Inside the church on this June evening in Georgetown, Joseph Chee finally felt welcome.
“Let us build a house where love can dwell. And all can safely live,” he sang, alongside dozens of parishioners gathered to celebrate Christ’s love during Pride month.
Chee, who went to Catholic school, who studied Carmelite theology, who belonged to conservative political groups and who knew for a good part of his 30 years that he was gay, had spent years searching for his place in the world and in a church that didn’t seem to want him.
“I felt very alienated from all the communities that I had,” he said. “I felt deeply convinced that I wasn’t supposed to leave the church, you know? But I was like, ‘Where is my place?’”
But under the leadership of Pope Francis, who last year publicly rejected judgment of gay people, Chee sensed an opening.
Outside, a small band of protesters, upset that Holy Trinity Catholic Church dared hold a Pride Mass, had gathered to remind him of all he had overcome.
Waving red, crusader-style banners emblazoned with a golden lion and wearing lion brooches and sashes of the same, lipstick red, protesters proclaimed that the worshipers and every rainbow flag flying in America this month were unwelcome and part of a “battle against the powers of hell.”
“A coup occurred virtually overnight, with no guns fired, no bombs dropped, no biological warfare unleashed, even within the most conservative and political and military circles,” Doug Mainwaring, who once lived openly as a gay man and championed same-sex relationships, said into a speaker aimed at the attendees, who were protected by a police patrol. “The speed of the capitulation has been stunning.”
What’s really stunning is this virulent and strident backlash against Pride celebrations across the nation this month, where a small, vocal and cunningly strategic group is orchestrating a summer of hate. Haters have shut down similar church services in Pennsylvania and Michigan and orchestrated boycotts of Bud Light, Pride-themed Target products and even the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Conservative groups were emboldened by a June 1 tweet from the U.S. Conference of Bishops that they took as a call to action against pride celebrations in June: “Join us in honoring the Sacred Heart of Jesus this June, a time to deepen our devotion to His endless love and mercy. Let us open our hearts to receive His grace and share His message of hope with the world.”
The church’s relationship with the LGBTQ community is complex, but Pope Francis at a news conference last year said that gay people “should not be marginalized because of this, but that they must be integrated into society.”
D.C. is home to a parish where Chee and dozens of folks like him have found their place, where an LGBTQIA+ ministry has thrived and reconnected Washington lawyers, doctors, students, congressional staff members with the church of their childhood, the church many of them felt had rejected them.
The ministry was founded thanks to “a commitment by the Jesuit order to make sure that the spiritual needs of all marginalized community are being met,” said Ernie Raskauskas, 71, who has been a Holy Trinity parishioner for decades.
He went to Gonzaga College High School, Holy Cross College, Catholic University. He’s got the Catholic bona fides. In Georgetown, he finally found a place to be Catholic and gay after the Jesuits “decided that the LGBTQIA communities were very marginalized, that our spiritual needs weren’t being met, and that they were going to make a special effort on this.”
The parishioners are all deeply Catholic and found a place at Holy Trinity — and nearly everyone I spoke with said this explicitly — where they can be fully themselves.
“It may be difficult to be queer in Catholic spaces,” said Cerissa Cafasso, 40. “But it can also be a challenge to be Catholic in progressive spaces.”
She’s a lawyer and bisexual and never gave up on practicing Catholicism, but wasn’t totally comfortable until she came to Holy Trinity. “I can be myself, my full person, with no throat clearing.”
During the Mass, the faint sound of drums and bagpipes could be heard coming in from outside between the hymn’s verses.
The protesters were with an ultraconservative group based in Pennsylvania called America Needs Fatima. They organize Rosary Rallies around events that frighten them, like Pride parades and church services that openly embrace marginalized communities.
Less than two dozen of them did all this on Wednesday, trying to disrupt the third-annual Pride Mass at President Biden’s church, something they ignored the past two years (which coincidently wasn’t close to an election).
They achieved little, beyond surprising the neighbors.
“Seriously? That’s so sad,” said a 19-year-old Georgetown University student who was shocked to see the protest on her street. “And it’s weird this is happening today.”
Really weird. Especially right after Pride Fest on Sunday where sponsorship tables included Washington Gas, Wegmans, the U.S. Census, Lockheed-Martin and the CIA, among others. These entities — and hundreds more — recognize that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, intersex or asexual is normal, boring even.
The backlash is fueled by folks who had little to say about Pride a year ago, but are now reacting to grievances and fears being broadcast by conservatives, by an unprecedented raft of anti-LGBTQ legislation sweeping statehouses. It’s so profound, the Human Rights Campaign issued its first-ever “state of emergency for LGBTQ+ Americans.”
“It’s ridiculous,” said a gay man who traveled about five hours to walk up those steps of Holy Trinity, to sit in a pew and to — finally — exhale.
He’s in his 30s, lives in a conservative town in Pennsylvania, works at very conservative organization and is only out to his family. He asked me several times to preserve his anonymity in our interview.
Deeply Catholic, he kept trying to go to church, knowing what he knows about himself, about what those in the pews next to him think of him. “I wouldn’t feel welcome,” he said.
Ever since he accidentally found Holy Trinity’s online Mass during the pandemic (he said his mouse bumped a tab and opened the link, he called it a “God sighting”) he’s been attending their services, online, then in person, making that drive. Five hours each way, as often as he can.
His mom came with him on Wednesday, and they knelt together.
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