentioned with the phrase “for women only.” It elicited some of the negative feelings I have felt so often in my past of being excluded. This was in part due to the fact I heard “women’s event” rather than “women’s retreat.” During a lunch break I brought this up to a group from the Board that included several women. The discussion that ensued was enlightening to me. I am writing to share some of that light with the men of Dignity.
My female colleagues were quick to state their intention was not to exclude, but to create a “safe space” for women. Women, particularly lesbians, have a much more pronounced experience of exclusion in our male-centric Church and tradition. The alienation can be profound and certainly different in nature than mine. I was asked to imagine walking into a Church where all the leaders on the altar were women, where all the images in stained glass were women, where all the language was feminine with the understanding that men were included, and then asked how I might feel. The part about the stained glass really struck me, and it didn’t take long to imagine. It would be a pervasive experience of feeling “less than” rather than equal to. Women have different issues with our Church than gay men do. The purpose of the retreat is to provide a place where they can talk about these experiences without having to try to translate them for men like me.
In most of our chapters, women constitute 10% or less of those attending. They rarely have the experience of being surrounded by “people like me.” Gay men can certainly imagine what this is like when we are acutely aware of being surrounded by people who are clueless of our experience, no matter how welcoming they may be. How often do you walk into a place where you are very aware of not fitting in, and then walk right out? The need for a place where we ARE surrounded by people with shared experiences is great, and DignityUSA provided this for our women at the women’s retreat. I also learned that when women and men gather together, women often pull back from talking, for whatever reason. In other words, the guys end up dominating the conversation.
The Convention also featured a “Feminist Liturgy.” I am a member of Defenders. We always host a morning liturgy for the Convention, and we wear our leathers. For us it is an expression of our masculinity. We are always honored and pleased when women join our celebration of the Eucharist. This year the women extended a specific invitation to come to the Feminist Liturgy the next day, and so many of us did. It was a beautiful and distinct experience. One of my brothers expressed his gratitude tearfully.
Dignity so needs an infusion of the feminine, as does the Church as a whole. I found it at the last Convention in small measure. I pray that more and more women join our communities, as I pray more youth do as well. Because I need them to expand my understanding of the Divine. For that to happen, the men of Dignity need to suspend judgment, ask respectfully, and listen well. It’s not about us any more than being gay is about the straight people in our lives. We simply have been gifted with a different view of life. And isn’t it delightful when someone inquires about that with genuine interest, and lets us talk without having to translate, explain, and defend? That’s an experience of genuine respect.