DignityUSA Leads Memorials for LGBTQI Murder Victims

By Marianne Duddy-Burke, DignityUSA Executive Director

In Rome and at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting, DignityUSA marked November’s spirit of remembrance to draw attention to the failure of most Catholic officials to explicitly condemn anti-LGBTQI violence, even in the wake of the Pulse massacre in Orlando, and the largest number of murders of transgender people on record in 2016.

Reflections offered at both events noted that “fewer than 10” of nearly 300 active bishops in the U.S. had acknowledged that those at Pulse were targeted due to being in a “club … established as a haven and community space for the LGBTQI community by a Catholic woman to honor her gay brother who had died of AIDS,” and that none have spoken about the risk to transgender people. Rather, declared DignityUSA, “The worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history occurred at a gay club, and the leaders of our Church failed to explicitly link this violence with the homophobia and transphobia so rampant in our society, and in too many religious communities. They hid behind words like ‘innocent victims’ and ‘tragic loss of life’ – certainly true, but sinfully incomplete.”

At the Rome Vigil, sponsored by Cammini de Speranza, photos of the Pulse victims flashed behind an altar that held a stark wooden cross and a rainbow Easter candle, and a ring of candles representing the lives lost. As stories of some of the victims’ lives were read, and a choir sang hymns of mourning, candles around the foot of the cross were lit. Nearly 70 people, including a couple who had met at Dignity/Los Angeles and who retired in Rome, wept and prayed. One woman in attendance, who sobbed through much of the service, said she had visited Pulse on several occasions while studying just outside of Orlando.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops blocked DignityUSA from renting a conference room at the Baltimore, Maryland hotel where they were meeting, so we held the vigil outside the hotel. Dignity/Washington Chapter member Larry Ranley constructed a rainbow tent that provided a dramatic and eye-catching backdrop for the dozen or so people—Dignity members, folks from nearby LGBTQI-friendly parishes, and a Roman Catholic Woman Priest—who participated in the prayer, attracting attention from many on the Harborside Walk. DignityUSA Board member Allen Rose created a powerful Rosary litany, in which the biography of a murder victim became linked with a prayer, and each Mystery’s reflection had real meaning for the LGBTQI and ally community. We prayed and read each victim’s biography over the course of two and one-half hours.

At the conclusion, those present shared what it meant to be part of the event. One woman, a recent transplant from Orlando to Baltimore, had been a frequent patron of Pulse, and also made her First Communion and Confirmation at the Catholic church closest to the club. She noted that several victims’ funerals were held there, and wondered if the priest acknowledged the sexual orientation or gender identity of those he buried. “What if it had been me?” she asked. “Would he have told the truth about my life?” She came to the event representing a new group of Latino/a queer and ally Catholics in Baltimore, and expressed the group’s immense gratitude that the witness was occurring.

The Baltimore vigil was held exactly one week following the U.S. national election. We noted how the election results have exacerbated the anxiety many LGBTQI people and allies were already experiencing. “An atmosphere of increased polarization, and a sense that it is permissible for those in the dominant culture to taunt and target the ‘other’ has permeated the LGBTQI community. The Vice-President Elect’s history as a champion of restrictive, anti-LGBTQI religious liberty laws raises tremendous concerns about the future of the civil liberties advances our community and supporters have achieved. Reports that the bishops’ conference may amend the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care facilities, to prohibit the provision of any gender reassignment services means that many Americans could lose any access to appropriate, respectful health care.”

In remarks that followed reflection on what we learned about those killed, we outlined what we seek from the U.S. bishops in honor of the victims. “We honor them, not only is ensuring their names and their lives are not forgotten, but in recommitting ourselves, as people of deep and enduring faith, to ending all hatred and violence rooted in misunderstanding, ignorance, and inflammatory religious rhetoric. We will continue to remind the leaders of our Church that LGBTQI people and our families are numbered among the people of God, that we are members of their flocks, and that we deserve and demand pastoral care and policies from our Church that respect our dignity, humanity, and the reality of our lives. They can start by naming us as LGBTQI people, using the names we use, and the terms that honor the communities with which we identify. Our bishops can talk with us, rather than about us. Our bishops must take a clear, unequivocal stand against any violence—physical, verbal, theological, emotional—directed towards LGBTQI people or our community. They must work with us and with our families to develop pastoral care programs and protocols that are appropriate and respectful. This is what we call for in the name of LGBTQI people whose lives have been lost to violence.”         

Allen Rose noted, “These events are a beginning not an end. It is really important that our bishops begin to call us by name. DignityUSA will continue to work for that for however long it takes.”

Copies of the remarks, prayers, and biographies from the Baltimore vigil have been sent to the new President and Vice President of the USCCB, and the remarks and some photographs can be viewed at the DignityUSA website.