Dignity/SF turns 50 with a year of celebrations planned

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday January 18, 2023
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Father Jack Lau conducted a special service for Dignity/SF honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 11, 2022. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Father Jack Lau conducted a special service for Dignity/SF honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 11, 2022. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Dignity/San Francisco, a group for LGBTQ Roman Catholics, is marking its golden anniversary with a year of celebrations, kicking off with a special liturgy and reception Sunday, January 22.

In the lead up to the event, San Francisco Mayor London Breed declared Sunday as Dignity/San Francisco Day and issued a proclamation on January 15.

The group thanked Breed on its Facebook page.

"Thank you, Mayor London Breed, for recognizing Dignity/San Francisco as not only an organization but as a community that is truly a part of this beautiful city," the organization posted.

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of the national DignityUSA, based in Dunkirk, Maryland, of which Dignity/SF is a chapter, stated that for the community to make this milestone was "truly incredible."

"For any queer group to survive and make an impact for 50 years is truly incredible," wrote Duddy-Burke in an email interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "I hope many in the SF queer and broader community, as well as Catholic organizations around the city, will take time to honor this incredibly tenacious and prophetic group."


Duddy-Burke wrote that Dignity/SF, one of the founding 10 chapters when groups began organizing in local parishes in 1972, has been important to queer Catholics.

"It has been critical to our movement to have a Dignity chapter in what has long been thought of as the center of LGBTQ+ life in our country," she wrote, noting the community's longevity even at the epicenter of crisis and triumph. She pointed to the assassination of California's first openly gay elected official, San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, DignityUSA communities being pushed out of the Catholic Church, and the triumph of same-sex marriage.

"Queer people here were bolder than those in many other places in demanding visibility, equality, and human rights," she stated.

Milk and the late-San Francisco mayor George Moscone were assassinated by disgruntled ex-supervisor Dan White November 27, 1978.

Paul Riofski, a 65-year-old gay man, has been a member of Dignity/SF since 1978 and has held leadership roles there.

"We are a significant part of LGBT history in San Francisco," said Riofski, noting Dignity/SF is one of the "longest established continuously operating gay organizations in the city."

Duddy-Burke pointed out the significance of Dignity/SF's leadership through the years.

"Dignity/San Francisco has offered incredible leadership to our national movement for decades, people who pushed us to do more, be more professional, communicate better, rethink how we gather, and more," she wrote.

Duddy-Burke noted Dignity/SF hosted two of DignityUSA's "most impactful national conferences" on the national organization's 20th and 40th anniversaries in 1989 and 2009, respectively.

"The chapter is also among our most diverse, and has modeled how to draw from the experience of Catholicism across various cultures for our national community," she added.

Today, Dignity/SF is one of 37 chapters across the United States registered with DignityUSA. Dignity/SF's community of more than 38 members is operated by five board members and a staff office administrator who oversees the nearly $180,000 annual budget, according to Riofski, who serves on Dignity/SF's finance committee.

DignityUSA celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019.

Early Dignity/SF leaders and members told the B.A.R. that the group began to meet under the Dignity banner at St. Anne's Hall at St. Peter's Catholic Church in the Mission district in 1973.

Prior to DignityUSA, LGBTQ Catholics gathered in people's homes and in various parishes to practice their faith in the 1960s. Former Augustinian priest Patrick X. Nidorf, who was also a psychologist, started leading meetings in San Diego in 1969. In 1970, the late Father John McNeill, a Jesuit theologian, published works about LGBTQ Catholics and the church. Nidorf established the first official Dignity community in a parish in Los Angeles that same year. McNeill was influential in establishing DignityUSA.

McNeill inspired Dignity/SF director-at-large and longtime member Ernest L. Camisa to write "A Transparent Translation of the Ancient Bible Concerning Homosexuality," examining Biblical text against McNeill's theories.

In San Francisco, founding Dignity/SF member Thaddeus "Thad" Trela, 95, said the leadership of Madeline Ritchie, a 77-year-old lesbian, and Michael Weller saved the LGBTQ Catholic group from faltering during its first tumultuous year forming in 1973.

"Mike Weller said we should form more of an organization," Ritchie said, recalling that many people were against the idea, explaining that in the 1970s it was still illegal to be gay. "People were still being harassed. It was against the law to do certain sexual activities in public. They were very frightened."

Once Dignity/SF received its official organization status from the IRS, "We were able to be more than a casual hobby group — a legitimate group. [We were able to] practice the Catholic faith, have people come to do preaching and talk with us, and have Mass," Ritchie said.

"It was all really novel groundwork at that time," she said.

Weller passed away in the late 1980s or early 1990s, Ritchie said, adding that while she couldn't remember the exact date, he did not die of AIDS.

Dignity/San Francisco members had a picnic in San Francisco in the early 1980s. Photo: Courtesy Thaddeus Trela  

"Without them, Dignity would have disappeared, at least for that time," Trela told the B.A.R., referring to Ritchie and Weller. The retired education expert and philanthropist shared photos and newsletters from the early days of the Catholic group's social gatherings, such as a picnic and marching in the San Francisco Pride parade.

Ritchie and Weller secured the group's nonprofit status as a religious organization, allowing the group to grow and serve the community, Dignity/SF historians said. The historians said the community swelled in membership in the 1970s and 1980s, growing to nearly 400 members by 1988. The community moved from St. Peter to St. John of God in the late 1970s to St. Boniface Catholic Church in the Tenderloin in the mid-1980s until the late-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, pushed Dignity communities out of the church, as the B.A.R. recently noted.

In 1986, Ratzinger sent his infamous "Halloween letter" to the bishops of the Catholic Church calling homosexuality an "objective disorder." In 1987 the Vatican expelled Dignity from Catholic parishes across the U.S. after a yearlong struggle among churches and church leadership. McNeill was also expelled from the Jesuits the same year.

"We were one of the last," Dignity communities to host a liturgy at a Catholic parish, said Riofski. "Our last liturgy at St. Boniface was on December 18, 1988."

Gino Ramos, a gay man who is co-chair of Dignity/SF and Riofski's spouse of 14 years (the couple has been together 30 years), told the B.AR. last week that the "objective disorder" label from Ratzinger was "a slap in the face." Benedict, who retired as pope in 2013, died December 31.

"I remember when he was elected pope, I was co-chair and my statement was 'my heart sank,'" Ramos told the B.A.R. "I hope he's at peace and I hope he has found the truth about LGBT people now that he is with the God of the way, the truth and the life."

In the 1980s, Riofski described Dignity/SF's relationship with the late San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn, who was head of San Francisco's Archdiocese at the time, as appearing to be somewhat more sympathetic to Dignity/SF and LGBTQ Catholics.

However, the differences between the church and Dignity could not be resolved as each entity stood its ground on queer Catholics. The forced break from the institutional church and local parishes started to fracture Dignity/SF's membership, Riofski said.

Members who wanted to remain connected with the church joined LGBTQ-welcoming parishes, like Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in the Castro. Dignity/SF partnered with the church for some actions, especially supporting people suffering from HIV/AIDS.

"San Francisco is unusual in having welcoming parishes," said Riofski, such as Most Holy Redeemer, St. Agnes, Old St. Mary's Cathedral and Chinese Mission, and St. John of God.

Other members followed Dignity/SF to its popular midnight Christmas masses at the Castro Theatre in 1986 and 1987 and to its home at Dolores Street Baptist Church in 1989. The community dwindled to 150 members at that time, said Riofski. The Baptist church burned down in 1993. Dignity/SF found a permanent home at Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church in the Inner Sunset in 1994.

The San Francisco archdiocese hasn't been as welcoming. San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who was appointed to the seat in 2012 by Benedict, has actively worked against LGBTQ rights, reported the New York Times. The Human Rights Campaign called him out on this publicly in 2015 for characterizing LGBTQ sexual relationships as "gravely evil" and his attempt to insert anti-LGBTQ language into teacher contracts at Catholic schools in his jurisdiction.

Many Dignity/SF members, who still feel the sting, expressed displeasure about conservatives in the church scapegoating the LGBTQ community during the sexual abuse scandal but were hesitant to talk about it on the record.

Current Pope Francis hasn't necessarily disavowed LGBTQ Catholics, but he hasn't put the Vatican's full weight toward advocating for queer Catholics either.

Duddy-Burke expressed hope "that Dignity/SF finds a way to influence the Archdiocese of San Francisco to be as welcoming and affirming as the Catholics of San Francisco, and as the rest of the community," she wrote.

The San Francisco archdiocese and Cordileone did not respond to the B.A.R.'s request for comment about Dignity/SF's 50th anniversary by press time.

Dignity/SF members expressed gratitude for the organization. Those who struggled with their faith and sexuality, those seeking a spiritual connection, those who wanted social justice aligned with their Catholic faith, and those who wanted a social community found a home at Dignity/SF.

Angelo, a 76-year-old gay man who only wanted to be identified by his first name, believes that without Dignity/SF, he would have "gone crazy."

"Dignity was instrumental in the acceptance of myself because I could finally put my faith and my sexuality together," he said.

Seeking gay Catholic community in 1973, Trela, the community's oldest member, discovered Dignity/SF in an advertisement in a local paper.

"I was just surprised and we all kind of looked at each other," said Trela, recalling the group of about 25 people. "It was the first time a group of Catholics wanted to have something to do with a gay Catholic group."

Angelo, who joined Dignity/SF in 1979, was pleasantly surprised to "see that many gay Catholics, to see a priest that was talking about God loving us as we are," he said. "I just kept coming back."

Emmanuel Romero, a 38-year-old Filipino gay man, was raised Catholic but didn't pay attention to the church's anti-gay rhetoric until he came out as an adult. The moment his family's parish priest led an anti-gay sermon during a mass, he walked out, he said.

"I immediately knew that what the church was saying about gay people was wrong," Romero said. "People should not be forced to choose between who they are and their spirituality."

Romero still wanted the Catholic spiritual community.

"I very much grew up with that as part of not just my spirituality, but also my cultural identity," said Romero who found Dignity/SF.

Dignity/SF members were active in political movements, but Dignity/SF as an organization rarely got involved in movements, Riofski said. The LGBTQ Catholic community's priests supported social justice issues through sermons. Community members participated in "prayer of the faithful," where members would pray for issues of the day.

Some Dignity/SF members organized the now-defunct Catholics for Human Dignity, a political action organization to mobilize against the 1978 Briggs initiative, which attempted to bar LGBTQ teachers in schools. It was ultimately defeated, Riofski said.

Dignity/SF members also responded quickly to the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

"Dignity was the first one to offer support for the HIV crisis," said Angelo. "Then the group was just decimated by AIDS."

Dignity/SF partnered with Most Holy Redeemer to respond to the epidemic and eventually turned the operation over to the church, "because they had greater resources," Riofski said.

Some Dignity/SF members participate in social justice movements independently.

Responding to modern-day attacks on the LGBTQ community is one of Dignity/SF's goals to be more in line with DignityUSA and its members.

"Dignity/San Francisco, as a chapter of DignityUSA, really offers younger Catholics an opportunity to learn about the history of social justice within the Catholic Church," Romero said.

He would like to see "DignityUSA take a more active role in promoting social justice causes that aren't necessarily related to the Catholic Church," he said.

It is something Dignity/SF could offer to young queer Catholics as it steps into its next 50 years.

In its 50th year and starting to bring the community together for in-person gatherings amid the ongoing COVID outbreak, Dignity/SF leaders and members are excited about the community's future.

"We've found a way to be of service here to the larger community and we want to expand that in the coming years," Riofski said.

"Our goal is to think big," he continued. "Our goal is to welcome everyone to the table."

Dignity/SF launches a year of celebrations for its 50th anniversary with a kickoff liturgy and reception "Remembering the Past, Celebrating the Present, and Envisioning the Future," January 22 at 5 p.m. at the Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church, 1329 7th Avenue in San Francisco. It is free and open to the public. For information about future events, click here, although the site was not updated at press time.

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