Gay Catholics Find Dignity

Founded as a counseling group, Dignity became a national organization of gay and lesbian Roman Catholics, the first organization of its kind in the United States. In 1972 the National Federation of Priests Councils passed a resolution that formed a task force to develop a Christian ministry model for outreach to gay and lesbian parishioners. That ministry model has influenced other Christian outreach programs for ministry to lesbians and gays.

Summary of Event

The relationship between gays and lesbians and the Roman Catholic Church Roman Catholic Church;and gay and lesbian Catholics[gay and lesbian Catholics] has often been tenuous at best. In 1969, Father Patrick X. Nidorf, an Augustinian priest and psychologist in San Diego, California, had noticed a trend with his gay clients. He wrote,

The Catholic gay people whom I had met were frequently bothered by ethical problems and identity with the Church. It seemed obvious that the Church was not meeting the needs of the gay community. In counseling gay Catholics, there always seemed to be an excessive and unreal problem of guilt that was sometimes reinforced in the confessional instead of being resolved. (Dignity Archives, 2004) [kw]Gay Catholics Find Dignity (1969-1973)
[kw]Catholics Find Dignity, Gay (1969-1973)
Religion;gay and lesbian Catholics
Roman Catholic Church;and gay and lesbian Catholics[gay and lesbian Catholics]
[c]Organizations and institutions;1969-1973: Gay Catholics Find Dignity[0720]
[c]Religion;1969-1973: Gay Catholics Find Dignity[0720]
Nidorf, Patrick X.
Fournier, Bob
Gilgamesh, Joe
McNeill, John J.

Nidorf, not content merely to sit with this understanding, wrote a paper proposing the creation of a group for gay Catholics and presented it during a provincial meeting. The majority of priests expressed favor for the concept and encouraged him to form a group. Thus began Dignity, a counseling group for gay and lesbian Catholics.

News of the group’s founding spread primarily by word of mouth, but soon Nidorf began placing ads in the Los Angeles Free Press. The ads stated that members must be twenty-one years of age. Before each meeting, Nidorf asked for completed applications, fees of $5.00 per year, and personal interviews to keep religious zealots from Dignity’s safe space; Nidorf understood the vulnerability of the individuals with whom he was working. The group he created began to gain momentum. Eventually, meetings moved to Los Angeles and were held in private homes; the first meeting in Los Angeles was held on February 28, 1970. Nidorf started the Dignity newsletter earlier in February, alerting members to meeting times and places and to topics for conversation. Within months, Bob Fournier had drafted the first Dignity statement of purpose and had become the first general chair of Dignity.

By 1971, Dignity membership had grown strong and vocal, all at a time when being gay was still classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. Members urged Nidorf to request recognition from the Los Angeles Diocese. Against his better judgment, Nidorf sent a letter to the diocese. On February 11, 1971, he was called before the archbishop of the diocese, who found offense that Nidorf was working in his diocese without permission. The archbishop further stated that Dignity’s principles were untenable and demanded that Nidorf disassociate himself from the group. Nidorf complied, and on February 20, 1971, he announced his resignation to the nearly ninety group members. The group was emboldened by Fournier to continue its work as a mission led by lay people.

Over the course of the next two years, Dignity flourished, publishing its first national newsletter, calling for new chapters outside Los Angeles (Dignity/Louisville being the first), and organizing its chapters into a national organization. On February 19, 1972, at the first annual meeting of Dignity, members elected new officers and announced that Dignity then served nearly two hundred members, half from Los Angeles and the other half from the Philippines, Australia, Canada, the West Indies, England, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. New president Joe Gilgamesh traveled the United States encouraging other Catholics to join the Dignity movement. He also gained permission from Father John McNeill to reprint articles from his work, which provided the basis for Dignity’s statement of purpose.

The movement had an impact. In March, 1972, the National Federation of Priests Councils National Federation of Priests Councils, and gay Catholics
Priests Councils, National Federation of, and gay Catholics passed a resolution that formed a task force with the duty of developing a Christian ministry model for outreach to gays and lesbians. Dignity chapters formed in the District of Columbia, Baltimore, New York, and Boston. Dignity was growing so quickly that an administrative services group was formed to oversee the affairs of the group that fell outside Los Angeles, and in December, Dignity’s statement of purpose was sent out on national-office letterhead, signaling the birth of a national organization. Dignity held its first biennial convention in the summer of 1973, and by the end of that year its national headquarters had relocated to Boston from Los Angeles. DignityUSA found its national home in Washington, D.C., in 1980.


Dignity’s lasting impact has been threefold: It provides ministry and spaces of compassion and understanding to gay and lesbian Catholics, it encourages the Catholic Church to reflect on the way in which the church provides ministry to its gay and lesbian members, and it has led the way for other Christian churches to reevaluate the light in which they cast their gay and lesbian members. In the early twenty-first century, DignityUSA has seen more than sixty chapters in the United States, its Web site is visited by more than ten thousand people each month, it advocates on behalf of gay and lesbian Catholics, and it provides education, resources, and comfort to its constituents.

Dignity led the way in breaking the silence of Christian churches with regard to their gay and lesbian members, and the relationship of Christian denominations with gays and lesbians has shifted since the group’s founding. Many denominations, such as the More Light Presbyterians, the Metropolitan Community Churches, and Lutherans Concerned, reach out and minister to gays and lesbians. As the gay rights movement continues to gain momentum, other religions have opened their doors to gay and lesbian people, and groups representing gay and lesbian Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims (Al-Fatiha) have formed. Though religion and religious proscriptions remain sources of pain and confusion for gays and lesbians, more people of faith and communities of faith are expressing deeper love and compassion for all their people. DignityUSA
Religion;gay and lesbian Catholics
Roman Catholic Church;and gay and lesbian Catholics[gay and lesbian Catholics]

Further Reading

  • Balka, Christie, and Andy Rose, eds. Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian, Gay, and Jewish. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.
  • Curb, Rosemary, and Nancy Manahan, eds. Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence. London: Women’s Press, 1993.
  • Dillon, Michele. Catholic Identity: Balancing Reason, Faith, and Power. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Glaser, Chris. Coming Out to God: Prayers for Lesbians and Gay Men, Their Families, and Friends. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991.
  • Helminiak, Daniel A. What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. Foreword by John S. Spong. Millennium ed., updated and expanded. Tajique, N.Mex.: Alamo Square Press, 2000.
  • Liuzzi, Peter J. With Listening Hearts: Understanding the Voices of Lesbian and Gay Catholics. New York: Paulist Press, 2001.
  • McNeill, John. Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair: My Spiritual Journey. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998.
  • _______. The Church and the Homosexual. 1976. 4th ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.
  • Maher, Michael J. S., Jr. Being Gay and Lesbian in a Catholic High School: Beyond the Uniform. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2001.
  • Stuart, Elizabeth. Gay and Lesbian Theologies: Repetitions with Critical Difference. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2002.
  • White, Mel. Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

October 6, 1968: Metropolitan Community Church Is Founded

March, 1972-March, 1973: First Gay and Lesbian Synagogue in the United States Is Formed

June 25, 1972: First Out Gay Minister Is Ordained

October 9-12, 1998: First International Retreat for Lesbian and Gay Muslims Is Held

March 7, 2004: Robinson Becomes First Out Gay Bishop in Christian History

November 29, 2005: Roman Catholic Church Bans Gay Seminarians