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"Maybe one day people will say, he was also gay, and look at all the good that he did."

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A float in memory of the Rev. Mychal Judge, St. Patrick's Day Parade, Chicago, March 16, 2002. M. Spencer Green

A Little Irish Irony

by Ana Simo

MARCH 28, 2002. A gay priest was the Grand Marshal of this year's St. Patrick's Day parade in Chicago.

The President of the United States, the Governor of Illinois, the Mayor of Chicago and 275,000 people along the parade route paid tribute on March 16 to Father Mychal Judge, the beloved, and gay, New York Fire Department chaplain killed in the line of duty on 9/11, during a rescue mission at the crumbling World Trade Center.

Meanwhile, in Father Judge's hometown, lesbians and gays once again cooled their heels on the sidelines of the country's biggest St. Patrick's Day parade, which continues to exclude them, and only them. One group of gay protesters held placards of 9/11 lesbian and gay heroes and victims. Another, more defiant, waved black flags.

"It's a wonderful thing that Mychal Judge was honored in the Chicago parade, because maybe one day people will say, he was also gay, and look at all the good that he did," said New York activist Brendan Fay, who is Irish, Catholic and gay.

But he cautioned: "There's a little Irish irony in this. You may find the Chicago parade does not welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people."

Not so, according to Chicago parade coordinator James Sullivan. "We don't ban anyone," he said. "We don't discriminate. This is Chicago. We have nothing to do with New York."

Asked if any gay Irish group had marched in this year's parade, Mr. Sullivan, who has coordinated the event for the past four years and is also Secretary-Treasurer of the Chicago Plumber's Union Local 130 (AFL-CIO), said: "None has ever tried to get into the parade. Except for a group, several years ago. They marched. They did not come back. I can't remember their name, I wasn't parade coordinator at that time."

The group in question was Queer Nation-Chicago, which marched in the parade for three consecutive years (1992-1994) until the group dissolved. "We had no problem whatsoever with the parade organizers," said Queer Nation activist John Pennycuff.

There was, however, a little Irish irony in Chicago, after all. Mr. Sullivan said he hadn't known that Father Judge was gay when the parade committee chose him as Grand Marshal at the suggestion of committee Chairman and Local 130 Business Manager Gerald M. Sullivan (no relation). He said he found out later.

So, how does he feel now about a gay man heading the Chicago parade? "We don't care. That's not why he was chosen. The lifestyle he may or may not have had had nothing to do with it. He was honored because of his work as Chaplain of the NYFD, and for his role in 9/11."

Don't ask, don't tell. But if they tell you, don't acknowledge.

Father Judge was honored in Chicago because gayness, unlike race or gender, can be hidden or, if worse comes to worse and the truth comes out, banalized as "lifestyle" and peeled off a person's core humanity — which some still assert is resolutely heterosexual. It's safe to assume that not too many among the 275,000 Chicago parade spectators or the 50,000 marchers knew that Father Judge, paradigm of 9/11 heroes and martyrs, was a gay man.

Father Judge, by all accounts a master at the art of the selective coming out, himself paved the way for this kind of equivocation.

He was out to the New York Fire Commissioner, but not to the firefighters he ministered to. He was also out to many gay New Yorkers, people like Brendan Fay, New York State senator Tom Duane, and members of Dignity, the gay Catholic group.

He helped Dignity's AIDS ministry find a provisional home at St. Francis of Assisi Church, and, in 2000, marched in the gay-inclusive St. Patrick's Day Parade in the New York borough of Queens. Father Judge must also have told many of his Franciscan brothers that he was gay, although it's now hard to find any who would acknowledge having known. Everyone says they found out when the dead priest made the cover of New York magazine back in November.

A profile of Father Judge posted in the Chicago parade website does not mention that he was gay, or even that he ministered to lesbian and gay Catholics. Co-authors John Bookser Feister and John Zawadzinski said they didn't know about it when they wrote the piece, originally published in the December 2001 issue of the Catholic magazine St. Anthony Messenger (circulation: 350,000), which Feister edits. The magazine is owned by a large, Cincinnati-based Franciscan publishing conglomerate.

"Of course they knew," Brendan Fay said. "It was known. Within days or weeks, shortly after he died, it was reported in the media that Mychal Judge was gay and ministered to lesbian and gay people. All over the world. Even in Ireland."

Feister, however, explained: "I was unaware of these facts when I wrote the article. We're here in Cincinnati. I had to rely on what people in New York City told me."

Asked about the article's omissions, co-author Zawadzinski, who is public relations director for the New York City Franciscan Friars, works at the friary on 31st Street where Judge lived, and had known the priest for four years, first claimed no prior knowledge about the gay thing, then said: "I chose not to put it there. I chose not to get into these political issues. I chose to focus on his main ministries."

One of the people Feister interviewed for his piece was the Philadelphia-based Father Michael Duffy, a lifelong friend of Father Judge (the two Franciscan priests were so close that they even went away together on vacation). Father Duffy gave the homily for Judge at a funeral mass in St. Francis of Assisi Church, on September 15, in the presence of New York's Cardinal Egan, former President Clinton and an estimated 2,800 mourners — again, with not a single word about Judge's gay identity or his ministry to lesbian and gay people.

"I wish Duffy had told me about this," said Feister. "I wrote him a letter asking him why he hadn't told me, but he didn't answer," he added with a chuckle.

After the Judge article was published, Feister received many letters protesting the omission of the gay issues. "Some people were very upset, angry," he said. One reader, Brian Moore, from Bridgeport, New Jersey, accused the authors of being "destructive and deceitful" and of keeping Father Judge "in a closet even after his death."

Feister responded by denying that there had been any attempt to "'whitewash' the story," blaming his shocked, bereaved sources for not volunteering the facts, and comparing being gay to being a recovering alcoholic (which Judge also was, according to New York magazine). "It is no sin to be gay and it is no sin to be alcoholic and I for one would have had no problem sharing that with our readers," Feister concluded.

Had Feister known, however, it would have "raised ethical issues" for him about "how would Father Mychal want to be remembered in Franciscan or Catholic circles." Judge, he said, was "very selective in whom he shared this information with. His supervisor knew about it, but not his co-workers. He was private about it."

Feister criticized the "secular media" for giving short thrift to the religious side of Judge's life and putting too much emphasis on the gay issue. "That's all the articles seemed to focus on. They covered one aspect of his life. We covered another — his religious side. It'd been nice if someone had done both," he said.

Brendan Fay, though, believes that the posthumous closeting of Father Mychal is actually part of a larger problem: the Church's "denial to recognize the contribution of lesbian and gay people within it, including lay people. There are barriers of shame and discrimination."

Breaking-Ground for Gays in Catholic Church

Labor's Queer Irish Troubles

Related links:

For the Chicago St. Patrick's Day Parade website.

For "The Firemen's Friar," Jennifer Senior's profile of Mychal Judge in New York magazine, Nov. 12, 2001.

For "No Greater Love: Chaplain Mychal Judge, O.F.M." by John Bookser Feister and John Zawadzinski in St. Anthony's Messenger, Dec. 2001.

For Dignity-USA, the gay Catholic group.

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

For Complete Coverage New York City

Gay Mundo
gay pride The Gully's ultragay coverage. Includes musings on activism, info on queers from Puerto Rico to Taiwan and more.


9/11 and Aftermath
Guide to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on NYC and DC. Includes info on Afghanistan and the Taliban.

New York City
News, opinion, and weekly headline review of New York City.

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