An Atypical Few “Days in the Life” as DignityUSA’s Executive Director

By Marianne Duddy-Burke

When people, usually reporters, ask me to describe a typical day at my job, I always laugh. There is no such thing! But the month of September was even more unpredictable than most. Here are just a few of the things I had the privilege of doing on behalf of all of us who are Dignity members and supporters.

White House Welcome Reception for Pope Francis. At least eight Dignity leaders were invited to the White House for the official ceremony welcoming Pope Francis. Board members Lauren Carpenter, Ray Panas, and Allen Rose, former national President Bob Miailovich, Transgender Caucus leaders Marcia Garber and Mateo Williamson, Washington Chapter President Dan Barutta, and I were all given tickets by the Obama Administration. I had the very special honor of being given a VIP ticket, which meant I watched the ceremony from just yards away from the stage, along with folks like Newt Gingrich, Bernie Sanders, Thomas J. Reese, SJ, and several members of Congress. I was moved by seeing President Obama and Pope Francis, who each is a new type of leader in his role, and how they both represent so much hope as they try to move the world in new direction.

World Meeting of Families. My family and I served with 11 other families as pilgrims to the World Meeting of Family (WMF), with the goal of being visible witnesses to the presence of LGBTQI individuals and families in our Church. This official Vatican event was held in Philadelphia under the direction of Archbishop Chaput. While we went into the event aware that it was a catechetical event, I don’t think any of the Pilgrims were fully prepared for the spiritual and psychological toxicity we would encounter. There was only a single vision of family proclaimed from the podiums (a heterosexually couple married in the Church with their biological children), and everyone else was incessantly referred to as sinful, damaged, disordered, or failed. The Pilgrims, all dressed in bright blue shirts with prominent Equally Blessed logos, made a point of getting to the microphones during plenary and workshop response sessions, and challenging the language and theology that had been presented. After each session, we were surrounded by other WMF participants who needed to talk about their own family members who are LGBTQI, and who found Church teaching inadequate. Many took literature or memorabilia and some came to the evening sessions offered by the Equally Blessed groups. The one official WMF session on gay issues, with a celibate gay man and his mother as the presenters, was relocated at the last minute to a room much smaller than its original site, leaving hundreds literally locked out of the presentation. The session used the language of “having same-sex attraction,” and while the presenters tried to be respectful, the problems inherent in the disorder model were obvious. The only presentation during the entire week that felt inclusive was given by Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila, who spoke of the need to care for one another in the face of challenges such as war, poverty, and violence.

This was a real experience of trying to be a few candles in a deep, extensive darkness. It made me very aware of how intensively difficult it must have been for those who spent all or most of their lives in the times that being gay, bi, or transgender was considered sick, sinful, or criminal, and put me in awe of the courage early activists must have had. What inner strength it takes to overcome constant negativity and condemnation! And how many people, in the U.S. and around the world, still live in that kind of environment. Our responsibility to use our liberation to help lift their burden is very clear.

The Death of John McNeill. Word of John’s passing came to me as I was driving from the White House event back to the WMF. I felt a tremendous loss, but an even larger sense of indebtedness to this man whom I later described to the New York Times as the first prophet of the Catholic LGBTQI movement. His theology was smart, sound, and prophetic, and his passion for justice immense. John always had the heart of a pastor, and it was the grief of the HIV/AIDS crisis that propelled him to break the silence imposed on him and re-emerge to challenge harmful Church teaching. His ministry came at significant personal cost, but also, ultimately, allowed him to live openly with his beloved Charlie. Our deepest condolences are offered to Charlie, and our deepest gratitude for the legacy that John gave to all of us.  

The Pope and Kim Davis. The Pope’s visit to the U.S. was barely completed when the radical religious right attempted to cast it as an endorsement of their agenda. By implying that Pope Francis had affirmed Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, those trying to undermine marriage equality at first looked like they had powerful endorsement. However, after a huge outcry and demand for more clarity about the facts of the encounter, which included dozens of interviews with Dignity leaders on a single day, including my National Public Radio interview that was reportedly quoted at a Vatican media session. The Vatican soundly rejected these claims, said the Pope greeted Ms. Davis along with dozens of others assembled by the Papal Nuncio, and then made a big deal of his one-on-one meeting with a partnered gay former student. This was a huge moral and public relations victory that weakens those seeking to use religious authority to limit the human rights of gay and transgender people.

The Synod on the Family. As I write this, the Synod on the Family is about to draw to a close. From all reports, no substantive changes on doctrine concerning LGBTQI people, divorce and remarriage, or other family issues are expected. The news is full of stories of divisions between Synod participants, and of attempts to maintain civility. The Pope will be given a report that has been approved by the bishops, and he will need to decide how to move forward. He could make a statement immediately, issue directives some time from now, or refer material to another group for additional recommendations.

A failure to make any changes to language, pastoral practice, or doctrine means that the official Church continues to sanction official discrimination against LGBTQIg people, refuses to stand against criminalization and violence, and will continue to classify us as morally inferior, flawed humans.

So, the confusing, conflicted, impossible to pigeonhole Papacy of Francis continues. And we continue to proclaim our truth and work for the day when we are fully equal and affirmed by our Church.