Early in 1969, Father Patrick X. Nidorf, an Augustinian priest and psychologist in San Diego, began a ministry for gay and lesbian Roman Catholics as an extension of his professional work. He chose the name "Dignity" to stress his basic goal: to bring dignity into the spiritual and social lives of gay and lesbian Catholics. Word of Nidorf's ministry spread, first by word of mouth, then through advertisements Nidorf placed in the Los Angeles Free Press and (beginning in January 1970) the Advocate. To guard against the possibility of religious fanatics or homophobes disrupting or dominating meetings, Nidorf required the return of a completed application form, and, when in doubt, a personal interview. The monthly gatherings were open only to individuals over 21 years of age, with a membership card issued by Nidorf; annual dues were $5. Nidorf also issued a simple monthly newsletter.
Although the early meetings alternated between San Diego and Los Angeles, Nidorf soon moved all meetings to Los Angeles, where the great majority of participants lived. In May 1970, Nidorf asked Bob Fournier to draw up a constitution-known as the Statement of Position and Purpose-for Dignity, and in June appointed him first General Chairman of the organization. In September, Dignity held its first meeting on church property, in the basement auditorium of St. Brendan's parish in Los Angeles.
The membership became increasingly active and early in 1971, against Nidorf's advice, sought recognition from the diocese of Los Angeles. However, coadjutor archbishop Timothy Manning found Dignity's principles "untenable", and ordered Nidorf to cease his activities with the group. Nidorf therefore resigned, and the leadership of Dignity passed permanently into lay hands. Despite Nidorf's resignation, interest in Dignity continued to grow, and to spread across the country: in November 1971, Dignity/Louisville became the first chapter of Dignity outside Southern California. In February 1972, Dignity held its first annual meeting, electing Joe Killian (known in Dignity as Joe Gilgamesh) president. The organization at the time had 198 members, including 25 priests, four brothers, and two seminarians; 108 members lived in the Los Angeles area, the others in twenty states and the District of Columbia, as well as seven foreign countries. In March 1972, Dignity/Los Angeles (which separated from San Diego and became a separate chapter in the fall of that year) began meeting at the Los Angeles Community College Newman Center. Later in 1972, Gilgamesh formed the Administrative Services Group (ASG) to oversee all aspects of Dignity outside of Los Angeles. Pat Allen was made responsible for overseeing all chapters outside of the Los Angeles area. In September and October Gilgamesh and Allen toured the East Coast in support of Dignity, and by the end of the year the organization had ten chapters, in Long Beach, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Louisville, Chicago, Washington, DC, New York, and Boston. In 1973, Dignity held its first Biennial Convention in Los Angeles.
Dignity allied itself with clergy and working with the gay and lesbian community, including Sister Jeannine Gramick, and Fathers John McNeill, SJ, Eugene Boyle, and Charles Curran, and with the Salvatorian Order's Gay Ministry Task Force. It also received support from the National Federation of Priests Councils and the National Assembly of Religious Brothers. In 1975, Dignity published Father Robert Nugent's Homosexuality: A Worksheet for Catholics , and Homosexual Catholics: A Primer for Discussion , by Sister Jeannine Gramick and Fathers Robert Nugent and Tom Oddo. In October 1976, Dignity was an official participant in the "Call to Action" U.S. Bishops' Conference, intended to formulate a five-year plan of social action for the nation's bishops. The conference's resolutions that the church actively seek to serve the pastoral needs of homosexuals and that it fight, in society and within its own structures, discrimination based on sexual orientation, were presented to the National Conference of Bishops the following year. In July 1977, in response to the defeat of a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida, Dignity joined with the Metropolitan Community Church, the National Gay Task Force, and the Gay Rights National Lobby, in sponsoring a National Gay leadership Conference in Denver. At the third Biennial Convention held in Chicago in September 1977, Dignity adopted the structure it retains today: a Board of Directors and House of Delegates, with chapters grouped into regions. As the House of Delegates intended that Dignity eventually be a national organization comprised solely of chapters within the United States, the Canadian chapters that constituted Region XI later formed Dignity/Canada/Dignit? as a separate organization. Also in 1977, Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent founded new Ways Ministry, a ministry of Reconciliation and Social Justice for Catholic gays and lesbians.
In 1978, in response to Proposition 6, a proposal spearheaded by California State Senator John Briggs to bar homosexuals from teaching in California public schools, Jim Highland, Sister Eileen DeLong and Father Jim Fleck formed Catholics for Human Dignity, the first state-registered political lobby of Catholics advocating human rights for gay people. This group was decisive in helping defeat Proposition 6. Dignity continued to be involved in human right campaigns to benefit the gay community. In 1979, over 350 members of Dignity from 27 chapters participated in the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. That same year Dignity president Frank Scheuren, along with the Rev. Troy Perry and representatives of the National Gay Task Force and Gay Rights National Lobby presented nationwide petitions for Gay Rights legislation to President Jimmy Carter's representatives at the White House. In 1980, in tacit recognition of the importance of its work in the political sphere, Dignity opened a permanent national office in Washington, DC.
Although conservative members of the church hierarchy in the United States had always opposed Dignity and its work, a few prominent bishops, including Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle, were supportive, and since its foundation Dignity had been able to engage the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in an ongoing dialog concerning gays and lesbians and the church. The Vatican, however, was opposed to any ministry to the gay and lesbian community, and as early as 1976 withdrew the imprimi potest for Father John McNeill's The Church and the Homosexual, and later forbade him to write or speak on the issue of homosexuality "in any of its aspects". In October 1986, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, defining homosexuality as "an objective disorder" and banning groups that do not agree with church teachings from using church facilities. As a consequence, Dignity chapters were not permitted to hold meetings or celebrate mass on church property; the first eviction of a chapter took place in December. At the same time, the Jesuit Order instructed Father John McNeill to give up all public ministry to gays and lesbians or be expelled from the Order; McNeill refused to comply. In response, Dignity/USA placed a full-page advertisement in the April 27, 1987, issue of Newsweek magazine, the first full-page, full-circulation advertisement purchased by a national gay/lesbian organization. Dignity issued its own Letter on Pastoral Care of Gay and Lesbian Persons, outlining a positive approach to a variety of justice, sexual, and ministry issues affecting gays and lesbians and their families, at the organization's eighth Biennial Convention in Miami in July of that year. Dignity's Task Force on Sexual Ethics, instituted in 1984, issued its report, Sexual Ethics: Experience, Growth, Challenge, in 1989.
Dignity has continued to play an active role in the movement for gay and lesbian civil rights, sending one of the largest organizational contingents to the 1993 March on Washington, and participating in the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force's National Policy Round Table in 1998. It vigorously opposed the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's Some Considerations Concerning the Catholic Response to Legislative Proposals on the Non-Discrimination of Homosexual Persons (1992), which urged bishops to oppose gay and lesbian civil rights laws in such instances as child adoptions, employment of teachers, and military recruitment, as well as the Vatican's Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons (2003), instructing Catholic politicians and the public to oppose legal protections for same-sex couples. On the other hand, despite its frequent disagreements with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Dignity supported the Conference's Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to the Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers (1997).
Jim Highland. Dignity; a brief history, 1969-1981. 1981.
Highlights of DignityUSA's History, 1969-present, http://www.dignityusa.org/archives.history.html, (last accessed June 20, 2007)