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Legions march in Rome

NCR Staff

For New Yorker John-Michael Savoca, a 25-year veteran of the gay rights movement, there was something about the World Pride 2000 march in Rome that distinguished it from other demonstrations and rallies he’s joined over the years.

“This was not just about gay pride,” Savoca said. “This was about being gay, Catholic and proud. It was, for me, a form of spiritual coming out.”

That interpretation of the event was not shared in the Vatican. Less than 24 hours after the march ended, John Paul II used his regular Sunday address to call World Pride an “insult” to Rome and the church’s Jubilee Year.

Savoca, 51, and his partner Boyce Brawley, 55, members of St. Francis Xavier Parish in New York, were among the estimated 200,000 people who marched to the Coliseum Saturday, July 9, in support of gay rights and in defiance of church officials who tried to have the event cancelled.

For all of Rome’s “been there, done that” urbanity, it’s doubtful that the Eternal City has ever witnessed anything like the march.

Along the route were the flamboyant touches familiar from other gay pride events - men dressed up as women, men and women hardly dressed at all and enough spiked collars, leather and bizarre mascara to cast a remake of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” For observers with links to the Vatican, there were a few special twists: a Swiss man sporting a Roman collar and ultra-tight shorts, an Italian wearing a bishop’s miter with the message “God loves me, too.” In a country notorious for its reluctance to discuss homosexuality in public, the sights and sounds of gay pride, even at their most tame, were decidedly novel.

Despite such eccentricities, most marchers looked like ordinary citizens, and long-feared confrontations failed to materialize. At St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican had put in special security measures, fearing an invasion of gays looking for bizarre photo-ops under the pope’s nose. That scenario went unrealized, as did some church officials’ warnings that there would be public copulation on Roman streets.

The Forza Nuova, a far-right party that had vowed resistance, stayed home at the last minute when the founder’s daughter died of cystic fibrosis. Busloads of Polish pilgrims in Rome for a national celebration kept their distance, too.

Despite multiple attempts by the Vatican to impede the event - most recently, by barring French Bishop Jacques Gaillot from addressing one of its sessions (NCR, July 14) - there was remarkably little anti-Catholic display. Even specifically religious messages generally had positive twists: “God is gay,” for example, and “Christ is with us.”

Some of the hostility may have been blunted by the few Catholic figures who opted to take part. The march was led, for example, by an Italian Catholic priest, Fr. Vitaliano Della Sala, who told the group: “I’m not the pope but I’m here!”

Savoca and Brawley, whose activism reaches all the way back to the first stirrings of the modern gay rights movement in the 1969 Stonewall protests in New York, sensed something unspoken at work. The crowd in Rome was “overwhelmingly Catholic,” Savoca said, and hence the gathering had a “consciousness-raising purpose” for the church. “People were standing up and being counted because they want the Vatican to recognize them, to look and see what’s going on,” Brawley said. “There are so many Catholic families with gay and lesbian children. Does the church really want them to live in ghettoes? People just can’t believe that.”

Savoca said he and Brawley were inspired to take part in World Pride by the case of Salvatorian Fr. Robert Nugent and School Sister of Notre Dame Jeannine Gramick, barred by the Vatican from ministry with gays and then silenced to prevent them from discussing their situation.

“This is something I’ve encountered all my life as a gay Catholic,” he said, “The message always is push it in, keep quiet about it. At World Pride we stepped out of that closet.”

Other marchers echoed the sentiment. “I’m here because I think it’s important as an Irishman to be here, to stop the church from oppressing people as they do in Ireland,” said Dublin’s Tom Duncan.

Duncan said he was sure most Catholics don’t buy the official line: “Most Irish Catholics get on with their lives and let people get on with their lives. They’ve got lesbians and gays as brothers and sisters. They know gay people. They want the church to be more tolerant, and that’s what this day is about.”

David Felix of San Francisco said he came to Rome because he found Vatican criticism of the event “very unchristian and disappointing.”

Karen Langela of Berlin said, “Because of the church’s reaction, it’s even more important that we are here, that we say we exist, that we have the same equal rights as everybody else.”

Frank DeBernardo of the Washington-based New Ways Ministry, the outreach program for Catholic gays and lesbians founded by Nugent and Gramick, called the week’s events “the beginning of a world pride movement.”

“I hope the Vatican doesn’t make the same mistakes it has with the national pride movements, showing the same unwillingness to dialogue,” DeBernardo said.

Just 24 hours later, Pope John Paul II signaled his distaste in an unusually direct swipe at World Pride.

“In the name of the church of Rome, I cannot avoid expressing bitterness for the insult to the Grand Jubilee of the year 2000 this event created, and to the Christian values of a city that is much beloved in the heart of Catholics throughout the world,” John Paul said. “The church cannot be silent about the truth, because it would be unfaithful to the creator God and it would not help to discern what is morally fitting from what is evil.”

The pope then quoted from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which, while calling for respect for gays and opposing discrimination, asserts that homosexuality is “contrary to natural law” and “intrinsically disordered.”

Savoca expressed incredulity at the Vatican stance.

“Boyce and I have been together for 25 years in a relationship the church would have to rate, by any scale of married life, as nearly flawless. We have raised not our own biological children, but children of our extended families, who have grown up to be well-developed adults, proud of us and of themselves. We have been the major force in pulling our two extended families together in this one giant family,” he said.

“How is that anti-family? How is that disordered?” he asked.

National Catholic Reporter, July 28, 2000