Today is the 70th birthday of a woman who, in my opinion, is one of the great heroes of the LGBT civil rights movement: Sister Jeannine Gramick.
Gramick joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a religious order of Catholic nuns, in 1960 and worked as a high school math teacher for most of that decade. In the early 1970s, while studying for her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, Sr. Jeannine became friends with a gay man and began a church ministry to gays and lesbians. She also reached out to LGBT people who’d left the Catholic church because of its institutional bigotry, organizing religious services for them to gather openly and safely. Gramick became the face of the Catholic church for the gay and lesbian Catholics (and former Catholics) to whom she ministered, and for the first time in many of their lives, that face was one of welcoming love and compassion.
In 1977, Sr. Jeannine co-founded New Ways Ministry, a gay-positive Catholic social justice organization dedicated to combating homophobia and promoting “the acceptance of LGBT people as full and equal members of church and society.” Ever since — 35 years and counting — Gramick has worked tirelessly for peace and justice for sexual minorities. She’s written and edited numerous articles and books and traveled throughout the English-speaking world to talk about the equal dignity of LGBT persons and the need for the Catholic church to change its anti-gay teachings.
Of course, Sr. Jeannine’s groundbreaking, compassionate, remarkable advocacy for LGBT Catholics was bound to earn her the ire of the church hierarchy. Indeed, in 1984 the Archbishop of Washington informed Gramick and her New Ways co-founder, Fr. Robert Nugent, that they could no longer continue their ministry in the archdiocese. Both removed themselves from leadership positions in New Ways Ministry but continued writing, speaking, and lobbying both nationally and internationally. Four years later, the Vatican ordered an investigation into Gramick and Nugent. The resultant report, released in 1994, found the pair’s writing, ministry, and beliefs about LGBT people to be “incompatible with the fullness of Christian morality” and recommended that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) — headed, incidentally, by a certain German cardinal named Joseph Ratzinger — publish some kind of statement in order to “counteract and repair the harmful confusion” that it claimed Nugent and Gramick were causing.
Over the next five years, CDF attempted many times to convince Sr. Jeannine and Fr. Robert to stop challenging the Catholic leadership on LGBT issues, but without success. As a result, in 1999 CDF censured Gramick and Nugent and forbade them from engaging in “any pastoral work involving homosexual persons.” The following year, both were formally silenced by the Catholic church. Nugent accepted his silencing. Gramick did not, saying,
“I choose not to collaborate in my own oppression by restricting a basic human right. To me this is a matter of conscience.”
Because of unrelenting Vatican pressure on Sr. Jeannine’s religious order to clamp down on her activities, Gramick transferred to another community of nuns, the Sisters of Loretto. This community supports her ministry of advocacy and education on behalf of LGBT people, a ministry that continues to this day.
Sr. Jeannine Gramick is an amazing woman with a very simple message: “Only if all people are treated with dignity and respect will there be peace and harmony in the world.” She has dedicated her life to making that message a reality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people, even in the face of tremendous adversity, misunderstanding, and persecution. Happy birthday, Sister.