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Requiescat in Pace: Tom Cunningham

On May 10, 2014, Dignity/New York hosted a Memorial Mass and Celebration of the Life of Tom Cunningham. Featuring exceptional and moving performances by the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, family and friends from many parts of Tom’s life gathered to remember this extraordinary man. Asked to speak on behalf of DignityUSA, Marianne Duddy-Burke offered the following reflection. 

I am deeply honored to deliver some reflections about Tom Cunningham on behalf of DignityUSA. There are certainly others here who knew Tom longer and better than I, and I thank many of them for sharing their memories and stories in helping to shape these remarks.

Tom’s service to and leadership of DignityUSA was often done in the company of people who were more vocal and visible than he, but Tom’s impact has reached even beyond the bounds of Dignity, affecting the entire LGBT justice movement.

I first met Tom right here in New York, when he served on the committee that managed Dignity’s 1985 convention, held at the famous Hotel Pennsylvania. That convention had such an impact on my life that I have worked at Dignity’s national level ever since. Tom managed the finances of that event, with rigor and precision, developing practices and policies still followed by DignityUSA and our conventions 30 years later. He went on to bring this same exacting stewardship of our resources to the entire organization when he joined the team of Jim Bussen, Elinor Crocker and Jim Pilarski as our national Treasurer, serving from 1985-1989.

Tom and the rest of that team led Dignity through what is probably the most tumultuous period in our 45 year history. Their tenure was marked by the Vatican’s publication of the so-called “Halloween Letter,” which introduced the dehumanizing language of “objectively disordered” and “intrinsically evil” into official Catholic teaching about LGBT people and our relationships. It marked the beginning of a coordinated attack on Dignity from the Vatican and US bishops, as over three dozen chapters were expelled from Catholic church meeting space. I can only imagine the intensity of late night calls back and forth across the country as the team of officers worked to support community after community and distraught members who were experiencing the trauma of being put out of our spiritual homes. All four officers worked to remind our members that our faith is not based on bricks and mortar, but in our community, in love, and in our faith in Jesus. They held us together when we could have easily fragmented under the pressure. I am sure that Tom’s unique blend of bitingly sarcastic humor and a deeply pastoral heart were huge contributors to this outcome.

Tom was one of those chiefly responsible for placing the first ad by a gay/lesbian group in a national mainstream publication. In 1987, DignityUSA took out a full page ad in Newsweek (after being rejected by Time Magazine), opening the door for hundreds of ads featuring LGBT people and same-sex couples. Given how controversial these ads can still be today, can you imagine the reaction 27 years ago? This kind of creative, courageous action brought the realities of LGBT Catholics to the national stage, brought intense backlash, and changed the entire culture of Dignity from shelter to advocate. “Passionate social reformer” is not the image that Tom portrayed, but it is who he was, and it was born out of his steely commitment, his strength, and his true talent as a leader.

As I thought about Tom’s final months, it be- came clear that for Tom, the Dignity community was, in fact, family to him. From the day-to-day support, visits to every facility where Tom got treatment, being second sets of ears at medical appointments, offering ongoing support to his partner Peter, to presence as he negotiated the personal, emotional, and spiritual challenges of having a terminal illness, members of Dignity/New York provided constancy, honesty, companionship, and always love. It is also telling that for his final train-based adventure, Tom’s goal was a visit to the Chicago home of Jim Pilarski and Ken Mayka. The opportunity to reconnect with part of the group that, through mutual service had become family, was a pull too strong to resist, despite the clear risk to his diminishing health and stamina. 

This aspect of Tom’s life and dying reminds us that there are among us many for whom a circle of gay and lesbian friends, relationships built over decades, are the only family that exists. These are the people who came out in the pre-Stonewall days, or the years soon after, when society still saw lesbian and gay people as sick, sinful, or criminal. They are the ones whose risk-taking and organization-building created the possibilities and momentum for the enormous strides towards equality taken by LGBT people. They are the ones who have driven and witnessed incredible cultural change during their adult lives, and who, like Tom, often leave very generous bequests so that this work can continue. Tom reminds us that we are a community that must care for our own. Tom was blessed to have people in his life who were there for him, as he was there for so many over the years. One of the best things we can do in his honor is to ensure that others have this kind of support as they age and face illness. And we honor them all by ensuring that we give the best of ourselves to the work of building equality and justice for the LGBT people of today and tomorrow.

To Peter, Tom’s nieces and cousin, members of the NYC Gay Men’s Chorus, train enthusiasts, NYC guides, and the many dear friends from Dignity/ New York and DignityUSA, know that people all across the country offer our condolences and prayers as you mourn Tom. And we pray in gratitude that Tom shared so much of himself with us. We are certain that he was met at the gates of heaven with a loud and boisterous greeting from Jim Bussen, who proceeded him in death by 7 months. May together they watch over us all, give us wisdom, and the kind of courageous love that so marked their work together. Tom, we miss you and pray you are at peace.