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Bishop fires beloved Gay teacher offers severance with a big catch

Even loving Catholics who abhor their Church’s persecution of LGBTQ people often shrug their shoulders. What can we do, they ask

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Author’s note: I promise you this story is not boring, even though the Roman Catholic witch-hunt against gay staff has become so ordinary that people almost don’t get outraged about it anymore. Even loving Catholics who abhor their Church’s persecution of LGBTQ people often shrug their shoulders. What can we do, they ask. That’s an excellent question Matthew LaBanca wants you to consider. As a member of a large Irish Catholic clan, I ask the same. Will you listen?

By James Finn | DETROIT – I learned about it this morning from Prism & Pen writer John Cormier, who once performed with Matthew in a national tour of the Broadway musical Crazy for You. Matthew is a professional actor/singer who has played principal roles on Broadway, has sung with the Metropolitan Opera, the NY Philharmonic, and who practiced enough to make it to Carnegie Hall. An album he sang in won a Grammy.

Matthew paid a steep price to bring you this question — But this story isn’t about Matthew’s professional accomplishments. It’s about he loves teaching and directing music, which is how earned his living until a couple weeks ago.

Then the Bishop of Brooklyn fired him from his teaching job at St. Joseph Catholic Academy, despite the school principal fighting to keep him. The bishop simultaneously firing him as Corpus Christi Parish music director, despite the pastor fighting to keep him. Matthew lost his only income and his health care — because and only because he’s gay. He grieves the loss of his communities, people who have been family to him for years, who love him and want him back.

In his own words:

But maybe this story is mostly about Matthew turning down severance pay he badly needs — so he could be free to tell his Church family what the Church did to him. You can click on the video above to hear the whole story in Matthew’s own words. Let me please focus on the Church’s effort to gag him, to stop that video from ever getting made.

Bishop’s Nicholas DiMarzio’s gag order is the heart of this story

DiMarzio, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Brooklyn, the man who fired Matthew earlier this month, wouldn’t do the minimally decent thing and offer him severance pay with no strings attached. Instead, he dangled a final pay package on the condition that Matthew promise never to tell anyone why the diocese fired him.

Matthew refused to sign, saying he loves his communities too much to accept the bishop’s hush money:

I was offered a severance package with a gag order that was almost ten pages long, which is a lot of ways to say, ‘Shut up, don’t talk about this.’ Obviously, I have not signed it, because I realized that no price could be placed on my personal integrity.

Matthew says is motivated by love, that he misses his church family and needs them to know what happened. He can’t be with them anymore because of the depths of Bishop DiMarzio’s hatred of gay people, but asks them not to forget him, reminding them he is still their neighbor:

I love you all so much. I miss you. I’ve been missing you… Of course I’m still your neighbor, and I hope that I’ll be seeing you, and I hope that when you see me you’ll offer a wave or a smile or a gesture of support. You will always be in my hearts.

Matthew reminds me of Terry Gonda, a lesbian who lost her retirement last year in a witch-hunt that’s picking up steam

Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron, who urges gay conversion therapy on his flock despite conclusive evidence it is ineffective and harmful, fired Terry last summer after she had served three decades as musical director and openly gay woman. The archbishop fired her shortly before she would have become eligible for a pension she could have retired on with dignity. When Terry’s bishop discovered she had married her partner, he got rid of her almost at once, just like Matthew’s bishop.

Like Matthew, Terry mourns her communities, bereft and grievously financially harmed. As in Matthew’s case, her parish pastor fought to keep her, fought to protect her retirement, but Vigneron acted with what can only be described as cruel depravity, ironic given Church hierarchy insist on formally teaching that we gay people commit “acts of grave depravity” by loving one another.

Terry and Matthew are far from alone as witch-hunt targets

Mainstream journalists have been reporting for years on a Church purge of gay staff that began with legal same-sex marriage and intensified when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. Since then, bishops have used evidence of those marriages to fire LGBTQ people who have been beloved Church employees for years, even decades, people the Church had tolerated or enthusiastically accepted while they were living in unmarried but intimate sexual unions the Church knew all about all along.

Bishops seldom show mercy, rarely act with humanity or decency. Astonishingly, men like Archbishop Charles C. Thompson of Indianapolis deny they’re engaged in witch-hunts, even while Catholic journalists present evidence they are issuing orders to fire all openly gay staff.

Bishops don’t just deny the witch-hunt, they use power to silence truth

Infamously, Archbishop Thompson’s diocese threatened to expel high school senior Dominic Conover weeks before graduation if he did not stop speaking up in defense of his fired gay guidance counselor. Unlike Matthew, Dominic briefly knuckled under. He says the threatened destruction of his college career was too serious to ignore. Who could blame him? He canceled media appearances and stopped writing publicly until he had his sheepskin in hand. Then he went live again with a vengeance, letting Thompson have it with both barrels while telling the nation how the bishop succeeded for a while in gagging him.

The same diocese fired straight school social worker Kelley Fisher for speaking up in defense of her fired LGBTQ school colleagues. She wouldn’t be silent either, so the bishop got rid of her almost immediately. He sent a powerful message that he would fire any staff member, gay or straight, who spoke up against the witch-hunt he denies to this day is actually happening. It is happening, though, all over the United States as the Church regresses, as leaders dig their heels in and rain down hate on innocent, decent, loving people like Dominic, Terry, and Matthew.

So what can we do about the witch-hunt? That’s the question, isn’t it?

Catholic lay people in the U.S. (like in the U.K., Ireland, Canada, and most of the E.U.) are some of the most LGBTQ-affirming people on the globe. The fact that Matthew’s principal and pastor didn’t want him fired isn’t strange, it’s ordinary. If you want friends who support trans and gay rights, look for Catholic lay people. Studies consistently show that U.S. Catholics are slightly MORE LIKELY than the general public to support equality and oppose discrimination.

My Catholic family tell me that’s because the Catholic values they love (the Jesus they emulate) demand love and acceptance. They say their Catholic Christian upbringing forms them to reject the kind of hate that strips a woman of her pension because she’s a lesbian, that forces a high school kid to stop defending his counselor, that deprives a man like Matthew of his communities.

Real power is in the purse

My cousin is a loving mother and Catholic high school social worker who has answered the question her own way. She will no longer contribute money to her parish or to any Catholic charity. She will not leave the Church she loves, but she will no longer help pay the salaries of powerful men whose values she abhors. She sent her pastor and her bishop letters to that effect. She wants them to know why she is resisting their un-Christian behavior. She says her resistance would mean far less if they didn’t know.

She received no response from her bishop, and nothing but a cold shoulder from her pastor, but she says when she lets the collection basket pass by, she knows she is doing what she must do.

What will you do? How will you answer hate and the persecution of innocent people like Matthew? Will you act? Or will your inaction allow evil to flourish?

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James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, a regular columnist for queer news outlets, and an “agented” but unpublished novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]

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The preceding article was previously published by Prism & Pen– Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling and is republished by permission.

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It doesn’t take a miracle

Hanukkah a time for LGBTQ Jews to celebrate full identity

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(Public domain photo)

For Jews around the world, Sunday night marked the beginning of Hanukkah. The story of Hanukkah celebrates the liberation of Jerusalem by the Maccabees, a small and poorly armed group of Jews who took on, and defeated, one of the world’s most powerful armies. 

Upon entering Jerusalem, the Maccabees saw that there was only enough oil to light the Temple’s eternal flame for one night. But the oil lasted eight nights — enough time for new oil to be prepared. The eternal flame remained lit, and light triumphed over darkness.

The story of Hanukkah was a miracle. While we celebrate and commemorate that miracle, we should also remember that it doesn’t take a miracle for one person to make a difference. 

The entire world is shaking beneath our feet. The climate is in crisis and our planet is in danger. A viral contagion has claimed the lives of millions, and there’s no clear end in sight. Creeping authoritarianism threatens the entire world, including here at home.

Sometimes it seems like it will take a miracle to solve even one of these problems. The reason these problems seem so overwhelming is because they are — no one person can fix it themselves.

Here in the LGBTQ community, we have made enormous strides, and we ought to be proud of them. But there is so much more work to be done.

Not everyone in our community is treated equally, and not everyone has the same access to opportunity. Black, brown and trans LGBTQ people face systemic and structural disadvantages and discrimination and are at increased risk of violence and suicide. It must stop.

These are big problems too, and the LGBTQ people as a collective can help make the changes we need so that light triumphs over darkness. But it doesn’t take a miracle for individuals to light the spark.

Our movement is being held back by the creeping and dangerous narrative that insists that we choose between our identities instead of embracing all of them. 

The presentation of this false choice has fallen especially hard on LGBTQ Jews, many of whom feel a genuine connection to and support for Israel. They feel marginalized when asked to sideline their identity by being told that the world’s only Jewish state shouldn’t even have a place on the map. And they feel attacked when asked about the Israeli government’s policies during a conflict, as if they have some obligation to condemn them and take a stand simply because of their faith.

One of the ways we can shine our light is to fight for an LGBTQ community that is truly inclusive.

This holiday season, pledge to celebrate all aspects of your identity and the rights of LGBTQ people to define their own identities and choose their own paths. If you feel the pressure to keep any part of your identity in the closet, stand up to it and refuse to choose. 

In the face of enormous challenges that require collective action, we must not give up on our power as individuals to do what’s right. It doesn’t take a miracle to do that.

The tradition of lighting the menorah each night represents ensuring the continuity of that eternal flame. One of the reasons the Hanukkah menorah is displayed prominently in the windows of homes and in public squares is because the light isn’t meant to be confined to the Jewish home. The light is for everyone — and a reminder that we can share it with the world every day to try to make it better.

As long as we keep fighting for justice, we don’t need to perform miracles. But we do need to do our part so that light triumphs over darkness.

It is up to each of us to map out what we can contribute to create a truly inclusive LGBTQ community. This holiday season, be the light. If you can, donate to a group that helps lift LGBTQ youth in crisis. Volunteer your time to fight for the rights and the lives of trans people. And be kind to one another.

Whether you are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or of no faith at all, take this opportunity to share your light with the world. It doesn’t take a miracle to do that.

Ethan Felson is the executive director of A Wider Bridge.

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Farewell to a Genius: a tribute to Sondheim

The genius of Sondheim is that he used the brilliant flame of his imagination to lead the way into a new world

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President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Stephen Sondheim Nov. 24, 2015 (White House photo by Pete Souza)

PALM SPRINGS – When I learned of the passing of Stephen Sondheim, I was playing a game.

Like so many of us nowadays, I spend more of my downtime than I care to admit mindlessly distracting myself by manipulating pixels on a handheld screen, so although I wish I could say it was the kind of brain-challenging, devilishly clever game of which of Sondheim himself was famously a fan, it most definitely was not.

Brainless as it may have been, this was what I was doing when the notification banner suddenly popped up. Short and to the point, it was a breaking news alert: “Stephen Sondheim, master craftsman who reinvented the musical, dies aged 91.”

At first, I went through the reflexive mental process of acknowledging that, although I felt a pang of sorrow, there was comfort in knowing he had lived a phenomenally lengthy life of success and accomplishment surely beyond his wildest dreams.

It was true that I loved Stephen Sondheim as much as it was possible to love any human being I had never actually met, but this was an inevitable event for which I had stoically prepared in advance. I couldn’t find it within myself to be sad.

It was shortly thereafter that I realized this was a loss I was going to feel for the rest of my life.

Like many little gay boys of my generation, I grew up being exposed to musical theatre through the old cast albums my parents owned. “My Fair Lady,” “Camelot,” “Cabaret” – the songs from these and so many more classic shows made up a big portion of the soundtrack to my childhood, fanning the flames of a lifelong love that continues to this day.

I was aware of Sondheim at the time – but I wasn’t impressed. Naturally, I loved “West Side Story” – already a movie buff, it was one of my favorite Hollywood classics – but I had no interest for shows like “Company,” “Follies,” or “A Little Night Music,” which were about boring grown-ups going through boring grown-up things and taking it all far too seriously.

It wasn’t until later, when I discovered “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” as a teen, that I was hooked. Here was all the over-the-top, period-costumed spectacle I adored about musical theatre wrapped up into a deliciously gruesome tale of people being slaughtered and served up as meat pies, and Angela Lansbury was the star. I couldn’t resist it, and as I listened for the first time to its dizzyingly complex songs, I finally “got” Sondheim.

Simultaneously, the old-fashioned favorites from my youth began to lose a little bit of their luster for me. Compared to this darkly beautiful masterpiece, in which somehow even the most reprehensible actions and characters were imbued with a comprehensible humanity, they seemed suddenly quaint and unsophisticated, relics of a world that was quickly fading away.

This was true, of course, for an entire generation. The genius of Sondheim is that he used the brilliant flame of his imagination to lead the way into a new world where musicals didn’t have to be brain candy, where they could make the kind of observations and revelations about the fathomless depths of human experience that had previously been the sole province of the so-called “legitimate” theatre.

But you don’t need me to tell you that: if you’ve read any of the countless obituaries and tributes published in the wake of his passing, you already know it, if you didn’t already.

In writing this tribute, it was suggested I might offer up a “thoroughly LA” take on the life of this icon – and since I normally write mostly about film and television, that certainly is fitting. I could point out that the boundary-pushing genius which helped Sondheim transform the Broadway musical was the very thing that made him a hard sell in Hollywood. His work was inherently theatrical, a delicate balance of razor-sharp reality and high concept conceit, and, to be fair, even the greatest of filmmakers would likely be challenged to capture the right blend on a screen.

“West Side” was a multi-Oscar-winning hit on film, but it was already a cultural sensation by the time it was made, and other early adaptations of his work (“Gypsy,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “A Little Night Music”) failed to make quite as big a splash. Later, high-profile screen versions were made of “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods” – but for devotees, despite their relative financial success, these were pale shadows of the master’s originals. Still, Sondheim made an impact on Hollywood in other ways; most memorably, he won an Oscar for writing “Sooner or Later” for Madonna to sing in “Dick Tracy.” He also contributed songs for movies like Warren Beatty’s “Reds,” and even co-wrote (with longtime friend Anthony Perkins) the twisted screenplay for “The Last of Sheila,” a wickedly inventive comedy-mystery from 1973 that has achieved cult status even outside the Sondheim fanbase.

But really, Sondheim was not of Hollywood, or of LA, or even of New York, though his sensibilities were a considerably better fit there. The truth, the insight, the intelligence, and the boundless curiosity about life that permeated all his works prove that he was beyond belonging to a particular place or time. 

Of course, die-hard Sondheim fans – and trust me, there are more of us than you think – need no proof that his was a universal voice. That’s why we are all so eager to talk about him, to drop quotes from his lyrics into as many conversations possible, and to tell you which Sondheim song is their favorite and why they think it’s the best of all.

And which is mine? I tend to fluctuate, depending on where I am at in my life at the time. It’s often tempting to count the devastating “Ladies Who Lunch,” an existential crisis set to music, at the top of the list. At other times it’s “Finishing the Hat,” a confessional lament about the emotional isolation of being an artist, or “I’m Still Here,” an oft-recorded celebration of show-biz survivors that’s been embraced by other kinds of survivors as well. Like a lot of us who were around in the 80s and 90s, I also feel a deep connection to “No One Is Alone,” the heartfelt ballad of comfort adopted as an anthem during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis.

Yet there’s one song I keep coming back to, over and over. “Someone in a Tree” was composed for “Pacific Overtures,” a show about the opening of Japan to Western commerce in the 19th century. In the song, concealed observers watch a treaty being negotiated behind closed doors, yet they can report no relevant information about what takes place in the meeting because they only see it from their limited viewpoints.

In lesser hands, the situation might be nothing more than fodder for an extended comedy of errors, but for Sondheim it becomes a springboard into a Zen-like meditation – “It’s the ripple, not the sea, that is happening” – about the importance of perspective.  It’s a breathtaking achievement, and at one point in his career the composer himself once cited it as his favorite among all his works. If I had to pick one, it would be mine, too.

That’s because perspective is probably the greatest gift of the many that Sondheim gave me: he opened my eyes to a world of infinite viewpoints, where even the most mundane or ridiculous or horrific or devastating moments can be seen as beautiful, and where every single human experience has meaning, if only you can find the right angle from which to look at it.

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John Paul King is the Los Angeles Blade’s Arts & Entertainment editor and featured A&E columnist

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Evangelical Christian groups flout the law – again

Christian Right groups promoting anti-LGBT practices in the US and abroad, despite bans, is nothing new: they’ve been doing it for decades

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Graphic design by Inge Snip via openDemocracy

By Chrissy Stroop | PORTLAND – In recent years, 40% of American states, along with more than 100 municipalities, have begun banning mental health professionals from providing so-called ‘conversion therapy’ to minors (defined in the United States as people under the age of 18).

The American Psychiatric Association, which first expressed its “strong opposition” to this harmful practice in 1998, reiterated its position in 2018 – at a time when anti-LGBTQ sentiments were flaring up amid a general right-wing backlash against democratic norms and civil rights gains. The American Psychological Association has also provided a helpful list of talking points in support of legislative efforts to ban ‘conversion therapy’.

Whether such bans are observed or enforced, however, is another matter.

Targeting minors

A new investigation by openDemocracy has revealed that one of the US’s most prominent anti-LGBTQ organisations, the Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, has continued to promote ‘conversion therapy’ to minors – even in areas where bans are in place. An undercover reporter posing as a 17-year-old “struggling with same-sex attraction” found Focus-affiliated therapists who were willing to “help” her “change” her sexual orientation in Virginia and Colorado, both states that ban ‘conversion therapy’ for minors.

In addition, openDemocracy discovered that Focus on the Family’s list of approved counsellors includes “dozens” of “licensed professionals who offer specific treatment for ‘homosexuality issues’, ‘gender identity issues’ or both” and “have children and adolescents as clients, including in states where ‘conversion therapy’ is banned”.

Practitioners seeking Focus’s imprimatur must have a “state mental health credential”, which means that the group is not only flouting state and local ‘conversion therapy’ bans, but also demanding that licensed therapists flout the established standards of their fields in favour of fundamentalist Christian ideology that treats queerness as “sin”.

Focus on the Family was founded in 1977 by Dr James Dobson, who believed corporal punishment was required of Christian parents, and who was far more influenced by eugenicist thinking than most evangelicals would prefer to admit. He soon established himself as a public figure, first as the conservative Christian disciplinarian answer to the nurturing style of parenting promoted by the likes of Dr Benjamin Spock, and then as a power broker in the increasingly authoritarian Republican Party.

The group has some unpleasant friends. The Family Research Council (FRC) – designated an anti-LGBTQ “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center – was integrated into Focus on the Family in 1988, as its advocacy arm. They officially split into separate organisations again in 1992 (in a move to protect Focus’s tax-exempt status as a religious non-profit), but Dobson remained on the FRC’s board.

Disregard for legal norms

Focus on the Family’s extreme anti-LGBTQ animus is, of course, not unique on the Christian Right – and neither is its disregard for legal norms. For example, Liberty University, a hardline evangelical institution founded by culture warrior extraordinaire Jerry Falwell, Sr., once penalised law students who argued in an exam that an “ex-lesbian” mother should obey court orders requiring parental visiting rights for her ex-wife. The reason the mother – who was, in fact, not so hypothetical – was supposed to engage in “civil disobedience” was to “protect” her child from exposure to “the homosexual lifestyle”.

As documented by an FBI affidavit, the real-life mother behind the exam question had actually kidnapped her child and fled the US for Nicaragua, where she was staying in the beach house of a Christian Right activist. Which leads to the issue of the US Christian Right’s international reach.

Evangelical missionaries have contributed to the rise of reactionary politics in Latin America, and they are also well known for disregarding laws put in place to protect uncontacted Indigenous peoples. So we should not be surprised that – on top of the new revelations about Focus’s disregard for ‘conversion therapy’ bans in the US, openDemocracy has identified mental health practitioners with links to Focus and Exodus Global Alliance (another US Christian conservative group) accused of providing ‘conversion therapy’ in Costa Rica.

Although ‘conversion therapy’ is not yet banned in Costa Rica, it does represent a pernicious export from the US Christian Right, whose influence in Latin America is both longstanding and harmful. Focus’s presence in the region, via its Enfoque a la Familia offices, dates back to 1985.

American evangelicals – white evangelicals, in particular – pursue an ends-justify-the-means approach to their faith

Having grown up in this type of dominionist Christianity, I can’t say I’m surprised by openDemocracy’s findings. At the same time, it is immensely important to document the ways in which American evangelicals – white evangelicals, in particular – pursue an ends-justify-the-means approach to their faith.

They exploit bad-faith ‘religious freedom’ arguments to push a theocratic (and de facto white supremacist) agenda, and evade the law (whether local, national or international) when it doesn’t give them free rein to dominate others. If there’s one thing that should be very clear after the 6 January insurrection against the US government – which was undoubtedly driven by the religious right – it’s that right-wing Christians are willing to give up even a plausible veneer of support for democracy in order to hold on to power.

They will wield that power to harm marginalised people, however and wherever they can, and it is well past time for us to begin holding them accountable.

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A prominent ex-evangelical writer, speaker, and advocate, Chrissy Stroop is (with Lauren O’Neal) coeditor of the essay anthology Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church. A senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches, her work has appeared in Dame Magazine, Foreign Policy, Playboy, Political Research Associates, and other outlets, including peer-reviewed academic journals.

Holding a Ph.D. in modern Russian history from Stanford University, Stroop is a Senior Research Associate with the University of Innsbruck’s Postsecular Conflicts project. In 2019 Chrissy came out as a transgender woman and began her journey of medical transition. She resides in Portland, Oregon.

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The preceding article was first published at openDemocracy and is republished by permission.

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