Illuminating history, searching for memories at Dignity/Philadelphia

LGBTQI+ Catholics have been at the forefront of justice movements since the beginning. There's no place where that history resonates more profoundly than in Philadelphia, the city of Sisterly and Brotherly Love. Philadelphia has served as a site of many historic events of great significance, but often the most interesting stories are the ones that have yet to be told. We got a chance to chat with Norman Simmons, a longtime member of Dignity/Philadelphia, retired Redemptorist priest, and writer, about his work chronicling the history of the Dignity/Philadelphia Chapter for his forthcoming book.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your involvement with Dignity/Philadelphia?

As a priest in the Redemptorist order for 25 years, my ministry included teaching graduate courses in the seminary school of theology, serving as a parish priest in South Bronx and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and pastor in Spanish Harlem. Since 1998, my non-church work included teaching for the School District of Philadelphia, followed by preparing high school dropouts for a GED diploma, and some adjunct teaching in local universities.

My involvement with Dignity/Philadelphia started in 1998, beginning with the Samaritan Group which visited members in the hospital and supported them while a loved one died. For one year, I served as Chapter secretary and for two years as president. Currently, I preside and preach for some Sunday Liturgies.

What about the research project you’re working on?

My research project focuses on the early history of Dignity/Philadelphia from 1973 to 1998. Besides newspaper articles, letters, flyers, and archival materials, I have conducted Interviews with the early members of Dignity/Philadelphia. These interviews provide their personal stories as LGBTQ people of faith. Their experiences witness to their struggle to be a “voice for the voiceless." More people need to be interviewed and we're trying to catch up with them. Three people from the early years of the Chapter died in recent months. 

Historian Dr. Jonathan Friedman, author of Rainbow Jews: Jewish and Gay Identity in the Performing Arts, has been helpful in formulating some questions for the interviews.

What's unique or interesting about the history of Dignity/Philadelphia?

Dignity/Philadelphia has provided a haven for LGBTQ Catholics where they can grow spiritually, personally, and socially, and even professionally. For example, one early Dignity/Philadelphia leader became the first “openly gay” person to be elected to public office in Pennsylvania. By January 2022, twenty-two LGBTQ people have won office, including two members of the Pennsylvania House. Others challenged city officials to pass gay rights laws and worked to overcome discrimination against LGBTQ people in the city bars.

Repeatedly, Dignity/Philadelphia leaders have made great efforts to reach out to diocesan officials to open a dialogue. These efforts have been rejected. The Chapter has a history of cooperation with other Christians and Jews to support LGBTQ believers. During the early period, the Chapter made great efforts to educate people about sexuality and theology and to provide opportunities for spiritual growth.

Why is it important to you to preserve this history?

People need to hear this history. Three groups will benefit from reading this book: young LGBTQ people, the American people, and church leaders.

Young LGBTQ Catholics need to learn both the achievements and the struggles of Dignity/Philadelphia pioneers. LGBTQ Catholics, who live in silence (and perhaps in fear) in places where no Dignity Chapter exists, can find hope in reading the history of pioneer Catholics. Americans in general need a better understanding of “gay history” as they begin to learn the histories of African Americans, people of Asian descent, and indigenous peoples. Church leaders have a profound responsibility to learn from the witness of these trailblazers, so they can develop a teaching and practice respecting all God’s children.

Johann Baptist Metz spoke of the genocide in the Nazi death camps. He said, “Articulating others’ suffering is the presupposition of all claims to truth...Even those made by theology.” In the US today, many are not aware of the oppression that LGBTQ people experienced in the past. Their stories need to be told.

Hopefully, this history will advance the “listening” efforts of the Catholic Church from worldwide Synodality to incorporating recent psychological, sociological, philosophical and theological insights into its teachings on human sexuality and pastoral practices. The work of the Holy Spirit is not completed.

Currently in the US, some politicians are banning LGBTQ books from schools and libraries. A recent presidential administration established a commission to deny “new rights” to women and to LGBTQ citizens. We do not see the US bishops protesting these evils.

Learning the history of Dignity/Philadelphia can motivate us to continue with the struggle to be heard and to live full lives as citizens and as Catholics.

What hopes do you have for the future of the LGBTQ Catholic community in Philadelphia?

I hope that any LGBTQ Catholic who does not find a welcome in their parish will discover a Dignity Chapter as a place for community, fellowship, and worship where they can experience God’s love for them. I believe that couples will enjoy greater acceptance with Dignity than they will in most parishes. Also, couples with children will find a greater acceptance of their families.

I hope that LGBTQ Catholics who worship in local parishes will be encouraged by Dignity to take an active part in transforming their parish’s ministry.

I hope that parishes will one day seek to establish chapters of Dignity to replace the discouraging and harmful work of conversion therapy groups that treat sexual orientation and gender identity as an addiction or illness.

I hope that Dignity/Philadelphia will continue to be beacon of light for business and government leaders.

What do you enjoy most about your involvement with Dignity/Philadelphia?

At age 51, for the first time in my life, I became a new person. I was no longer feeling ashamed and guilty that I am a gay person. Dignity/Philadelphia was an important part in my personal conversion. Also, Fr. John O’Neill’s The Church and the Homosexual was one of the books that answered my many questions surrounding gay sexuality and theology.

I enjoy the Liturgies with the community’s active participation, the fellowship of weekly socials after worship, the pot-luck dinners, the friends I found in the community. Drawing inspiration from their dedication, I also share the commitment of members to promote peace and justice issues in society and in the church.

Norman is looking for people with memories, stories, and experiences with Dignity/Philadelphia, including presenters or participants in retreats, conventions, talks, protests, and other Dignity events in Philadelphia. He is also interested in the stories of priests and participants in the Philadelphia Home Liturgy Group from about 1969 to 1973. Please click below to contact us if you have any information of interest about the Dignity/Philadelphia Chapter or the Philadelphia Home Liturgy Group.

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