LGBT Catholics forced to move meeting space out of church as pope's visit approaches

As Philadelphia prepares for the arrival of Pope Francis, national groups representing LGBT Catholics and their families have been denied use of a Philadelphia church they had previously reserved. The coalition known as Equally Blessed had worked out an agreement with St. John the Evangelist's parish center for workshops and gatherings during next month's World Meeting of Families. St. John has now refused to allow Equally Blessed use of the promised parish space, forcing the coalition to find an alternative 'home base' for their panels on Catholic sexualities and gender identities.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports:

The apparent ejection from St. John's is the latest evidence of the divide between church leaders and LGBT Catholic groups as the meeting and the visit by Pope Francis draw near.

Organizers of the alternative events planned for St. John's were told last week by its pastor that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia disapproved of their gender identity program and they would no longer be allowed to use space at St. John's for any events that week, [New Ways Ministry Executive Director Francis] DeBernardo said.

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Boston-based Dignity USA, said she was not surprised. She said that since its founding in 1986, Dignity's three dozen chapters around the nation have all been kicked out of a Catholic church at least once.

"I don't think it reflects in any way on the parish or on Catholics in the Philadelphia area, but it is more evidence of this horrible divide," she said. "Not being able to use our own church is certainly painful - it's symbolic - but we keep coming back to, 'The church is the people, it's not a building,' so we move on. There are other spaces."

Julie Chovanes, a transgender woman and a lawyer based in Chestnut Hill, was slated to speak at the workshop. She learned about the change in location Monday.

"So they literally kicked trans people out of the church? It's an amazing thing, especially if you're trying to show families we are a part of the human family," said Chovanes.

Equally Blessed, a coalition of Catholic organizations committed to equality for LGBT Catholics and their families and loved ones, is comprised of New Ways Ministry, Dignity USA, Fortunate Families, and Call to Action. They have found alternative housing for their events at Arch Street United Methodist Church, a Reconciling Ministries Network congregation committed to LGBT acceptance within the United Methodist Church. Of the eviction, Equally Blessed released a statement saying that they were "saddened, frustrated, and deeply disappointed." They went on, stating:

Unfortunately, this is yet another instance of the kind of exclusion LGBT Catholics and supporters have endured for decades. Bishops have refused to allow us to meet in our own Churches, retreat centers, and colleges. In every instance, we have been blessed to find gracious welcome from members of other denominations and communities, just as we have from Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia. The Spirit has provided for us and will continue to lead us forward.

GLAAD is actively working with Equally Blessed and other LGBT Catholic support and advocacy groups. Next month GLAAD will be on the ground during the World Meeting of Families, along with LGBT families who will witness to the inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church. GLAAD will provide support for these LGBT families and loved ones making their pilgrimage to Philadelphia to ensure that they are visible in the midst of the Catholic dialogue surrounding marriage and family.

In preparation for Pope Francis's upcoming visit to the United States, GLAAD released "The Papal Visit: A journalist's guide to reporting on Pope Francis and the LGBT community," a resource guide for journalists designed to help bring a spotlight to the contributions and challenges of LGBT Catholics in the U.S. and the Americas. Written in both Spanish and English, the guidebook contains a timeline outlining some of the Pope's most prominent actions and statements about the LGBT community as well as best, practices, pitfalls, and terms to avoid when discussing LGBT Catholics. Further, the guide highlights LGBT-supportive Catholics, LGBT Catholic organizations, story ideas focusing on both LGBT acceptance and opposition among Catholics, and more.

The guide will be distributed to media prior to the Pope's visit, and will be a part of GLAAD's presence during the World Meeting of Families and the Papal visit in Philadelphia in September. GLAAD will be engaging with reporters in Philadelphia, providing them with resources and connecting them to LGBT organizations and individuals who will also be present.

"The Papal Visit" comes after a letter, signed by GLAAD's President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis and DignityUSA's Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke and endorsed with 29 additional sign-on organizations and people, was mailed directly to the Pope in July. It explains that LGBT people, including those in the Catholic Church, face "a compelling pastoral need" for "great healing and reconciliation." What the letter and its call to action detail is the gap between support among Catholic people for the LGBT community, and the harmful sentiments and policies of the Catholic hierarchy.  

GLAAD's efforts during the pope's visit builds on the organization's longstanding commitment to elevating the experiences of LGBT people of faith, as well as LGBT-affirming voices of faith in mainstream media.