The Advocate's Person of the Year: Pope Francis

While 2013 will be remembered for the work of hundreds in advancing marriage equality, it will also be remembered for the example of one man.

BY Lucas Grindley

December 16 2013 2:23 PM ET


PERSON OF THE YEAR: POPE FRANCIS

When deciding who was the single most influential person of 2013 on the lives of LGBT people, there are obvious choices. At least, they seem so at first.

While Edie Windsor, for example, is among the list of finalists, she is not Person of the Year. Windsor is a hero to LGBT Americans for taking the final punch in the fight against the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, and section 3 is no more. When she stepped out from the Supreme Court hearing, applause erupted. At the Out 100 awards, where she was given an award for Lifetime Achievement, chants of "Edie! Edie!" greeted her on stage. On the magazine's November cover, she beamed while holding a white dove — a symbol.

But even Windsor herself is a powerful symbol for the many others behind the scenes. Also at the Supreme Court that day, for example, were the four plaintiffs in the related Proposition 8 case from California, and they should be lauded. Or, any of their lawyers. There's the straight team of David Boies and Ted Olson, who frequently became the public champions for marriage equality's advance through the justice system via television interviews and in news reports. Then there's attorney Roberta Kaplan, one of us, who eloquently refuted Chief Justice John Roberts when he suggested times have changed and LGBT people are no longer an oppressed minority.

It doesn't stop there. A handful of other cases could have gone to the Supreme Court this year and weren't chosen. There are plaintiffs and lawyers in all of those. They come from states ranging from Michigan to Massachusetts. Oftentimes backing the cases are the resources of LGBT rights organizations such as Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders or Lambda Legal, or more mainstream allies such as the American Civil Liberties Union. Hundreds of people work at those organizations and have been fighting the Defense of Marriage Act in court — for years. Take, for example, Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, which was first filed in 2009 and originally represented 19 people.

Edie Windsor is a hero, one well worth recording in history books that retell the story of DOMA's demise. But she is not the Person of the Year. She couldn't possibly be, not for The Advocate, where we celebrate the work of so many who contributed to that landmark Supreme Court victory.

When Windsor came in third for Time magazine's annual list of people of the year, she accepted graciously, as always. “I am honored that Time chose me," she wrote in a statement, "but I am just one person who was part of the extraordinary and on-going fight for marriage equality for all our families. There are thousands of people who helped us come this far and we still have a lot more work to do."

(RELATED: See the Nine Other Finalists for Person of the Year)

The most influential person of 2013 doesn't come from our ongoing legal conflict but instead from our spiritual one — successes from which are harder to define. There has not been any vote cast or ruling issued, and still a significant and unprecedented shift took place this year in how LGBT people are considered by one of the world's largest faith communities.

Pope Francis is leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics all over the world. There are three times as many Catholics in the world than there are citizens in the United States. Like it or not, what he says makes a difference. Sure, we all know Catholics who fudge on the religion's rules about morality. There's a lot of disagreement, about the role of women, about contraception, and more. But none of that should lead us to underestimate any pope's capacity for persuading hearts and minds in opening to LGBT people, and not only in the U.S. but globally.

The remaining holdouts for LGBT acceptance in religion, the ones who block progress in the work left to do, will more likely be persuaded by a figure they know. In the same way that President Obama transformed politics with his evolution on LGBT civil rights, a change from the pope could have a lasting effect on religion.

(RELATED: The Phobie Awards Picks the Worst People of 2013)

Pope Francis's stark change in rhetoric from his two predecessors — both who were at one time or another among The Advocate's annual Phobie Awards — makes what he's done in 2013 all the more daring. First there's Pope John Paul II, who gay rights activists protested during a highly publicized visit to the United States in 1987 because of what had become known as the “Rat Letter” — an unprecedented damning of homosexuality as “intrinsically evil.” It was written by one of his cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to become Pope Benedict XVI. Since 1978, one of those two men had commanded the influence of the Vatican — until this year.

When Time magazine named Pope Francis its Person of the Year last week, it rightly pointed out the Catholic Church's inability to move quickly, calling it "a place that measures change in terms of centuries." Pope Francis is still not pro-gay by today's standard. He started his term by issuing a joint encyclical in July with Benedict, in which they reiterate that marriage should be a “stable union of man and woman.” It continues, “This union is born of their love, as a sign and presence of God’s own love, and of the acknowledgement and acceptance of the goodness of sexual differentiation.”

As Argentina's archbishop, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio opposed marriage equality's eventual passage there, saying in 2010 that it's a  “destructive attack on God’s plan.” When Bergoglio became pope, GLAAD was quick to point out that he'd once called adoption by same-sex couples a form of discrimination against children.

But it's actually during Pope Francis's time as cardinal that his difference from Benedict and hard-liners in the church became apparent. As same-sex marriage looked on track to be legalized in Argentina, Bergoglio argued privately that the church should come out for civil unions as the "lesser of two evils." That's all according to Pope Francis's authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin. Argentine gay activist Marcelo Márquez backed up the story, telling The New York Times in March that Bergoglio "listened to my views with a great deal of respect. He told me that homosexuals need to have recognized rights and that he supported civil unions, but not same-sex marriage."

As pope, he has not yet said the Catholic Church supports civil unions. But what Francis does say about LGBT people has already caused reflection and consternation within his church. The moment that grabbed headlines was during a flight from Brazil to Rome. When asked about gay priests, Pope Francis told reporters, according to a translation from Italian, "If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?"

The brevity of that statement and the outsized attention it got immediately are evidence of the pope's sway. His posing a simple question with very Christian roots, when uttered in this context by this man, "Who am I to judge?" became a signal to Catholics and the world that the new pope is not like the old pope.

Francis's view on how the Catholic Church should approach LGBT people was best explained in his own words during an in-depth interview with America magazine in September. He recalled, “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”

(RELATED: 9 Catholics Who Need to Listen to the Pope)

He said that when he was a cardinal, “I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During [a recent] return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”

He continued, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

True to his word, Pope Francis hasn't used his biggest moments in the world spotlight to condemn LGBT people, as Benedict had done. At this time last year, Pope Benedict had just issued his message for the World Day of Peace — celebrated by the Catholic Church on New Year's Day. In it, he warned that efforts to allow gays and lesbians to wed "actually harm and help to destabilize marriage; obscuring its specific nature and its indispensable role in society." Benedict described marriage equality as "an offence against the truth of the human person." By contrast, Pope Francis issued his first message for the World Day of Peace last week.

Brotherhood, he said, "is the foundation and pathway of peace." He retold the story of Cain and Abel as an example of humanity's failure to recognize its brothers and instead find enemies. "In Christ, the other is welcomed and loved as a son or daughter of God, as a brother or sister, not as a stranger, much less as a rival or even an enemy. In God’s family, where all are sons and daughters of the same Father." He went on, "All men and women enjoy an equal and inviolable dignity. All are loved by God."

Pope Francis spends his time talking about the harm of greed and the lack of focus on fairness and fighting poverty. For that, conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh have attacked him as Marxist. But Francis bases his case for equality on each person's right to self-fulfillment. "Human beings need and are capable of something greater than maximizing their individual interest," the pope said on the World Day of Peace.

One could imagine how acceptance of LGBT people might fit into the pope's case for loving every human being and valuing the contribution made by each to society. With less than a year as pope, Francis still must show whether his aspiration ends at not being our enemy. Will he be an agent for fighting our discrimination worldwide?

Time magazine points out the unusual group of eight bishops that Pope Francis has convened to advise him regularly. Among them is Cardinal Oswald Gracias of India, who this month publicly condemned his country's criminalization of homosexuality. India's Supreme Court had just issued a shocking ruling that reinstated punishment of up to 10 years in prison for gay sex. “The Catholic Church has never been opposed to the decriminalization of homosexuality, because we have never considered gay people criminals," he said, according to Asia News. "The Catholic Church is opposed to the legalization of gay marriage, but teaches that homosexuals have the same dignity of every human being and condemns all forms of unjust discrimination, harassment or abuse." Earlier this year, he'd told an LGBT group in India, according to Time, that “to say that those with other sexual orientations are sinners is wrong” and that “we must be sensitive in our homilies and how we speak in public and I will so advise our priests.”

The Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported that an Italian Catholic LGBT group, Kairos of Florence, wrote a letter to the pope in June, asking for "openness and dialogue" and noting that lacking it "always feeds homophobia." LGBT Catholics had written to previous popes, but Francis is the first to write a reply. Both sides have largely kept the content of their conversation private, except to note with a level of amazement that the pope gave the LGBT group his blessing.

One thing we know from 2013 is that no matter the dedication of our activists, in the end we are often faced with a straight person who decides our fate. Will the nine straight people seated on the Supreme Court — six of whom who are Roman Catholic — ever cast a far-reaching ruling that makes marriage equality legal in all 50 states? Will the House of Representatives — of which nearly a third of members are Catholic, more than any other religion — pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act? Will any of them consider the pope's advice against casting judgment?

None of this is going to affect whether LGBT Americans who have left the Catholic Church are inclined to return. The pope's impact isn't on whether we're deciding to sit in the pews, it's on the people who are already in the pews. More so, it's on the devoted who are there every Sunday plus the middle of the week and who volunteer for charity work and who are sometimes our most ardent opposition.

Still, LGBT Catholics who remain in the church now have more reason to hope that change is coming. Listen to the reaction to the pope's "Who am I to judge?" comment.

"Pope Francis today uttered some of the most encouraging words a pontiff has ever spoken about gay and lesbian people," read a statement from the LGBT Catholic organization Equally Blessed. "In doing so, he has set a great example for Catholics everywhere." It went on with even greater anticipation, "Catholic leaders who continue to belittle gays and lesbians can no longer claim that their inflammatory remarks represent the sentiments of the pope. Bishops who oppose the expansion of basic civil rights — such as an end to discrimination in the work place — can no longer claim that the pope approves of their discriminatory agenda. Pope Francis did not articulate a change in the church’s teaching today, but he spoke compassionately, and in doing so, he has encouraged an already lively conversation that may one day make it possible for the church to fully embrace gay and lesbian Catholics."

>> View the Nine Other Finalists for Person of the Year

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