Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Daniel Berrigan's Legacy: The Forgotten (?) Advocacy for LGBTQ People

Several days ago, I finished reading Patrick Gale's latest novel, A Place Called Winter. A reader of this blog who's also connected to me by Facebook recommended the novel to me, as well as I can remember, and I'm very grateful to her, because I found the novel's recreation (or imagining might be a more precise term) of an early 20th-century gay love story in Saskatchewan engrossing. 

Since finishing the novel, I've spent some time browsing shelves of bookstores in several places, searching for something equivalent to this story — looking for other novels that illuminate the past for me in the same way this novel does, by lifting gay lives and their narratives out of the obscurity of historical silence and giving them voice. I know that such novels exist, of course: I've read them, from Marguerite Yourcenar to Mary Renault to Annie Proulx and Christopher Bram and Donald Windham and, well, the list goes on and on.

Many of us who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender — queer — hunger for stories which show our face in historical mirrors, so that we feel less alone, less like the person invisible to the mirror which reflects nothing back when we look in it. And here's the experience we LGBTQ folks very often have when we visit bookstores and browse their shelves for novels and collections of short stories that tell our LGBTQ stories and sketch fictional narratives of our lives in the past: we're just not on these shelves, for the most part.

The shelves of our bookstores (and of our online libraries at places like Goodreads) are chock-full of novels depicting every kind of heterosexual love story imaginable, from Timbuktu to Tierra del Fuego, from imperial Rome to the Kremlin of the iron-curtain era. But the stories of those of us who are LGBTQ simply aren't to be found so easily on the shelves of many of our bookstores, unless we're fortunate enough to find in those bookstores one of those sections labeled something like "alternative lifestyles" or "gay interest."

It's not, as I've just said,  that such stories don't exist at all. It's that they can be very hard to find, even for those of us with the know-how and resources to do the searching. 

And all of this was, to a great extent, my point in a discussion I had about a month ago with several readers after I posted a memorial statement about Father Daniel Berrigan. In my remarks about Berrigan's life and legacy, I lamented what seems to me a certain lacuna in the activism of Catholic peace-and-justice activists of the Berrigan generation.

As I assess the legacy of Catholic peace-and-justice activists of the Berrigan generation, I confront that same predictable dynamic LGBTQ folks have faced for so long in so many cultures: I look in the mirror, and I don't see my face there. I have long found Catholic peace-and-justice activists, including the most admirable of them, strangely tone-deaf when it comes to their understanding of and advocacy for LGBTQ people and our needs. 

I find the Catholic tradition even at its best so oppressively heterosexist and so skewed in the direction of heterosexual male entitlement that I also find it almost impossible to see any productive, meaningful place for myself in that tradition. 

I made these remarks in the discussion thread following my remembrance of Dan Berrigan, and deliberately did not post anything about them in a posting. I did so for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, I admire Dan Berrigan and what he stood for, and it's churlish to eulogize someone who has just died with criticisms about what you imagine she or he failed to do. Putting these remarks into a posting, rather than making them in a "real-time" discussion with good readers of this blog, would have seemed to me a bridge too far in the direction of churlishness.

I was also aware in making these remarks that Dan Berrigan did, in fact, involve himself in ministry to people with AIDS, and did admirable work in that area. At the same time, however, I noticed as Berrigan was widely eulogized that almost nothing was being said anywhere in any Catholic-themed or even any progressive-oriented eulogy of Berrigan about his advocacy for LGBTQ people, and that struck me — and still does — as telling.

It bespeaks the deep silences within the Catholic tradition, with its overweening male-entitled heterosexism, regarding LGBTQ lives, a silence glaringly obvious in the recent papal document Amoris Laetitia. We who are LGBTQ simply are not there, still. We're not in the room to be talked to, and to the extent we're talked about, as in the few exceedingly ugly things Amoris Laetitia did deign to say about us, the polite fiction is that we're just not there to be talked with while our lives are parsed and dissected.

And now I'm grateful for two additions to — which are also correctives of — what I said in my discussion of Berrigan's legacy in conversations here a month ago. First, a new contributor to that discussion, BronxVoter, has just posted some valuable information in the thread about Berrigan's advocacy for LGBTQ rights. Here's what Bronx has to say:

It is simply not true that Dan "never publicly defended LGBTQ" people. Read his chapter on John McNeill, in his book "Portraits of Those I Loved". Dan was a close friend of John's. They were in the same small Jesuit Community for many years. As the book title suggests, Dan loved John and publicly defended him and stood by him during his struggles with Rome, the Jesuits and other powers that be. 
Also read Dan's "Sorrow Built a Bridge" reflections on the "admirable" work with AIDS patients to which you allude (clearly with only superficial knowledge of what Dan actually did). See this quote, for example: 
"The church remains for the present adamant: against serious peacemaking, against the gay community. But in these matters, each in it’s own way a matter of life and death, it cannot be said that the church speaks for Christ. It could even be said that the church speaks in contrariety to Christ...We think of the church, and the official treatment of many, and then we think of Christ...We are struck by a contrast.  
The church rejects, ostracizes, places certain people beyond the pale; on a lifelong basis... 
I do not know, any more than you, whether church authority will renounce its sinfulness, will at last heal and bind up those it has wounded so grievously. (And so be healed and bound up, and acknowledge her own wounds.)...We must forgive, deepen our love, persist in our conviction that even the church can be redeemed from sin." 
This was written in 1989. Dan frequently spoke out publicly for LGBTQ people. I know from hearing it with my own ears. He most certainly was not a homophobe and harbored no prejudice in his heart. Quite the opposite. 
The misogyny attack is also unfair. I get that many here think opposition to abortion = misogyny -- but again I think you are basing your opinion on misinformation. Dan publicly spoke up for women's rights, in particular, in the Church. He participated in 1 and only 1 demonstration against abortion. He did not have a simplistic, anti-woman analysis. He certainly recognized the agony many women faced. 
None of this is meant to say that the sin of misogyny and homophobia did not exist and does not persist in segments of the Catholic left. But Dan was overwhelmingly (none of us is perfect, mind you) a force for good on both scores.

And today at the Bondings 2.0 blog of New Ways Ministry, Bob Shine offers further valuable commentary along the same lines. As he notes, when Dan Berrigan was eulogized in the days following his death, very little mention was made anywhere of his outreach to LGBTQ people. But as Bob also points out, 

Berrigan attended Dignity services in New York after Cardinal John O’Connor expelled this group of LGBT Catholics from Church property in the city, and he ministered to Dignity communities elsewhere. In his book Portraits of Those I Love, Berrigan profiled former Jesuit and noted gay theologian John McNeill as "The Jesuit,"  a chapter in which Berrigan admiringly called McNeill a person who was "unafraid of the cross."
Like McNeill, Berrigan was unafraid to challenge a church to which he had committed his life. In an essay for The Huffington Post, Carl Siciliano, executive director of the Ali Forney Center, a New York social service agency for LGBT homeless youth, explored Berrigan’s outreach to sexual and gender minorities.  Siciliano explained that Berrigan’s concern for people hurt by the church was closely connected to the priest’s wider struggle for social justice. Preaching to Dignity/Miami in 1987, Berrigan offered the following remark [and then Bob cites the same passage cited above by Bronx Voter] . . . .

I'm grateful for these correctives to what I said a month ago about the lacuna in Dan Berrigan's peace-and-justice work — a lacuna that, as Bob Shine notes, is reflected in almost all of the eulogies of Berrigan issued after his death. They don't convince me, however, to alter what is my primary point here: the Catholic church is and remains an oppressively heterosexist institution which privileges heterosexual males at the expense of everyone else in the world.

And far too many progressive Catholics, including those who work on behalf of peace and justice, who remain institutionally connected in ways many of us wounded by and alienated from the institution are not connected, are far too willing to ignore and collude with the patriarchal heterosexism. This includes admirable peace-and-justice Catholics who have stuck their necks out to defend the least among us, to promote human rights — but who have very often been all too willing to keep silence about the Catholic church's oppression of LGBTQ human beings and denial of the human rights of those human beings (and often about its oppression of women).

The defensiveness of many Catholics, including progressive ones who remain connected in some ways to the institution, does not help, either. It does not help build solidarity with the many of us who have had it with the heterosexist patriarchy, and who can no longer find a place within the institution — but whose testimony is sorely needed, if the institution is ever to be healed of these deep moral diseases. The fact that even progressive Catholics remain, to a great extent, simply unwilling to talk with — to build conversation spaces for discussion with — LGBTQ people says a great deal about how far the church has to go towards moral healing.

If it, indeed, wants such healing at all.

(A footnote: Steve and I are doing some vacationing this week, and I am slow to post here and reply to your very welcome comments here for that reason.)

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