Local Catholic LGBTQ organization celebrates 50 years

Dignity sidewalk mass at the 1976 Philadelphia Eucharistic Congress

Dignity Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization for Philly’s LGBTQ Catholic community, will mark its 50th anniversary this month. The festivities entail an LGBTQ+ history walking tour of Philly’s gayborhood, a Jubilee dinner and dance on May 20, a Q&A event with guest of honor Sister Jeannine Gramick, who formed the group that became Dignity Philadelphia, and a celebration of Mass at the Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany on May 21. “Celebrating our Past, Present and Future” is the theme of the celebration.  

“Over the years, it’s been a place where people can be both Catholic and Christian and be LGBTQ fully accepted,” said Rev. Dr. Norman Simmons, a provider of liturgy at Dignity Philadelphia and former president of the organization. “There’s an understanding of and acceptance of people that you might not get in other churches. “Nobody ever asks you, when you walk in the door for the first time — are you gay, are you lesbian, are you homosexual, are you heterosexual. You’re just welcome.” 

The organization was founded in 1973 out of the need to create a space for LGBTQ people to practice Catholicism fully and authentically, explained Dignity Philadelphia President Michael Rocks. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia “is not considered a pro-gay diocese at all,” Rocks said. 

“We needed a place where people would feel safe to practice our Roman Catholic religion in a full way — not just Mass, but in community work, assisting the community, being part of the larger organization Dignity USA, and being able to run our own organization for LGBT Catholics in the Philadelphia area.”

The weekly 7 p.m. Sunday Mass is the heart of life at Dignity Philadelphia, which takes place in the basement of St. Luke’s. In addition to the liturgical aspects of Dignity, the organization periodically holds potluck dinners, Christmas parties and gift-giving for residents of Calcutta House, which provides housing and other supports for people living with HIV/AIDS; volunteer work in Broad Street Ministry’s food program; and the visiting of Dignity members in times of illness. 

In contrast to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which advocates for the policy that LGBTQ Catholics should remain celibate, Dignity Philadelphia encourages its members to have romantic relationships.  

“I think that’s a great contribution for people,” Simmons said. “Even if they don’t stay with Dignity for a lifetime, if they’ve come for a few months and been impacted by that witness, they carry that with them.” 

Dignity has straight married priests and gay married priests who aren’t connected to the institutional church, as well as Roman Catholic women priests, “which is really kind of radical,” Rocks said.  

At the May 20 dinner and dance, representatives from Dignity Philadelphia will present its Lifetime Achievement Award to Gramick, a Northeast Philadelphia native who has spent much of her life advocating for LGBTQ rights, particularly for LGBTQ Catholics. Gramick and Father Robert Nugent formed New Ways Ministry in 1977, an international Catholic ministry that advocates for LGBTQ inclusion and justice. Gramick is still active in the organization. 

Dignity Philadelphia’s history of activism runs deep. In 1975, through Dignity Philadelphia, Nugent came before City Council in support of LGBTQ rights when activists were fighting to have sexual orientation added to Philadelphia’s nondiscrimination ordinance, Simmons said. At the same time, a representative from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia stood before Council to denounce the proposed civil rights legislation. Sexual orientation was added to Philadelphia’s anti-discrimination ordinance in the early 1980s. 

In the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Dignity Philadelphia held educational activities about the disease, as well as educational sessions on women’s roles in the Church and the Dignity community. Gramick, Father John McNeill, Barbara Gittings and others were invited to speak. Judge Ann Butchart, the first out gay candidate for public office in Pennsylvania, was the first lesbian president of Dignity Philadelphia. 

Simmons’ entry point into Dignity came after he spent 25 years practicing as a Catholic minister, which took him around the U.S. and Latin America. In 1998, he decided to explore his own sexuality and try to understand it.  

“I did a lot of soul searching for a couple years,” Simmons said. “What I would say was a real blessing for me was discovering Dignity. I was just really searching, and didn’t really know many people I felt I could talk to.” 

After reading an ad about Dignity in PGN, Simmons decided to check out one of their Masses. 

An ad for Dignity in the January 1977 issue of PGN.

“As the Mass ended, the person next to me welcomed me and I said, ‘this is my first time.’ That was a big boost to me in understanding who I am – not just as a gay person, but also as a Christian and a Catholic, and accepting myself as that.”

One important aspect of Dignity Philadelphia, Simmons pointed out, is that lay people are part of its leadership.    

“So many Catholic organizations are started either by a nun or by a priest,” Simmons said. “These people have picked up the way and moved it ahead. I think that’s a witness to something.” 

Separate from his presidential duties, Rocks has been playing guitar as part of Dignity’s music ministry for the past 47 years. It gives him a chance to be a leader in his Catholic community, he said. 

“[That] wouldn’t be possible in Philadelphia if I was in a parish and they knew I was gay,” Rocks added. “We want to be accepted. I often say that the Catholic Church in Philadelphia has much to learn from us as far as participation of lay people in the church business and church activities. Most parishes in Philadelphia really don’t let lay people have much of a leadership role.”

Dignity Philadelphia’s 50th anniversary celebration is open to the public, and tickets can be purchased at www.dignityphila.org/anniversary/

Previous articlePGN’s Election Endorsements
Next articleThe Trans Body
Michele Zipkin is a staff writer for Philadelphia Gay News, where she reports on issues including LGBTQ youth issues, housing insecurity, healthcare, city government and advocacy organizations, and events. Her work has been recognized by the Keystone Media Awards, Society of Professional Journalists, National Newspaper Association, and more. She received her BA from Goucher College and her MA in journalism from Temple University. She has been on staff with PGN since January 2020 and previously worked as a freelancer.