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The State of DignityUSA – July 2009

Address at DignityUSA Membership Meeting
July 3, 2009
Marianne Duddy-Burke, Executive Director

It is my proud duty to give you, DignityUSA’s members the “state of the organization” report as we mark our 40th Anniversary.

From a long-range perspective, we have a great deal to celebrate. The LGBT Catholic community has truly experienced a revolution over these 40 years, and Dignity has led the way to many, if not most, of the changes. Even when I first joined this organization, some 27 years ago, many people in my Chapter were known only by first names, and some even used aliases. Members spoke of Chapter parties that were raided by the Boston police, and how the names and occupations of those unable to escape arrest were published in the morning papers, causing many to lose their jobs and families. Our Chapter Christmas Even liturgy was the largest of the year, as so many gay Catholics had been expelled by their families, and had no place else to be. We even had liturgies disrupted by bomb threats.

Clearly, conditions for LGBT Catholics, both within and beyond our Church, have improved dramatically. There are now hundreds of parishes across the country known to be “gay-friendly.” Over 40 Catholic colleges have gay-straight alliance groups on campus. And while cases of family alienation due to someone coming out as LGBT still occur, the much more typical story is of continued embrace, the welcoming of partners, and great joy at our weddings. Yes, Dignity can rightly claim a lot of credit for this vast sea-change in these last four decades.

But given our time limitations, my task here is to focus on more recent history. At our membership meeting in Austin two years ago, the focus was on the many challenges that DignityUSA faced as an organization struggling to fulfill its mission. Those present told the Board you believed we still had important work to do, and that you stood ready to support that work, but that it was imperative that we get our house in order. In response to what you said, the Board developed five goals and an action plan for each.

First, we had to ensure the smooth and efficient operation of our national office. Whether as a member, donor, or Chapter leader, many of you had personal frustrations over inaccurate data, unreturned phone calls, unprocessed or unacknowledged gifts, and the lack of timely, useful reports. I am pleased to say that, due to the skill, tenacity, and commitment of our Operations Manager, former Regional Coordinator, Secretary, and Vice-President Peggy Burns, we have accomplished a complete turnaround. You, our constituents, have commented very positively on Peggy’s accuracy, efficiency, and follow-through. We just don’t get complaints any more, and when someone does bring an error to our attention, it is corrected quickly. Peggy is the right person for this job, because she has intimate knowledge of what you all need, a deep commitment to serving DignityUSA’s mission, and the right talents for this role.

However, smooth and efficient operation of our office means more than accurately processing membership dues and donations. Having fixed the problems, our goal is to get to the point where we provide world-class communications and services to all of you. We’ve taken small steps in implementing the vast array of technological services that can allow us to do this, by improving the look and timeliness of email communications, launching a new web site that has many more capabilities than our older one, and, yes, even setting up a Facebook page. But, it will probably not surprise anyone to know that our email database is still woefully inaccurate, with validated, current emails on hand for only about 40% of our membership.

Over the next two years, you can expect to see dramatic leaps forward in how we support our mission through technology. Under the leadership of Database Developer Greg Potosnak, we will soon be able to provide Chapter leaders and even regular members the ability to view and modify appropriate membership information in a secure, on-line database. We are working to link all of our internal systems—financial, communications, reporting—to be more efficient and reduce errors. Our Webminister, Logan Bear, has a tremendous vision for making our website a community-building place, a goal enthusiastically embraced by the Board, and Logan is rolling out new web features all the time to help do this. We hope to run future elections electronically, and to give you the choice of how you want us to communicate with you, and vice versa. If you have not already done so, please visit our Tech Center in the exhibit area, and see demonstrations of what will be coming your way soon.

Our second goal was to rebuild relationships with local expressions of Dignity. Recognizing the vital importance of our Chapters, the Board knew that closer communication and a deeper understanding of challenges, needs, and successes was necessary. We began moving Board meetings around the country, visiting Boston, Chicago, Denver, Washington, DC, and San Francisco in the last two years. Future plans include meetings in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Philadelphia. In the past two years, President Mark Matson has hosted quarterly calls with Chapter leaders, which have been great opportunities for horizontal and vertical exchange of ideas. Visits to chapters to mark significant events or anniversaries, or when Board members happen to be in town on personal business, continue to be great ways to build bonds between local and national leaders. Our publications team, led by Leo Egashira and Bill Welch, has a Chapter Focus feature that allows you to tell the rest of our readers what’s unique about your Chapter. I try to work closely with local Chapters where there are issues of importance to us in the media, to provide Media Talking Points in advance of an anticipated story, or to provide appropriate resources to Chapter leaders facing serious internal issues.

We will continue this work in the years ahead, and want to know what else would help you. All of DignityUSA’s leaders and staff have emails posted on our website, or you can call Peggy via our national office toll-free number, and she will get you connected with the right person. Please, please, please, be in touch!

The third goal was to pursue proactive and prophetic witness as the best agent of change. DignityUSA and our Chapters dare to speak our truth. Over and over, you have told us that this is one of the most important things we do. This goal challenges us to do two things. One is to continue to use “opportunities” that the church hierarchy provides us, such as the Pope’s visit to the US in 2008, and the Vatican’s opposition to UN efforts to decriminalize homosexuality across the globe, to put forward our truth, our faith-based perspective, and to refute the lies perpetuated about us and about our loving relationships by church officials. Our media efforts on these fronts, led by Jeff Stone and amplified by our partnership with GLAAD, have been pretty successful these last two years.

But we have decided that we can no longer merely react. In addition to the necessary combating of lies and untruths, we have committed ourselves to proactive, positive witness, largely by living “out and proud” in the public square and in our faith communities, and by working to create the Church and society we deserve. It is no longer enough to reject the labels of “objectively disordered” and “intrinsically evil” No, we seek to create resources, programs and liturgies that affirm and celebrate the wholeness and holiness of who we are. Things like our weekly reflections on Scripture from an LGBT perspective “Breath of the Spirit,” our “Quarterly Voice” publication, and the many exquisitely beautiful liturgies celebrated at our Chapters do this. We need to disseminate our existing resources more widely and develop more, more, more!

Fourth, we have challenged ourselves to broaden our membership base by finding ways to serve a wider spectrum of people. Let’s face it, DignityUSA and our Chapters can be a bit…homogeneous. We are largely urban, largely white, a sizeable majority male, and our median age is probably, well, AARP-eligible. We claim to serve LGBT Catholics and our families, friends, and allies, but many of the straight folks who join us do so despite feeling a bit second class at times. And they are a small proportion of our membership. We certainly see exceptions to these generalities—the richly inclusive San Antonio Chapter comes to mind, as does Dayton, Ohio, which has transformed itself into “The Living Beatitudes Community.” We’ve also seen some growth in membership among folks who live far from any local Chapter, and who connect with us through on-line discussion groups or frequent visits to our website.

>We could be doing more to serve younger people, women, straight allies, LGBT Catholics who worship in parishes or other faith communities, and people of varied backgrounds, especially Hispanics. We have, just in the last two weeks, submitted a large grant request to a major foundation which, if successful, will provide funding to help us better understand the needs of at least some of these target groups, and what they might value about Dignity. Broadening our base will likely mean some shifts in how we carry out our work, but the Board is convinced that living Dignity’s mission in today’s Church and today’s society demands these changes. Dignity of 2009 doesn’t look much like Dignity of 1969, although our core beliefs remain largely unchanged. DignityUSA of 2019 will be somewhat different from our gathering today, but, I believe, will still be a place that honors God incarnate in every individual and all loving relationships.

Finally, we pledged to create effective partnerships that enhance our ability to build an inclusive Church and society. DignityUSA’s vision statement says that we work for the day when LGBT Catholics experience full equality in all aspects of Church and society. This work of radically transforming a 2000-plus year-old institution and civil society as well is not something we will accomplish on our own. In the past two years, Dignity has continued its long-standing coalition work with groups like COR (the Catholic Organizations for Renewal), the National Religious Leadership Roundtable (a multi-denominational group of LGBT religious leaders convened by NGLTF), Women-Church Convergence (Catholic organizations with the needs of women at their core) and HRC’s Council of Elders. We have deepened our relationships with some of these partners. For example, in the last two years, DignityUSA has done joint media work with New Ways Ministry, Call to Action, and in some cases, Fortunate Families. In California, we partnered with New Ways, CTA, California Catholic Democrats, Faith for Equality and other groups on events like a press conference where prominent Catholic leaders and families of lesbian and gay Catholics “came out” about their opposition to Proposition 8. One of our most beneficial partnerships has been with GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). Through GLAAD’s Religion, Faith and Values program, headed by Ann Craig, we have a broad and deeply talented team of media specialists who help us get our message out. In turn, we provide GLAAD with credible Catholic voices on issues of importance. There are other examples, but the point is that DignityUSA is actively seeking partnerships that help us pool resources and information to expand our ability to do what you have asked us to do. We will continue to seek active and innovative partnerships in the years ahead.

So what is the state of DignityUSA? You know, I think about cover of our Convention Program book, designed by the very talented Patrick Lane, is a perfect visual depiction. We are in a very good place right now. We’re right in this sun-bathed, well-watered field of colorful flowers and tall grasses. We have a strong, dedicated and richly talented leadership team. Our membership is engaged and generously supportive. Our financial position is better than it has been in decades. I hope you believe that your staff is working well on your behalf. But we’re not content to stay in our “happy place.” Ahead lies the Promised Land, visible now only as vague, ill-defined shapes, structures, and spaces. We need to keep walking, running, crawling, flying towards that land, and keep refocusing our vision to achieve greater clarity, and to get even closer to the place of promise and possibility. This is a journey we take together, and we will lose and gain pilgrims as we travel. I believe that the goals the Board has laid out give us direction for the way forward, and some reference points to consult when we need to make choices about which way to go. Our Statement of Position and Purpose and Mission Statements remind us about the values and purpose of our pilgrimage.

On behalf of the Board of Directors, I thank you for being part of this leg of the journey, and ask you to walk together for many, many more miles.

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