A Fordham University panel commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising focused on the ongoing challenges faced by LGBTQ+ people around the globe, including in majority Catholic countries.
Hailing from Uganda, the Philippines, and Mexico, Catholic advocates for LGBTQ+ equality in the church spoke at the event, which was co-sponsored by New York City’s St. Francis Xavier parish, about their struggles, as well as areas of hope for LGBTQ+ Catholics worldwide. Coverage from both the National Catholic Reporter and Fordham’s own website continues to spread their message.
The panelists were Ssenfuka Joanita Warry, of Uganda, Argel Tuason, a Benedictine oblate from the Philippines, and Carlos Navarro, from Mexico. They were in the United States to participate in the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics third assembly and a joint forum on the state of the global Catholic LGBTQI movement. For more information on these events, click here. The panel was moderated by Jamie Manson, a queer Catholic author and activist, and Craig Ford, a theologian at Fordham.
While Navarro, one of the founders of the Rainbow Catholics Network Mexico, has found a supportive church community and married his husband in 2016, Warry’s partner had previously been forced into an unwanted heterosexual marriage, and they must now hide their relationship for the sake of her children. Tuason spoke of enduring an exorcism-based attempt at ‘conversion therapy.’
While they spoke of their own stories, the panelists also came representing much larger communities. Warry is the founder and executive director of Freedom and Roam Uganda, which she calls a ‘refuge’ for “people who never wanted to run away from the church, but to stay with the church.” She expressed the responsibility she feels to tell the stories of her friends who could not acquire visas to attend. As Warry one day hopes to be a priest herself, she stressed the importance of valuing women’s voices in this and all conversations about church reform. She said:
“As I look out into the crowd I will count the number of women, because it is an issue in the Catholic church that women are always at the back seat. If we keep away from issues our voices won’t be heard, but every time we appear our voices will be heard.”
Warry previously spoke on similar themes during a 2018 Voices of Faith event in Rome.
Tuason has found spiritual refuge in the writings of Fr. John McNeill, a now deceased theologian and therapist who was a pioneer of LGBTQ equality in the Catholic Church. For Tuason, the influence of the work of McNeill, who briefly taught at Fordham, made the campus feel like ‘sacred ground.’ He said of McNeill, “I know his presence is with us and maybe he’s smiling and celebrating with all of us.”
For Navarro, there is much to celebrate within the church. He emphasized that “the people are the church, not the leadership.” He found community and inspiration from youth groups, and met regularly with fellow LGBT Christians in each other’s homes, singing and reading scripture. When their visibly gay choir was asked to join the local parish, the group was widely met with support. “If the Catholic Church is going to change,” he said, “It’s going to change by conviction, not by decree.” He also observed that “the church will change” because of “the example of LGBTQ+ people who are openly part of its life.”
The legal rights of LGBTQ+ people can differ sharply in countries around the world. Mexico has legalized same-sex marriage in half of their 32 states, while Ugandans can face life in prison for same-sex relationships. The Philippines falls somewhere in between, with no recognized marriage equality, but rapidly increasing public support. For all three panelists, the hierarchy of the church, and Pope Francis in particular, could have a great impact on the most marginalized international communities of LGBTQ+ Catholics. Warry said: “If only the pope spoke out against discrimination they would listen.” In traditionally Catholic countries, like the three represented, the pope’s influence would go far. (New Ways Ministry has encouraged Catholics to ask Pope Francis to oppose publicly the criminalization of LGBTQ people through its #PopeSpeakOut campaign, which you can find out more about here.)
All three panelists shared the desire to participate fully in Catholic communities while also living their authentic sexual and gender identities. Warry said she is “using the church’s tools…to let the church know that they are mistaken, they are wrong.” These tools include scripture, meeting the church leaders on a shared ground, and propelling the conversation forward into something that can include all members of the Catholic faith.
The hope and faith these leaders have in the church’s ability to improve itself is inspiring, and they are making that change happen each day.
Bondings 2.0 recently featured more perspectives from participants at the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics 2019 assembly, which you can read here.
—Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, August 11, 2019