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Gay Catholic families plan pilgrimage to see pope

From right, Marianne Duddy-Burke and her wife, Becky, at their Hyde Park home with their daughters Emily and Infinity.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Marcia Garber knows what she would say to Pope Francis if she could talk with him during his first trip to the United States later this month.

Garber, an observant Catholic whose second child was designated female at birth but always felt like a boy, would like to know what Francis would have done if he had been in her shoes.

“How does he expect a parent to behave when your child’s gender doesn’t fit?” said Garber, who lives in Manchester, N.H. “We couldn’t say to our child, who was in so much distress, ‘Well, this is your cross for you to bear for your life.’ ”


The papal visit feels like a moment of possibility to Catholics concerned about the church’s relationship with gay and transgender people.

Francis has emphasized compassion and outreach to the marginalized, and he has made unprecedented gestures of welcome to gay Catholics. But he has not changed church doctrine, which teaches that gay people should be treated with compassion, but that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.”

The pope’s scheduled appearance at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia on Sept. 26 and 27, following stops in Washington, D.C., and New York, comes days before a crucial gathering of church officials in Rome to discuss Catholic family issues, including the church’s treatment of gay people.

Advocates for gay and transgender Catholics have asked to meet with Francis during his visit to the United States. The Vatican has not responded, said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, an advocacy group for gay and transgender Catholics.

Marcia Garber's transgender son CJ, seen here in a graduation photo, died of an accidental drug overdose in 2009.Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

In a formal letter to Francis in June, the advocates said the church’s teaching and pastoral practices “are causing an enormous pastoral crisis, as well as upholding systemic, institutionalized discrimination against LGBT people and our families.”

Catholic Churches in the United States vary widely in their treatment of gay couples. Some gay people feel at home in their parishes, others have been alienated by homilies against gay marriage, or a priest’s refusal to baptize their children. Some Catholic schools have fired or refused to hire married gay employees or even, in a few cases, turned away kids with gay parents.


The church appears unlikely to change its opposition to same-sex marriage. But advocates think even a clear statement of support for gay and transgender people from the pope during his trip to the United States could prove meaningful.

If Francis declared that gay people “need to be treated with utmost respect for their human rights and dignity,” it could have an enormous impact both within the church and beyond it, said Duddy-Burke.

Garber and Duddy-Burke — who lives in Hyde Park with her wife, Becky, and their daughters Emily, 13, and Fini, 12 — are among a small group of pilgrims expected to attend the World Meeting of Families on behalf of Equally Blessed, a coalition of Catholic organizations seeking equality for gay and transgender people.

Last month, Equally Blessed was evicted from the Catholic parish where it had planned to hold educational and outreach events to supplement the World Meeting’s programming, whose only talk on gay family life features a celibate gay man and his mother, Duddy-Burke said. The group moved its home base to a nearby Methodist church.

Duddy-Burke said the archdiocese did not want the events held on church property. Church officials told the website Crux, which is owned by Boston Globe Media Partners, that the decision was the pastor’s.


Francis’s more welcoming tone toward gay and transgender people emerged early in his papacy. When asked about gay priests in 2013, the pope’s response shocked the world: “Who am I to judge?”

The pope has also spoken directly with gay and transgender people. In January, a transgender man from Spain said he met with the pope, and in March, Francis had lunch with prisoners in Naples, including some who were gay and transgender.

But the pontiff has suggested that same-sex marriage threatens traditional families and has said that children should have heterosexual parents. The Vatican recently affirmed a Spanish bishop’s decision barring a transgender man from being a godfather.

And in his June encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, Francis spoke about the importance of accepting one’s body as a gift from God.

He wrote that “thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation.”

For Garber, Francis’s papacy has been “kind of like a roller coaster.” She said she is going to Philadelphia mainly to honor her transgender son, CJ, who died in 2009 from what Garber believes was an accidental heroin overdose at age 20.

Garber, a nurse, is a lifelong Catholic. She and her husband, Ken, a firefighter, raised their two children in the church. They wanted them to have a sense of “something bigger than themselves,” and to be connected to a loving, supportive community.


But for their second child, who they named Kristen, church was as uncomfortable as everywhere else. At the end of eighth grade, following years of trouble at school, bullying, and social struggles, Kristen and her family realized Kristen was experiencing gender dysphoria, a sense that one’s gender does not match one’s physical sex characteristics.

One Sunday a few years later, their parish priest preached in support of banning gay marriage in Massachusetts, and another parishioner invited Garber, who had become a public advocate for gay marriage during her efforts to help her child, to sign a petition for the ban.

“That just blew me away, it was so hurtful,” she said.

They joined Dignity/Boston, a small gay-friendly Catholic congregation that now worships at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the South End.

Kristen, meanwhile, had begun a process of gender transition. By the time he entered Lasell College in Newton in 2007, Christopher John, or CJ, had two gender reassignment surgeries.

But he dropped out in March of his freshman year. A month later, he survived a heroin overdose. Despite treatment, he fatally overdosed the following January.

Garber, who lost her husband to cancer in 2013, has continued advocating for transgender rights in Massachusetts. She has held fast to her congregation, and to her faith in God.

Marcia Garber is traveling to Philadelphia later this month with a group of gay Catholics and their families to attend the World Meeting of the Families.Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

She would like to tell Francis what she thinks: That God’s gift to each person is the self in its entirety. Not just the body and its sexual characteristics, but the individual’s thoughts, feelings, and self-understanding as well.


“To deny what goes on in your brain, and not to connect your brain to your heart and your gut as to who you are as a total person is not to embrace who God made you to be,” she said.

For Duddy-Burke, Equally Blessed’s eviction from the Philadelphia parish was another moment of searing disappointment in church leaders.

As a student at Wellesley College, she led the Catholic student group until its priest adviser cast her out her because she was a lesbian. She joined Dignity/Boston, where she eventually met Becky, her future wife — a convert to Catholicism who, inspired by the order’s commitment to social justice, had spent nine years as a Sister of Mercy, but was in the process of leaving the order because she no longer wished to remain celibate.

When they tried to adopt children, Catholic Charities rejected them. The church-run nonprofit later stopped handling adoptions rather than abide by state laws requiring equal treatment of gay couples.

Duddy-Burke said the Equally Blessed pilgrimsplan to attend the World Meeting sessions and share their stories with others. But they also want to listen.

That, she said, is the point of a pilgrimage.

“You just go, open to whatever happens,” she said, “trusting that there is some grace in the journey.”

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at