By Marianne Duddy-Burke, DignityUSA Executive Director
I am writing this piece just hours after the conclusion of a unique conference on Religion and Diplomacy sponsored by the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. The conference marked the third anniversary of the work of this fairly new branch of the State Department, and I was honored to represent DignityUSA in my role as a member of the Faith and LGBTI Human Rights Advisory Group.
This two-day event brought together 300 people representing dozens of faith communities, diplomatic staff, theologians, human rights workers, international aid workers, United Nations staff, and high-level members of the Obama administration. Concerns about LGBTI human rights were as present as women’s equality; terrorism; global warming; access to food, clean water, education, medical care; and the eradication of poverty. Representatives from the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See were present, and they were well aware of the training DignityUSA leaders Leo Egashira and Jeff Stone provided to staff there just about a year ago, as well as the work I have done with Ambassador Hackett, the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See.
The fact that DignityUSA and other LGBTI and affirming faith leaders are actively helping to shape U.S. and even global advances in human rights for our community is a remarkable achievement. During this meeting, especially when speaking with advocates from Nigeria and Egypt, Kenya and South Africa, I recalled stories I’ve heard from some of the pioneers of our own movement. I remembered their terrifying stories of being arrested by police who made demeaning or even threatening statements to them, of being beaten by people outside of bars, of living in deep shadows, often with identities they constructed when moving in the lesbian/gay world (at that time I did not know people who identified as bisexual or transgender). It made me realize once again, with tremendous gratitude and awe, the courage and tenacity they needed to come through those decades when they were considered sick, sinful, and criminal. It is their stubbornness and strength that birthed the world we now know. We need to find more ways to help speed the pace of social, cultural, and religious transformation for those who live in the dozens of countries where they continue to face prosecution and violence.
I am inspired that our government is working so hard to be a leader in this effort, and proud that DignityUSA has a role. But I wondered where the Catholic officials were. Certainly, there are many Catholic aid workers, diplomats, health care providers, educators, theologians, and even front-line ministers who are delivering hope and appropriate care to LGBTI people around the world. But they do so often in violation of official policies. They and their ministries could be shut down if what they are doing is discovered. Why should they be forced to choose between their sense of what the Gospel and social justice call them to do, and the doctrine developed by a tiny fraction of the members of our Church who are non-representative of the Church, and often without the benefit of those with real expertise? How do we and Catholics around the world shape the Church’s delivery of services and resources that truly contribute to bettering the lives of all the Earth’s people?
The work of justice, equality, and full inclusion of LGBTI people in our Church and our world is ever-expanding. The work lives in our own local communities, as well as on every inhabited continent. It takes many forms, and requires the ability to listen with humility to those whose lives are very different from our own. What has worked in the development of DignityUSA will probably not be the answer for those in other countries. Yet, I know we have much to offer, as well as much to learn, from our kin in other parts of the world.
As we begin a new year of Dignity, I urge us to reflect on the opportunities for amplifying our message beyond the borders of the U.S., or into communities here at home where we have yet to reach. They can be defined by geography, identity, language, immigration status, age, religion, or many other attributes. The opportunity is immense, and often immediate. How will you respond?