Perhaps more than ever before, people of faith across the United States are increasingly pointing to their religious beliefs as their motivation for supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality – underlining that they are supportive largely because of their faith, not in spite of it. This support is not simply a vague expression of enthusiasm: It translates to support for specific policy changes. In 2015, for example, the Public Religion Research Institute found that Catholics’ support for the freedom to marry for same-sex couples to be five points higher (60%) than the national average and that 76% of Catholics favor laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination.
At the same time, more and more LGBT people are embracing their own Catholic faith, finding their place in the Church. Earlier this month, Freedom for All Americans served as a partner on an event in New York hosted by the Gay & Lesbian Alumni Association of Notre Dame & St. Mary’s. The “Pilgrimage of Mercy” brought together alumni from Notre Dame to call on Catholic bishops and institutions across the country to embrace Pope Francis’ vision for greater mercy and compassion for LGBT Catholics, who continue to be marginalized by the Catholic Church. Rather than falling behind, the event’s attendees argued, the Church should be leading on this inclusion.
This year Freedom for All Americans is proud to be working with Believe Out Loud, an online network dedicated to empowering LGBT people of faith. As part of our partnership, we have compiled this round-up below of nearly a dozen Catholics from across the country calling for greater inclusion of LGBT people in the Church. Check it out:
Margie Winters • Merion, PA
One of the most immediate ways that anti-LGBT discrimination is prevalent within the Catholic community is in instances of LGBT teachers and personnel losing their jobs because of who they are. This is what happened just outside of Philadelphia to Margie Winters, a Catholic elementary school educator who married another woman several years ago. She was fired in June 2015. In Pennsylvania, people are not protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The school principal praised Margie’s talents as an educator but said, “In the Mercy spirit, many of us accept life choices that contradict current Church teachings, but to continue as a Catholic school, Waldron Mercy must comply with those teachings.”
“The contradiction of only being able to ‘continue as a Catholic school’ by firing someone who has made “amazing contributions to our religious education and outreach programs” and who ‘has enriched the lives of everyone’ is glaring,” writes Francis Debernardo, a Believe Out Loud blogger and Executive Director of New Ways Ministry. “As has happened in other similar cases, what particularly stings about this case is that administrators knew of the marital relationship for a long time, but seem to have only taken action when public complaints have been raised. … Catholic schools should adhere to a higher moral standard of treating people with respect, fairness, and equality.”
Read the full Believe Out Loud piece here.
Father Bryan Massingale • New York, NY
In the summer of 2016, Father Bryan Massingale, a leading Catholic social ethicist and scholar of African-American theological ethics, racial justice, and liberation theology, penned an editorial for a Catholic website specifically about the need for stronger ministry to transgender Catholics. He admits the Church’s shortcomings when recalling a panel on transgender Catholics earlier in the year, writing: “One reason why I chose to be present is because I have a lot to learn. To be blunt, I was at the panel precisely because of my ignorance and discomfort. Transgender issues were never addressed in either my moral theology courses in the seminary or in my graduate studies in Christian ethics. I—and most priests—have not been trained to specifically minister to transgender members of our parishes or to the concerns of their families.”
Father Massingale has a long history of advocating for racial justice through a Catholic lens, and his editorial is similarly committed to advancing a more open and understanding Church. He now teaches at Fordham University.
He continued in his editorial: “Despite all that we do not know, this much I do believe: Jesus would be present to, among, and with transgender persons. … Our faith teaches that we can act with compassion even when we do not fully understand. Our faith also gives us a challenge—namely, that compassion is not worthy of the name if we offer it only to those with whom we are comfortable.”
Marianne Duddy-Burke • Boston, MA
“The emergence of significant numbers of out transgender people has created perplexing situations that Church leaders have never had to address before – I readily acknowledge that,” Marianne Duddy-Burke wrote in a Believe Out Loud blog post late last year. “However, taking a dogmatic approach based on human fear of the unfamiliar and unknown does us all—but most especially transgender persons—profound harm.”
As Executive Director of DignityUSA, a national organization for LGBT Catholics and their family members and friends, Marianne is committed to increasing support for LGBT people within the Catholic Church. She says one of the best ways to do that is for Catholics to open their hearts.
“A humble acknowledgement of uncertainty and discomfort, taking time to listen and learn, and the willingness to consider how to apply the core values of our faith in this new situation would be a much more Christian and appropriate response,” she wrote. “In other words: Bishops, cardinals, Vatican officials, follow the lead of your people. Get to know folks who are transgender. Accompany them on their journeys. … Let them teach you something new about the incomprehensible God.”
Read the full Believe Out Loud piece.
Jack Bergen • Boston, MA
As chair of the Gay & Lesbian Alumni Association of Notre Dame & St. Mary’s, Jack Bergen was an instrumental part in leading dozens of Catholics in the Pilgrimage of Mercy, designed to encourage the Catholic Church to more fully and universally embrace Pope Francis’ call for a more merciful faith, one that does not exclude or discriminate against LGBT people.
“I want to encourage the Catholic Church to more closely embrace the Pope’s vision of what he wants our community to be,” Jack said. “He’s talked about being more inclusive, he’s talked about being more welcoming – and not focus so much on pointing out the sins of others. We should move away from divisive language and actions and more toward a welcoming environment where even though people may have differences, they are still part of the Catholic community and should be welcomed more. That’s my motivation for participating in the pilgrimage. I want to deliver that message to a broader community and have Catholic leaders across the US take steps toward achieving a more hopeful vision.”
— Freedom for All USA (@freedom4allusa) October 2, 2016
Jack believes that there is a substantial connection between change within the Catholic Church and a broadening of federal laws protecting people from discrimination in the United States. In a majority of states, LGBT people are not sufficiently protected from discrimination, with no or limited state-level laws explicitly prohibiting employers, landlords, or store owners from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“In society it’s really a combination of institutional prejudices and the people who run them not wanting to change what they know,” he reasoned. “And we can name the major institutions that affect us in our lives – the religious institutions, the governmental institutions, the educational institutions. And these institutions influence and affect each other. The more we can encourage change within them individually, the more we can affect them all.”
Lisbeth Melendez Rivera • Hyattsville, MD
Many LGBT people who were raised Catholic struggle with their faith, confronted with much of the anti-LGBT rhetoric and stances from the institution. But for some of these people, they are able to reconcile their two identities, but only through significant reflection – and seeing the hope from other Catholics who have expressed support for LGBT equality.
“I left the Church for a long time,” Lisbeth Melendez Rivera, who lives outside of Washington, D.C., said. “I couldn’t reconcile my sexuality and the dogmatic attitudes of the hierarchy. Once I reconciled the body/community of the church and me, while separating the intransigent attitudes of the hierarchy, I returned full of love and grace.”
Lisbeth now works as the Director of Latino and Catholic Initiatives in the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith Program. “I am a practicing Catholic,” Lisbeth continued. “After many years of struggle I came home to my faith, realizing my upbringing as a Catholic, the tenants of the Church, and my belief in the work of our brother, Jesus, are driving forces in the liberation work I do everyday. To me faith means knowing a better world is possible and we have been shown the way to achieve it.”
“As Catholics we must speak out,” Lisbeth said, specifically about LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination protections and greater LGBT inclusion overall. It is important to Lisbeth that all Catholics follow “the teachings of our brother Jesus, whose works and words have been utterly corrupted by many in the past and today continue to be misused for power and control of the marginalized. We are called to serve – not dominate. As Catholics we just speak for the call to inclusion so central to our faith. That means all, not just some. That includes me, and my fellow queers from all walks of life. LGBTQ Catholics must be vocal and calm upon the hypocrisy of the Church.”
Father Gary M. Meier • St. Louis, MO
“I know that the thought of coming out as a gay Catholic priest is perhaps one of the scariest things you could imagine,” Father Gary M. Meier wrote in a compelling blog post on the Believe Out Loud website. “So scary, in fact, that only a handful of gay Catholic priest have done it.”
Father Meier, however, is one of these priests. His open-minded ministry – and calls for greater LGBT inclusion – extends to so many facets of his life, including his founding role in the North Grand Neighborhood Services organization, which works to develop low income housing and community programming in St. Louis, Missouri.
“I know that being gay is not a curse,” he wrote in the post. “It is not an intrinsic disorder, it is not a disease like alcoholism, but it is a gift from God. A gift that can be shared and celebrated. … If my coming out has taught me anything, it has taught me that the church (the people of God), are accepting, supportive and loving of who I am. I have received thousands of emails, and I have been told over and over again by individuals how much they appreciate my voice of acceptance and love—especially for those who are struggling with their own sexual identity.”
Read the full Believe Out Loud piece here.
Leslie Rouser • Chicago, IL
For some LGBT Catholics, the Church’s anti-LGBT rhetoric and history of refusing to change (or changing far too slowly) is so detrimental that they are moved to leave the Church while they explore their own faith and relationship to God. That’s what Leslie Rouser, who lives in Chicago, experienced. After growing up in a protestant fundamentalist cult but raised by parents from devout Catholic families, she converted to Catholicism as an adult.
“My relationship with the Church was tense from the start, as I was also becoming aware of my own bisexuality and transgender orientation at the time of my conversion,” Leslie said. “For many years, that tension drove me deeper into challenging my faith. I read, studied, and engaged critically with teachers. Learning to ask critical questions eventually became a way for me to walk with God, to seek God in the unexpected answers that occasionally floated up through my struggles.”
Eventually Leslie shared with her priest her feelings about the lack of compatibility between her Catholic faith and her identity in the LGBT community. “Much to my surprise,” she said, “my priest responded that if the Church had become an obstacle to my wholeness, rather than a vehicle of it, then my own wholeness must come first. With his support, I left the Church and haven’t looked back.”
She reflected for us on why Catholics should speak out for LGBT equality. She wrote:
A couple years ago, I was living in a remote suburb outside Chicago, and I experienced my local parish as cold, unwelcoming, and judgmental. I had just left a live-in relationship, was working a grueling job with low pay, and felt isolated. The parish was one of my only opportunities for community, even though almost no one ever spoke to me.
During confession one afternoon, I broke down in tears before my priest, whose discomfort with me as a trans woman was palpable even through the screen that separated us. I told him about how hard my life was, how lonely and poor and exhausted I was. I told him how my visible trans identity had opened me up to the discrimination that ultimately left me penniless and alone. I told him that I knew God wanted me to love my enemy, but I wasn’t even sure how to do that anymore, when I was already in so much pain.
My priest’s discomfort melted in that moment, and through his own tears he began to see how his attitude and the attitude of our parish was contributing to my suffering. He actually apologized to me for the role that he played in that. And while our parish became no more welcoming to me, I knew that I had found a quiet ally in a sea of judgmental hatred.
LGBTQ people are uniquely aware of what it means to be an outcast. Consistently driven from our homes, our houses of worship, our communities, we’ve had to discover just how much we value our liberated identity above all other resistance.
By holding onto its old ways of thinking and operating, the Church has greatly limited its ability to communicate the unconditional love of God. Outsiders who witness the God they know, who point other people towards that God and that Love, are the Church’s best hope to live out its mission for humanity.
Greg Bourke & Michael DeLeon • Louisville, KY
At the end of 2015, following a huge year during which they helped bring the country to national resolution with their case for the freedom to marry for same-sex couples, Greg Bourke and Michael DeLeon were greeted with a special surprise when they were named Persons of the Year by the National Catholic Reporter.
Their advocacy continued more fiercely than ever following the Supreme Court ruling in their marriage case – Greg, a Notre Dame alum, and Michael helped to lead the GALA ND/SM Pilgrimage of Mercy in October 2016.
“My husband Michael De Leon and I are both ‘cradle Catholics’ – we were born into traditional Catholic families and were raised and have remained active in the faith for all of our lives,” Greg wrote in a blog post ahead of the event. “In our late 50s now, we have been practicing our faith together for all of our nearly 35 years together as a couple, and for the last 29 years we have been openly gay and very active members of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Louisville, Kentucky. … We love our parish and our faith, and we feel loved by and fully integrated into the larger parish community.”
“When we move beyond our parish, however, we find a more reticent and often condemning Catholic hierarchy just outside our somewhat insulated community,” he continued. “Over the last few years, the Archdiocese of Louisville has taken discriminatory action to prevent me from returning to service as a Boy Scout Leader at our church-sponsored unit even after the Boy Scouts of America removed its ban on openly gay adult members. Earlier this year, the Archdiocese also denied a proposed gravesite memorial at our local Catholic cemetery for my husband and me just because of our public participation as plaintiffs in the US Supreme Court ruling last year that brought Marriage Equality to the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the whole United States. Legally the Archdiocese has acted within its power to take these positions, but does anybody seriously think this is what Jesus would do?”
— Freedom for All USA (@freedom4allusa) October 2, 2016
Greg and Michael wanted to participate in the Pilgrimage of Mercy – and their other ongoing work in the Catholic Church – to change things from within, to help create a safer space for the many other LGBT Catholics burdened by this fundamental lack of understanding and refusal to change. “There are so many pockets of fair-minded and progressive Catholics out there, particularly young Catholics, that the loathing and discrimination expressed toward LGBT Catholics seems to be increasingly unjustified and out of step,” Greg said. “Many other faiths, some Christian, have already transcended their old ways and have moved toward full inclusion of LGBT members. Our Catholic Church, however, just keeps dragging its feet seeming unwilling to make that leap of faith to stop judging LGBT individuals just because of who they are, the people that God created them to be.”
delfin • Athens, OH
Writer, activist, social worker, and queer theologian delfin has written extensively on living life as a transgender Catholic. “Through discernment and late night conversations with God and heart to hearts with friends, I have found wholeness in realizing that there is no one way to be Catholic and no one way to be transgender (let alone no one way to be combinations of both),” delfin wrote in a blog post for Believe Out Loud.
As the Director of the LGBT Center at Ohio University, the Miami, FL native works to create safer spaces for students to explore their identity, expression, gender, and orientation. Part of that exploration also ties back to people’s faith.
“All of us are on a journey of living into wholeness and of finding home in our bodies and selves,” delfin said. “Transition is not a process of changing who we are, but of affirming and celebrating who we have always been, who we are, and who we will live into being. The details of what is to come will reveal themselves as I strive to be authentic to who I am, with no right or wrong way of being trans and/or Catholic and/or Latin@, for it is about being true to me as a child of God which is as an act of being in solidarity with creation.”
Read the full Believe Out Loud piece here.
Holly Cargill-Cramer • Albany, NY
— Freedom for All USA (@freedom4allusa) October 2, 2016
Holly spoke about the importance of allies for LGBT people and the significance of parents of LGBT people remaining supportive, strong advocates and resources. One of the central components of Fortunate Families is the organization’s “Listening Parents Directory,” which allows Catholic parents of LGBT children to get in touch with others like them and discuss their challenges, questions, joys, and similar experiences.
Holly shared during the Pilgrimage that in years past, most calls were from parents struggling to accept their LGBT child. Recently, however, the topic of most of the calls have been focused on how Catholic parents of LGBT kids can do more to open up the Church and create a safe, welcoming space for all people, including LGBT people. “Our children are gifted and called for a purpose,” she said during the rally.
Bryan Ricketts • Notre Dame, IN
When Bryan Ricketts stepped onto campus at the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 2012, he knew that his school did not have a strong history of affirming LGBT students. As a Catholic University, the school had faced outside pressure from the Church and others for years – but a burgeoning movement on campus was underway to create an officially recognized organization for LGBT students. For nearly three decades, every single year, the university had denied these requests.
Bryan had only recently come out as gay – but he got involved quickly in the effort to form a group that supported LGBT students at Notre Dame. Many students from Notre Dame were involved. At last in 2013, the University granted official recognition to PrismND, the first and only official LGBTQ student organization at the university, dedicated to developing the LGBTQ community on campus and building understanding of these students’ unique needs, all through a Catholic lens.
By his sophomore year, Bryan was serving as co-president of Prism ND – and in his senior year, he served as student body president, a proud openly gay man leading his fellow Notre Dame classmates to success. He and his team won the student body election by a 10-point margin.
The University of Notre Dame has had a profound impact on deepening Bryan’s faith and reconciling his faith with his sexuality. He spoke specifically about several experiences he’s had at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in a profile for Freedom for All Americans. We spoke with Bryan in conjunction with the Pilgrimage of Mercy, coordinated by GALA ND/SM, for which Bryan is a trustee.
“It’s a wonderful place to pray and be with God,” he said. “And during my visits to Notre Dame, I would go to the Grotto and pray, and I would think, ‘I don’t want to be gay. I don’t think this is who I am. Help me figure this out.’ And there wasn’t one time that I felt God saying, ‘You are unloved, you should be different than how you are.’ The only thing I felt was the sense of acceptance and care. My time in the Grotto and my time at Notre Dame overall is a big part of what helped me come out and say, ‘This is who I am, and I don’t think that what you’re saying about LGBT people is correct.’ I experienced LGBT acceptance through my faith, and there’s no getting around that for me. I’m not going to stop being Catholic because I’m gay – and I don’t believe God doesn’t exist just because I’m gay either.”