It was 1972 and it was dangerous to be gay or lesbian. One could be arrested, publicly humiliated or fired from one's job. Even finding safety in the emerging bar scene was hazardous.
Added to that reality was that if you were Catholic, you were condemned morally if you acted on your sexuality. While barely tolerated, as long as you denied your true identity and remained "chaste," you could have a place in the Church.
Then came Dignity/Chicago, the local chapter of the movement captured in the title "Dignity" that, in the '70s, exploded across the United States and took root here in Chicago, providing a place of spiritual and communal safety. It was in this nascent community that while being gay or lesbian, one could integrate one's sexuality and spirituality, claiming one's place in the Church among all the baptized.
After meeting for a brief time as a small prayer group, the community organized itself around a Sunday night liturgy at St. Sebastian's Church on the North Side and was formally chartered as a chapter of DignityUSA in 1972. It was one of the first four chapters chartered nationally in DignityUSA's 52-year history.
Fast-forward to 2022, and the community that emerged out of a time of great uncertainty and fear still exists and is now proudly celebrating 50 years of ministry and service to the Catholic LGBTQI+ community and our families and allies. Dignity/Chicago remains one of the oldest, longest-serving LGBTQI+ faith-based communities in the Chicago area.
As Dignity/Chicago approaches this amazing milestone, it's a time for reflection and celebration for what this community has achieved across five decades, including peaceful demonstrations and calls to accountability made to Chicago archdiocesan leadership, HIV/AIDS crisis leadership and support, and sponsorship of Center on Halsted and the Father Michal Judge plaque included in the Legacy Walk.
Dignity/Chicago remains the go-to voice of LGBTQI+ Catholics in Chicago and beyond. We regularly receive requests from local media to provide the perspectives of LGBTQI+ Catholics. I, along with many prior leaders of our chapter, have personally been interviewed by major local TV stations, radio (WVON, WBEZ), and quoted in the Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times, and, of course, Windy City Times. In 2015, I participated in a WTTW Chicago Tonight broadcast focused on the papacy of Pope Francis. As we know, voice matters and Dignity/Chicago is proud to be the primary source for ensuring the perspectives of Catholic LGBTQI+ people are lifted up.
We recognize that although much progress has been made since the challenges of the '70s, we face new and more pernicious challenges today. Trans people, especially trans women of color, are facing an onslaught of violencesometimes deadlyas well as attempts across many states to limit, deny and cancel transgender people and those who identify as non-binary or gender-fluid.
In particular, there are concerted efforts across this country and by far-right politicians to use religious "freedom" as a screen to marginalize, cancel, criminalize members of the LGBTQI+ community. Dignity/Chicago, along with our national organization, DignityUSA continues to be a counterforce to these efforts.
And as many of us call upon our country to live up to its promise, so we continue to stand before our Church calling it to live up to its promise to all the baptized to be the place of spiritual safety, inclusion, respect and grace.
We recognize our work and communal life must change to adapt to the evolving needs of those LGBTQI+ Catholics seeking a spiritual home and place for justice-seekers.
As Dignity/Chicago celebrates its 50 years of vision, voice and contributions to the larger LGBTQI+ Chicago community, we also recognize the challenges of sustaining our ministry and work. Some within our area LGBTQI community have stepped away from a religious affiliation or active participation in worship and community life some for good reasons in response to the institutional Church's rejection of our sexuality and lack of equality for women. No matter your experience of our church, we invite you to help us keep the tradition alive. "Like" our Dignity/Chicago Facebook posts. Join our email list. Check out our work and activities on our website.
Our celebration is your celebration as well; the evolution of a diverse, powerful and effective LGBTQI+ community here in the Chicago area. Not perfect, with more growing to do in its commitment to ongoing economic equity, immigrant rights and racial justice work, to name a few areas of unfinished business.
As one of our liturgical hymns proclaims, "We remember, we celebrate, we believe." The 50th anniversary of vision, voice and advocacy is an important milestone for Dignity/Chicago, but also for the larger, diverse LGBTQI+ Chicago community. We share our celebration with all of you and remain grateful for the support and encouragement we've received from community members over these past 50 years.
Christopher Pett is a former Dignity/Chicago chapter president and DignityUSA national president.
NOTE: Dignity/Chicago will celebrate its 50th anniversary the weekend of May 14-15. Visit www.dignity-chicago.org for more information. All are welcome!