Gay Catholic advocacy group DignityUSA prepares to host 25th National Conference

DignityUSA, an LGBTQ+ Catholic advocacy organization, is gearing up for its first in-person national conference since 2019.

The group, which has been active since 1969, will host its 25th national conference—“Proclaiming Our Vision: The Church Transfigured”—in San Diego July 8-10. The conference will feature several leading Catholic voices, including keynote speaker Victor Carmona, a theologian at the University of San Diego. He will speak about the shared experiences of LGBTQ+ and immigrant Catholics. Other guests include former US Ambassador to the Holy See Miguel Diaz and Grammy-nominated singer Gina Chavez, among others.

The conference was originally scheduled for 2021 but was delayed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke explained the organization’s decision to return to an in-person format for this gathering.

“In 2021 we actually did a virtual rally…and it was rich,” Duddy-Burke said. “It was wonderful, but there still wasn’t the magic that happens when people are together.”

The meaning of the conference theme has adapted over time, although it was chosen years ago.

“At that time, it was really about us,” she said. “Reflecting on how DignityUSA has interacted with the church as a whole, and some of the ways we believe we have a responsibility to proclaim our vision for the church as a more inclusive, welcoming, and just organization for LGBTQI people, for women, and for people of color in general. Then, of course, COVID happened.

Among the many lecture programs she looks forward to, Duddy-Burke named Carmona’s keynote address.

“As soon as we started talking, it was clear that he had a very important message for us to think about in terms of how people at the borders are literally calling us to think differently, and how listening to those voices is an experience inherently transformational,” she said.

Carmona previewed his speech in an email exchange.

“Borders lay bare the wounds of humanity, including the wounds that connect LGBTQ+ and immigrant communities,” he wrote. “In their efforts to heal these wounds, the actions of many in our frontier communities offer a glimpse of the compassionate God of Jesus and the pursuit of justice that such love inspires. Their actions remind us that the compassionate love of God is at the heart of Jesus’ transfiguration and the subversive hope in the Reign of God that it inspired in him.They also point out the challenges that await him.

Duddy-Burke served as executive director of DignityUSA for nearly 15 years and has been involved with the organization for 40 years. Despite his decades of experience, planning a large gathering in the midst of a pandemic has proven difficult.

Organizers have undertaken several mitigation efforts to allow attendees to gather safely. They include vaccination requirements, outdoor dining spaces and potential masking guidelines as determined by public health officials. Precautions included cutting one of his favorite parts of the lecture.

“We changed our liturgy,” she said. “We won’t have our usual national choir, which is kind of heartbreaking, because it’s always an amazing part of our liturgy. But, you know, we’re pre-recording the music.”

Precautions are worth it, Duddy-Burke said, because they will help protect vulnerable people.

“Because of our population, we are very careful about COVID,” she said. “There are a lot of considerations around HIV and immunosuppressants that we need to be aware of. We have people with us who have been members of Dignity since the 70s. It’s older people in our population that we need to be aware of. We also have a higher than normal preponderance of members who are caregivers, whether in their personal or professional lives.

Organizers are also concerned about the difficulties associated with travel by at-risk and international participants.

“We are trying to figure out what and how we are going to broadcast part of the conference,” she said. “Hopefully we can have some participation from people who can’t be there physically. But that’s still being worked out.”

Duddy-Burke said she hopes the conference will inspire DignityUSA and the wider church to think about how everyone can bear witness to the experiences of those on the margins.

“For Dignity as an organization, I really hope this gives people the confidence to face the changes we need to make as an organization to thrive in the new reality of the world and the church,” she said.

“For our church, it’s the same problem. [We need] realizing that what happened in the past may have served those times, but it’s not going to deliver the gospel for years to come in the same way. [Additionally, we need] to invite more people into the church to this work of transforming our structures and practices to meet the needs of people in the world today, tomorrow and for years to come.”

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