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Tied in a Single Garment

by: John Winslow, Washington, D.C. 15, Outreach Coordinator, Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, Gonzaga University 15.

Originally posted on the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s Jesuit Volunteer Reflects blog.

Last September, I watched from the visitor’s gallery as Pope Francis addressed Congress. As an American Catholic, I was astounded to see the leader of my Church stand before the leaders of my country and advocate forcefully on behalf of the poor, the planet, incarcerated individuals, and refugees. In the midst of these incredible statements on justice for the marginalized, Pope Francis declared, “Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”

I felt a gut-wrenching sense of tension: as an advocate, pride in what Pope Francis said about justice; as a gay man, disappointment and betrayal. As hundreds around me cheered, I stayed in my chair and thought: was Pope Francis talking about same-sex marriage? Was he talking about the children of same-sex couples? In his eyes, am I one of those people who is “threatening” the very idea of family? Am I overreacting? Pope Francis - Congress

In the days following the address, I was asked for a few interviews from various media outlets. I did not lie to any of them when I said that I prayed that Congress heeded the pope’s calls for ecological justice, mercy for the imprisoned, and a preferential option for the poor. I did, however, leave something out: myself, a gay Catholic who was once again feeling the familiar ache of being pulled two different directions.

As a Jesuit Volunteer I enter into the stories and suffering of individuals who are experiencing incredible pain. I witness moments of loneliness and hopelessness with families and individuals who have lost loved ones to incarceration and a broken system. The suffering I personally experience, much of it through the challenge of striving to be both gay and Catholic, pales in comparison to the suffering my clients share. When the opportunity came for me to share my own suffering, I chose to remain silent.

Particularly in light of what I have seen and experienced this year in my JVC placement, I am humbled by the ways Pope Francis has offered mercy to victims of a broken criminal justice system. Yet, I am reminded of the truth in what Dr. King wrote in his own letter behind bars: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” I have realized, fundamentally, that speaking out about LGBTQ+ equality is not something that must come at the expense of my work; rather, they are, as Dr. King argues, inseparable.

The undeniable fact is that mass incarceration in the United States overwhelmingly targets people of color. When those people of color are LGBTQ+, they face compounded oppression. According to a recent study, LGBTQ+ people face discrimination by police and prosecutors on an ongoing basis much more significantly than our straight and cisgender counterparts. LGBTQ+ people are pushed into the criminal justice system by family rejection, unsafe schools, discrimination in employment, housing, and healthcare, and lack of social services. We are disproportionately impacted by HIV criminalization laws and drug statutes. We are more likely to experience negative policing strategies such as policing of gender norms, stop-and-frisk laws, discrimination and violence when seeking assistance, and police abuse and brutality. We face inadequate access to counsel, discrimination by judges, prosecutors, and court staff, and discrimination by juries. In the same way that is impossible to speak meaningfully about criminal justice without speaking about racial justice, in my view, it is impossible to speak about criminal justice without speaking about LGBTQ+ justice. The liberation of all people–of you, of me, of the clients I work with, of my community, and of Pope Francis himself–is bound up, inevitably, together.

The pain and marginalization of the incarcerated is real. The pain and marginalization of the LGBTQ+ community–a community I am proud to be a part of–is real too. If being a Jesuit Volunteer has taught me anything, it is that the oppressed–the poor, the incarcerated, the mentally ill, the queer–are us and we are them. At the end of the day, making the world a better place for some of us means making a better world for all of us. As Dr. King put it, we are all woven together.