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Jim Andris, Aug. 4, 2011..
Background on DignityUSA through the 1970s
Like several other emerging phenomena of the first half of the 1970s, Dignity was formed and expanded with almost explosive force. Moreover, there were progressive individuals and communities within the Catholic world who responded compassionately or encouragingly towards its emergence. Leaders in the Dignity community were hopeful for a new understanding and acceptance of gay men and lesbians within the Catholic Church and for a recognized, constructive space to stand as openly gay and lesbian within the official church dogma. Alas, this was not to be.
Many historical events of DignityUSA are well documented on their website. The founding of Dignity actually predated Stonewall by a few months. Early in 1969, Father Patrick X. Nidorf, O.S.A., an Augustinian priest and psychologist, started a ministry for gay and lesbian Catholics as an extension of his professional work. He coined the name "Dignity." The organization originally developed in Los Angeles. By 1970 a constitution was drafted by Bob Fournier which contained the notable statement,
Fourier later became the first General Chairman of Dignity. Ads were placed in the Advocate, and national membership started to grow. In early 1971 an attempt was made to receive recognition from the Diocese of Los Angeles. Instead, Father Nidorf was forbidden by Archbishop Manning to have anything more to do with Dignity, and Nidorf decided to abide by this edict. Dignity thus became a lay-led ministry. The first national newsletter was published with Bob Fournier as editor. In early 1972 the first Annual Meeting was held in Los Angeles. At that time the organization claimed 180 members from 21 states and seven countries. Joe Gilgamesh was elected President. In September, he toured various cities around the country including Chicago, Washington DC, Louisville, Boston and New York City to talk with individuals interested in the Dignity movement." He also started a correspondence with Father John McNeill, who agreed to convene the first meeting of Dignity/New York, where over 200 attended the first meeting.
The work of John McNeill was to have an influence far beyond Dignity. McNeill was a Jesuit priest who also became an articulate and well-written scholar. His most noted and notable work is the book The Church and the Homosexual, in which he examines and critiques the Roman Catholic teachings about homosexuality. He had essentially written a version of this book by 1973, but it was "held in Rome" for three years while being considered for permission to print it. Finally, it received the imprimi potest from the Catholic Church and was published by Beacon Press in 1976. Later, that permission was rescinded by the Catholic Church, and he was forbidden to speak about these matters in public. At Dignity's Third Biennial Congress held in Chicago in early in September, 1977,
Eventually, McNeill was expelled from the Society of Jesus in 1987, and became a psychotherapist and an academic theologian.
In 1973, Dignity's first Biennial National Convention was held in Los Angeles. Father John McNeill was the principal speaker. A provisional constitution was sent to members for approval, but was not finally ratified until 1975, after Fournier's second paragraph was modified to read
Towards the end of 1973, the National Office of Dignity moved to Boston.
Still, 1974 was a big year of advances for Dignity. Catholic theologians were writing seminal articles about gay Catholics. The National Federation of Priests Councils adopted a "Civil Rights of Homosexual Persons" resolution. Our Sunday Visitor, a national Catholic weekly, recommended to a reader in its question and answer column that Dignity be contacted for information on ministry to homosexuals. It was around 1974 that Brian McNaught started his lifelong career as an activist educator for LGBT issues. In September of 1974, serving as President of Dignity/Detroit, he began a water only fast to call the Church to a new recognition of its responsibilities in the area of gay civil rights. Dignity members from around the country joined Brian for one day of fasting.
During 1975 the National Office continued to make print materials available, for example, Father Robert Nugent's, Homosexuality: A Worksheet for Catholics. Informal and formal meetings with the National Council of Catholic Bishops and other church figures were held during the summer, and provided input on a presentation on Dignity's mission and civil rights of and pastoral outreach to gays and lesbians later in the year. In addition to the continued hard work of Brian McNaught, Father Tom Oddo and Father Robert Nugent were making contributions. With Sister Jeannine Gramick, they authored the booklet, Homosexual Catholics: A Primer for Discussion towards the end of the year.
As previously noted, 1976 saw the publication of John McNeill's book, The Church and the Homosexual, even though the Vatican is soon to withdraw the imprimi potest for the book. McNeill's book receives publicity, such as in his appearance on Phil Donahue's show. This year was also when the gay Catholic publication Insight was released in June by Dignity. In October, Dignity was invited to participate in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Detroit, and some of its recommendations were passed.
1977 was filled with anxiety for many gays and lesbians, who felt very much under attack by the Save Our Children campaign led by Anita Bryant and backed by powerful Christian fundamentalist politicians and church leaders. But as Fetner has shown, though this conservative counter movement intended only to stop or reverse advances in lesbian and gay civil rights legislation, it had the effect of mobilizing significant resistance and a restatement of issues and goals. Dignity was one of the four organizations—along with Metropolitan Community Church, The National Gay Task Force and the Gay Rights National Lobby—that co-sponsored a National Gay Leadership Conference held in Denver the last weekend in July. Dignity also joined the We Are Your Children movement organized by the National Gay Task Force, "the aim of which is to counter the image of gays suggested by Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" slogan by providing people with opportunities to learn the truth about the gay lifestyle." Dignity also continued to work with the National Council of Catholic Bishops, and was supported by progressive individuals in the church.
Selected facts about Dignity/St. Louis
Dignity St. Louis has been a powerful force for gay and lesbian pride in the city during the 1970s and leading up to the 1980 Celebration of Lesbian and Gay Pride.
According to John Hilgeman, former Roman Catholic priest, the St. Louis chapter of Dignity held its first meeting in February of 1974, and he started attending meetings two months later, in April. Dignity meetings were first held monthly in members' homes, then bi-weekly, and then weekly. Eventually, they also met at various times in various churches, notably, St. Mary's of the Assumption, Trinity Episcopal and Immaculate Conception. Asked about the size of the meetings, Hilgeman responded
One of the essential components of pride activities in the 1970s were days or weekends filled with workshops lead by both experts and informed non-experts in various gay and lesbian issues and topics, the movement having just come through the previous decade in virtual ignorance and then emerging awareness. Hilgeman's extensive statment shows how Dignity/St. Louis may have been one of the leaders in establishing this particular pride format.
In Bill Spicer's Magnolia Committee folder were found two important documents, the February, 1975 Dignity-Midwest Workshop Schedule and the February, 1976 Biographical Data on Speakers and Workshop Leaders for the Dignity-Midwest Conference. Apparently both were held in St. Louis. By studying these documents we can put some flesh on John Hilgeman's statement that "the heads of Dignity came to St. Louis." Indeed, both Brian McNaught and Father Tom Oddo were here. The DignityUSA website has information on and pictures of both these men. In 1975, McNaught had become the Dignity National Chairperson for Social Action. He was the keynote speaker for the 1976 Midwest Dignity Convention, as well as running two sessions on social action both years, while Father Oddo ran two sessions in 1975 on Dignity and the church. In addition, Paul Diederich, national President of Dignity two years running who had also been giving university lectures on Dignity, was present. Finally, the founder and co-chair of Dignity Twin Cities attended the conference in 1975 and led a session on the Healthy Gay Person.
As background information, Dr. George Weinberg, an American psychologist, writer and activist, published the book Society and the Healthy Homosexual in 1972, and that book was a powerful and widely-used resource for gay and lesbian activists throughout the 1970s. He was one of the leaders in the movement to remove homosexuality as a diagnostic category from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. He coined and promoted the use of the word homophobia. Since many social forces in society at that time, the church, major institutions, the law and the family viewed homosexuals as sick or mentally disordered, educating gays and lesbians and others and freeing them of this assumption of sickness was a major and recurrent theme of 1970s (and even later) gay activism. The sessions at these Midwest Dignity conferences on the healthy gay person were no doubt informed by this book and the perspective on homosexuality that it represented.
A local person who also directed a workshop sesson on the healthy gay person was Larry Davis. It seems significant to take note of this, since Larry Davis was the keynote speaker for the Rally following the Walk for Charity in 1980, and we have a copy of his keynote address. Larry by 1980 had become Co-chairperson of the National Association of Social Workers Task Force on Gay Issues, and was on the task force set up to root out discrimination against gays and lesbians by social workers and their clients. That he was active in the Dignity midwest conferences in the mid-1970s is indicative of the scope of his career as a gay activist and why Frank Sprayberry of the Magnolia Committee might have asked him to be the keynote speaker at the 1980 Rally. This keynote speech, by the way, is poignant and moving portrait of Larry's path to that speech, and a compassionate look at the people he was attempting to represent. Larry crops up as an influence througout the 1970s and later. For example, he influenced John Hilgeman, another Magnolia Committee member, to enter a social work program in 1978 and provided advice and guidance to Hilgeman, including directing his practicum.