LGBT people: 'Sisters are on our side!'

"History is written from the perspective of those who preserve their records," proclaimed Mark Bowman, the founder and director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Religious Archives Network (LGBT-RAN). Standing before 300 people who work for LGBT acceptance in their Christian churches, Mark opened the conference, "Rolling the Stone Away," to remember the history of the LGBT movement and to look toward future needs.

At this gathering in St. Louis, 50 founders, movers and shakers of the LGBT Christian movement shared their stories to preserve a valuable piece of history. The wheelchairs parked on one side said a lot about the age of these pioneers.

The conference was truly a unique experience for me. I had addressed other Christian churches occasionally, but most of my four decades in LGBT ministry was spent in Catholic circles. I had read about others who moved their denominations forward but had personally met very few.

Now I felt honored to meet people like Rev. Bill Johnson who, in 1972, became the first openly gay person ordained in any Christian Church. And Jimmy Creech, who was defrocked by the United Methodist Church for performing marriages of same-sex couples.

But it was a remark by Rev. Nancy Wilson, the former Moderator of the Metropolitan Community Church, which stayed with me and sparked some serious reflection. When I met Nancy, she greeted me enthusiastically, saying, "Years ago, when I read about your situation, I knew the sisters were on our side!" I have since thought about Nancy's words, and I believe she was right on target.

My LGBT ministry was certainly not "mine." It belonged to "the sisters." My congregational leaders had vision, imagination and foresight. They were readers, thinkers and women of action who tapped into needs that had been too long neglected by our church. From the 1970s, three successive provincial leaders of the School Sisters of Notre Dame assigned me to lesbian/gay ministry. (At that time, there was no discussion or awareness of transgender issues in the Catholic community.)

They were strong women who did not flinch in the face of numerous complaints from lay Catholics and some bishops and cardinals. In those days, Catholics were not as accepting of lesbian/gay people as they are today. The Vatican lodged three requests for internal investigations, but all provincials and three General Superiors continued to support this new ministry. As Nancy said, "The sisters were on our side!"

When Vatican pressure became too great for the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the Sisters of Loretto stepped in and accepted me into their community. The Lorettos had a long history of educating themselves about the injustice of homophobia and the rightness of welcoming all people into the church, even those who disagreed with traditional sexual ethics.

Prior to Pope Francis' election, the Loretto presidents received nine letters from the Vatican calling for my dismissal from religious life if I continued in this ministry. It seems to me that the Loretto presidents anticipated Pope Francis' advice to the International Union of Superiors General when he told them to answer any Vatican letters politely and then continue on with their ministries. The Loretto presidents did just that.

During these years, some leaders of other congregations even proposed a creative strategy if Vatican pressure persisted on the Loretto Sisters: A string of communities could be in the wings to accept me as I migrated from one congregation to another! As Nancy said, "The sisters were on our side!"

The crisis with the Vatican was a disguised blessing because it became a stepping-stone to educate some members of the hierarchy. Scores of women leaders wrote to the Vatican about the need to support and expand the ministry. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) encouraged their members to engage in conversations with local bishops about the issue of homosexuality.

Mary Ann Zollman, then president of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was a part of such a meeting with her local bishops, in which some of them said that homosexuality was intrinsically disordered because of an ethic based on natural law.*

"I found myself tapping into a place of grief and alienation," Mary Ann said of that meeting. "In my heart's eye, I saw faces of men and women I know whose sexual orientation is gay or lesbian and who live compassionately, justly yearning for a return of compassion and justice on the part of a church they love. I thought of men and women whose passion for wholeness in relationship is lived in deep commitment to life-long same-sex partners. I heard deep in my own being, their struggle to find a home in our church. … Around that meeting table, I was compelled to speak on their behalf, to tell the story of the beauty of their relationships, and to offer an alternative ethic of sexuality."

In her outgoing address as President of LCWR in 2003, Mary Ann Zollman shared that story and went on to describe her feelings, using the image of two trees. "I could feel my roots moving toward theirs and they leaning toward me as together we want nothing more than to shape a home space for those who are 'other.' " She could resonate with their feelings because they were similar to the ache of homelessness she felt as a woman in the church.

Not surprisingly, her address was part of the Vatican's investigation of LCWR. Answering the Vatican's concerns took much time and energy, but it was worth it because it was another instance where sisters were educating church authorities. If Nancy knew, she would say, "The sisters were on our side!"

But the first Catholic organization to support gay and lesbian persons was the National Coalition of American Nuns. The board of this small, grassroots nuns' group publicly called for civil rights for gay and lesbian people back in 1974. The organization also publicly supported the right of same-sex couples to marry and spoke out against bullying of LGBT people. Once again, "The sisters were on our side!"

Since the late 1990s, sisters have ministered among transgender people, healing spirits and saving lives. Members of several congregations including the Eucharistic Missionaries of St. Dominic, Racine Dominicans, Dominican Sisters of Peace, and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet have companioned transgender people and their families on this sacred journey. Through a ministry of presence and accompaniment, the sisters have welcomed transgender folks into their lives and been welcomed in return. The sisters' basic message is that God loves them for who they are.

The sisters' support has not been only on a private level. Last year, a Catholic teacher in San Francisco came out as transgender and had the public backing of the Sisters of Mercy who operated the high school. Shortly thereafter the Sisters of St. Agnes in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, organized a public prayer vigil after the rampant shooting of LGBT people at an Orlando night club. Six months later, the Sisters of the Congregation of Mother Carmel in India offered their buildings for a school for transgender people who had dropped out because of the psychological trauma they experienced. Yes, "The sisters were on our side!"

So many women religious have affirmed the goodness of LGBT students or strangers. Sisters have opened their motherhouses and retreat centers for LGBT programs. Many have signed petitions, demonstrated, or written letters of complaint when LGBT people are fired from Catholic institutions. Some have marched in solidarity in gay pride parades. Sisters have been part of the LGBT struggle in the past; they are their allies today. And, as this conference made me so very aware, sisters give LGBT people much hope for the future.

I'm counting on the fact that the names and ministries of all these sisters are preserved in the archives of women's religious congregations. What a loss to church history and to the cause of justice if these records were not saved or were thought too sensitive to keep. Mark Bowman's opening words at the conference play like a refrain in my ears: "History is written from the perspective of those who preserve their records."

* An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified Sr. Mary Ann Zollman's community.

[Jeannine Gramick is a Sister of Loretto who has been involved in a pastoral ministry for lesbian and gay Catholics since 1971. She co-founded New Ways Ministry and has been an executive coordinator of the National Coalition of American Nuns since 2003.]

Editor's note: Other GSR articles about sisters walking with transgender people can be found here and here.

Check out Horizons, featuring reflections younger sisters.