THE STORY OF ACCEPTANCE SYDNEY
Acceptance is a welcoming ministry of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics, their families and friends, affirming their dignity and Catholic faith. Founded in Sydney in 1972 by Garry Pye, Acceptance has struggled to find its place in the institutional church as well as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ) community.
A fundamental challenge for most LGBTIQ Catholics is reconciling their faith and their sexuality in a society and church that can sometimes be hostile towards their reality and lived experience. Garry experienced this struggle. Acceptance, therefore, has both a personal and a societal dimension. This is the reason why Garry Pye chose the name 'Acceptance'.
Acceptance banner at a Melbourne Pride March
Acceptance Sydney began at a time of societal change in the western world. With the protests against the Vietnam War and disaffection with government conservatism in Western countries came the sexual revolution, flower power, free love and pop music. Homosexual men and women and their supporters began to challenge prevailing attitudes in America. In New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco movements began to raise awareness of discrimination against homosexual people. The Stonewall riots of 28 June 1969, at the Stonewall lnn, in New York, became a worldwide symbol of this movement underway.
This new awareness gave rise to a group of American gay and lesbian Catholics who wished to celebrate their Catholic faith and participate in their church. They took the name "Dignity', to express their hope to live their love of God and the church equally with all Catholics. Founded in 1969, and initially meeting "under the radar", Dignity began a more public recruitment of members in 1970.
Meanwhile in Australia, a group of gay men and women began meeting in each other's houses for a monthly Mass. Priests were invited to celebrate this Mass, sometimes travelling long distances. At that time it was difficult for gay and lesbian Catholics to participate openly in the church, but the priests at these Masses preached a gospel message that welcomed gays and lesbians as loved people of God.
Garry Pye, a member of this group,decided to attend a Dignity Convention in 1971. Garry returned to Australia with ideas fora similar group back in Sydney. DignityUSA encouraged him to set up a branch in Australia. He decided he would like to give the Australian group a unique identity by calling the group"Acceptance". The group agreed and Acceptance Sydney was underway. This was February 1972.
Dignity USA welcomed the establishment of Acceptance in Australia and the Sydney, and subsequent chapters around Australia, were officially recognised as "affiliate chapters".
Garry Pye - Founder of Acceptance
Garry is fondly remembered by members from those days. Fr Patrick Sharpe MSC was a priest in Canberra in1973 and remembers coming to Sydney to met Garry as part of Acceptance. Here calls their first meeting was on the steps of Sydney Town Hall, organised by a mutual friend. Fr Pat recalls Garry gave him a really warm welcome and within 24 hours Fr. Pat was celebrating Mass at Garry's terrace house with about 12 members of Acceptance.
Garry was born in Scone in 1947. His lrish Catholic family moved to Sydney and initially lived in Kingsford above the cake shop where his father, a pastry cook, worked. After stints as a taxi driver and working at the Waltons department store, Garry spent most of his working life at the Duty Free shop at Sydney Airport. He shared a house with friends in Paddington. Garry is remembered for his work amongst the gay community, including being one of the organisers of the first Mardi Gras march in 1978.
Garry was active in local politics, campaigning for Clover Moore. After his HIV diagnosis in the mid 1980s he setup Body Positive, one of the first groups for people living with HlV. He was also actively involved with ACON, the Quilt Project and the Pride Committee.
Garry died of AIDS in 1990.
Garry and housemates at 21 Regent St, Paddington
Acceptance members continued to meet in homes around Sydney to celebrate Mass and meet socially.
As Acceptance grew it needed a larger place for the weekly Mass, which had been celebrated in people's homes.Homosexuality was still illegal and opportunities for gays and lesbians to meet and socialise were limited. Acceptance provided an opportunity for gay Catholics, their friends and supporters to meet, adding to the need for more space.
With a broadening range of activities -the establishment of a professional telephone counselling service, a choir,women's spirituality group and, for awhile a medical clinic - the pressure for more space grew.
Over the first two decades, Acceptance moved to a number of venues around the inner City area. Sadly, due to the strong opposition of the Catholic Church in Sydney, Acceptance was not able to celebrate Mass in a Catholic church until 1990.
With the assistance of other faith groups, and the linkages with other gay support groups established following the discovery of HIV in the mid '80s, Acceptance has been able to celebrate a weekly Mass continuously since 1972.
Acceptance advertised regularly in the gay press and the weekly suburban newspapers.
Acceptance first began using the Quakers Hall in Devonshire Street Surry Hills, for meetings and celebrating Mass.
Quakers Hall - Devonshire St, Surry Hills
By 1976 Acceptance had moved to office space in 263 Oxford Street, across from Sacred Heart Church, in Darlinghurst.
263 Oxford St, Acceptance meeting space 1976
In an interview with Garry Pye at this time he describes the Acceptance meetings as:
"We have mass celebrated every Friday, ...Followed b a social hour of wine, coffee and conversation. We have recently startedHuman Rights Relations Groups, which are going well and looks like one way, that our members can help themselves and others.We have social evenings, barbecues, theatre parties, prayer services. We have also started a monthly newsletter." (The newsletter was called lnsight).
Members of Acceptance had marched in the first 1978 Mardi Gras protest march and they continued to march in every subsequent march and then the MardiGras parades. In the mid 1980s, Acceptance as a separate group entered a float in the Parade
Acceptance has proudly participated in the Mardi Gras Parade for over 25 years.
Early floats included a convicts theme and a Noah's Ark. A Pope has appeared twice, the first time with a female pope. The second was a play on"World Youth DaY" 2008 with a Popemobile and theme of 'World Gay Day".
Mardi 2006, Lots of fun, and shows who we are and what we stand for
In 1987, Acceptance was invited to hold an annual Mass before Mardi Gras, This was Mardi Gras 2006, lots of fun, and showswho we are and what we stand for.Mass before Mardi Gras 2006 tradition that continues 25 years later.
Mass before Mardi Gras 2006
In August 1978, Acceptance moved to larger premises on the 2nd floor, further down Oxford St, near the corner of Riley St, opposite Patches. This was 46-48 Oxford St.
46-48 Oxford St.
ln 1979 a formal choir commenced and the choir sang at many functions,including being sought after for weddings. Over the next 8 Years, the choir sang at St Vincent's Hospital, the Albury Hotel and brought the sound of Christimas carols to many gay bars and venues.
ln 1981, Acceptance moved to share premises with other gay groups at 51 Holt St, Surry Hills. Also in this building were "Fitness Exchange", a gay gym 'the Gays Counselling Service. During this time Acceptance shared the responsibility, with the Gays Counselling Seryice, for a telephone counselling service. The building they used has since been demolished and a new high rise built.
While sharing this building the telephone counselling service run by Acceptance for many years was started. This was one of the earliest services in Sydney. CAMP had set up a Phone a Friend service in 1973, which became the Gays Counselling Service in 1983.
In 1986 the group then had to move again this time to the hall at Pilgrim House, associated with the Pitt St. Uniting Church and received encouragement of the then Pastor, Reverend Dorothy McRae-McMahon.
Pilgrim House - Pitt Street, Sydney
The Group then had to Move out of the Pitt St venue, due to problems with the building and briefly met in the Unitarian Church in Francis St, just down from the Sydney Museum.
The weekly Mass was then moved to a hall next to the Catholic church in Elizabeth Bay, St Canice's in the late 1980s.
St. Canice's Church, Elizabeth Bay
Finally, nearly 20 years after its foundation, at the invitation of the then parish priest, Acceptance celebrated Mass in a church proper in March 1990.
Acceptance Parish Mass at St Canice's
The parish community and its Jesuit pastors were very supportive, especially Fr. Steve Sinn SJ. Acceptance has many happy memories of sharing in these Masses at St. Canice's.
By the mid 1980s, Acceptance had grown into a national organisation with chapters in Brisbane, Sydney,Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. A national coordinator office was established in 1981.
National conferences commenced soon after Acceptance Sydney was established, being held every 2 years for over 20 years.
Acceptance also supported other gay faith groups. The establishment of the Metropolitan community church inSydney had its genesis in a visit to Sydney in 1974 by the Rev Troy Perry from MCC USA. Garry Pye invited Troy, and Troy and his partner stayed with Garry in his house in Paddington.
Acceptance was a founding member of the Gay Christian Network established in 1984.
Acceptance Sydney became an incorporated association in 1991 and the first issue of the Acceptance Australia newsletter appeared in the same year.
Acceptance is also involved in social justice, supporting various social outreach services such as the "soup kitchen" run by the Sisters of Charity at St Vincent's Hospital.
A charity that has been supported by Acceptance for many years is Stanford House. Stanford House, established by the Daughters of Charity nuns, opened in August 1991 and provides supported accommodation for people living withHIV/AIDS.
Acceptance holds an annual Trivia Night as a joint fund raising event for Stanford House and Acceptance, always a great night of fun and friendship.
The Newtown Parish of St Joseph has had a ministry to LGBTIQ Catholics, their family and friends for many years. Since 2006, members of Acceptance Sydney began to regularly attend mass at St Joseph’s Church when renovations at St. Canice’s Church.
Sadly, in 2010, a homophobic and religious extremist group associated with another Catholic community in Sydney began a campaign on Facebook, blogs and websites to protest what they termed the "gay Mass" at Newtown. Constructive dialogue with the protestors has not been possible. The vocal minority group further threatened arson of the church which led to a police intervention. Immediately after the incident, Catholics from all walks of life filled the small parish church at Newtown the following Friday to demonstrate their support and solidarity.
The Newtown parish community have reaffirmed their ministry with LGBTIQ Catholics and welcome all those who wish to worship at the Friday night Parish Mass. While members of Acceptance, their families and friends can now worship freely and safely in some Catholic parishes, and many openly LGBTIQ Catholics are now able to actively participate in their parish liturgies and community life, it is important to remember that this was not possible only a few decades ago. Many LGBTIQ Catholics continues to feel unwelcome and unsafe in their home parishes, Catholic schools and workplaces.
The courage and determination of Garry Pye and his Acceptance colleagues in the 1970s needs to be recognised and acknowledged. The support and spiritual contribution of the many priests who celebrated Mass with Acceptance needs particular recognition. lt took great courage to do so.
During the 40 years of Acceptance, the legal background and the attitudes of society at large to homosexuality have changed significantly. When Acceptance started in the early1970's, homosexual behaviour between males, whether in private or not was illegal and a criminal offence. Legal reform to decriminalise homosexuality was far from uniform within Australia's state and territories. South Australia was the first state to legislate in 1972. The Australian Capital Territory and Victoria followed. New South Wales legislated in 1984. Queensland and Tasmania finally legislated in the early1990s.
Despite being removed from the list of criminal activities, there was still the need to legislate in various Anti-Discrimination and Equal Opportunity acts to try and counteract the widespread discrimination against people who openly identified as gay during this period.
Despite the various legislative initiatives, the attitude of much of society has been slower to change. And the Catholic Church itself has still to undertake this journey.
Acceptance is proud to have been a part of this process.
ln the 1970s and 1980s, members of Acceptance prepared many submissions to the Church. ln Brisbane, the Archbishop agreed to establish a formal dialogue group with Acceptance. Discussions also occurred with other priests and bishops.
Some members of the Australian Catholic hierarchy have expressed inhospitality towards Acceptance and LGBTIQ Catholics, their families and friends. Even after four decades of working to alleviate discrimination towards LGBTIQ Catholics, the institutional hierarchy gives little to no support to the important ministry of Acceptance that works to include LGBTIQ Catholics, their families and friends as part of the church. Sadly, a group that has strong links with ‘Ex-Gay’ ministries continues to function with the support of the some in the institutional Catholic hierarchy. Acceptance and its members remain confident in their faith and that the Gospel values will lead to change.
Acceptance welcomes Bishop Robinson's talk in 2012 at a United States conference in Baltimore as an important contribution to the discussion on sexuality and faith. His talk is enriched by its clarity and simplicity. He argues that the context for the Church's consideration of sexuality must be love, and relationships that truly reflect this love.
Acceptance offer thanks to the many members who have contributed to our history and this snapshot, which by no means is exhaustive or complete.
We pay tribute to the pioneers, advocates, leaders, lay, religious and ordained sisters and brothers whose tireless ministry and advocacy has led the positive social changes we continue to see being advance today.