By Carolyn Shalhoub, Mercy Associate
June is recognized as LGBTQ+ Pride Month. It was begun as a tribute to those involved in the “Stonewall Riots” in June 1969, in Greenwich Village, New York. There were six days of protests and clashes over demands that LGBTQ+ persons be allowed to be open about their sexual orientation without fear of arrest.
If you are not familiar with LGBTQ+ history in the United States before Stonewall, you may not realize that people were frequently arrested for being in certain bars known to be gay bars, dancing with someone of the same gender or not wearing clothes associated with their legal, birth sex. Their picture would be in the newspaper and they would likely lose their job and have a criminal record.
The changes over the years since, including the ability to legally marry a same-gender partner, are nothing short of breathtaking—unless you happen to be a Roman Catholic (or member of another conservative religious sect). Pride Month is celebrated every year to recognize those in the LGBTQ+ community and the rights that have been hard won, but also to acknowledge that there are still areas for improvement.
My own story is that I was a bit clueless.
I graduated from an all-girls Catholic high school, attended a local Catholic college, graduated in 1968, lived at home and rarely dated. I did make a close female friend in college for whom I eventually realized I had sexual feelings. Then the battle within myself began. There were few resources in libraries or bookstores, and I would have probably fainted at the check-out counter if I had ever attempted to buy such a book. I do remember reading an article and seeing homosexuals referred to as “perverts.” I really could not square that word with myself.
Somehow, I was able to stuff my concerns way down inside and enjoyed years of social and workplace camaraderie with this friend, until she moved on. Devastated, I decided to bury my feelings into my work at a Catholic hospital.
In the 1980s, there were a lot more books and articles about homosexuality, but nothing positive in any Catholic proclamation or publication. Then, somehow, I heard about DignityUSA, a national organization of LGBTG+ Catholics that recognizes the goodness of relationships, including sexual aspects, between persons of the same gender. There was a local Dignity group that celebrated Mass together on the campus of a Catholic college, and I bonded with the group and am now an officer in it. I have attended Dignity national meetings and been impressed with the sincerity of the prayerful liturgies and dedicated people.
For all practical purposes, I had lived a double life—co-workers, friends and family were not aware I identified as a lesbian. It was pretty late in the game, and I wasn’t in a relationship. Though there were people in my life who knew the “real” me, the first time I came out publicly was at a Mercy gathering at McAuley Center a few years ago, where I was on a panel of LGBTQ+ persons, experts and allies.
I thought my heart would pound through my chest both when preparing for the presentation and giving it. It was met with supportive reactions from those I knew in the local community and those from around the country. Since then, I have made my commitment as a Mercy Associate and been a part of the SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) group meetings.
I admire the Sisters of Mercy for opening this discussion to the whole community through education, discussion and testimony. In this respect, they are decades ahead of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, who seem unwilling to recognize the evolution of understanding about human sexuality both in scientific knowledge and the life experiences of LGBTQ+ persons.
Locally, in early 2020, the Dignity Detroit chapter was banned by the hierarchy from having a weekly Mass in the chapel of an IHM Sisters-sponsored Catholic university—after 46 years of doing so. Diocesan and religious order priests have been explicitly forbidden from presiding at Mass for us. The COVID-19 pandemic eliminated in-person liturgies for everyone, so we shared that deprivation, but ours was meant to be permanent.
Most Dignity chapters around the United States were prohibited from having liturgy in Catholic spaces long ago and have worked out alternative worship situations. Lay-led liturgies, women presiders and homilists, creative prayer experiences—I have experienced all of these via Zoom or in our local Dignity community, and it has been enlightening! It is not this bad in every Catholic diocese, but there is still a long way to go.
Dignity Detroit and a few local parishes and Catholic support organizations take part in annual Pride celebrations in Detroit and Ferndale, a suburb, by staffing information tables and answering questions about being both Catholic and LGBTQ+. Each year, we are encouraged by the number of persons interested in participating in Catholic worship and wanting to claim their baptismal heritage.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to reflect on these two key parts of my life—my sexual orientation and my commitment to the mission of Mercy—during this month that celebrates the dignity of the LGBTQ+ community.