Marianne Duddy-Burke was born just after Christmas 1960 to Eunice (Scullion) and Joseph Duddy in Edgewater, New Jersey, not far from New York City. Marianne was the oldest of four children in a typical Irish Catholic family. Their lives revolved around extended family and the church. Some of her earliest memories involve being mesmerized by the rituals, music, smells and many people gathered together for Sunday Mass in traditional Latin at Holy Name Church. After Mass, Marianne’s family would often go to her paternal grandmother’s home for Sunday dinner. Marianne recalls kneeling around the coffee table with her parents and siblings for evening prayer. A favorite family excursion was to her mother’s parents’ home in the Catskill Mountain area of New York state. There Marianne could roam a dairy farm and interact with a great many cousins. Baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, weddings, and funerals were the rhythms of life for the Duddy family
When Marianne was four, her parents moved to East Brunswick, NJ where they lived in a community that was in transition from rural to suburban. They joined St. Bartholomew’s Parish in the midst of the changes brought about by Vatican II. Marianne went to school there. Her father was a successful businessman in New York City. He oversaw a trillion-dollar oil deal which was a first for its time. But his alcoholism soon interfered with his life and work. Marianne recalls that she and her mother sometimes pored over paperwork from his briefcase in the evenings, analyzing credit reports and making recommendations to try to help him function in his job. By the time Marianne was in middle school, her father had difficulty holding down a steady job. The family went from being very secure financially to frequent hard times. All this resulted in a conflicted upbringing for Marianne. There was a great deal of love and affection with her father. But he could also be quite violent and abusive when drunk. Her mother bore the brunt of this, often withdrawing into her room for days to heal from the beatings she received.
Marianne loved reading and going to school and was a top-notch student. She was also very interested in the church and felt the call to be a priest from a young age. Along with other children in the neighborhood, Marianne played games, rode bikes and played Mass and Confession. Whenever she could, she stayed after school to help the nuns. She regularly helped care for her younger siblings and other young children in the community.
She earned a scholarship to study at Mt. St. Mary High School, located at the motherhouse of the Sisters of Mercy of New Jersey. She received an outstanding education there—taking some college-level courses and traveling on a National Science Foundation grant. She felt a pull to medical school. She boarded at the school for her junior and senior years, which allowed her to be part of the community life of the nuns. She was enthralled with the religious vocation and expressed interest in joining the order. But the sisters insisted that she explore the world, go away to college and have life experiences outside Catholic circles.
Marianne enrolled in Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1978. This meant that her high school and college years were spent in all-women environments. She went to college having no awareness of the possibility of a lesbian identity. However, not long after arriving at Wellesley she came across the book, Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. This was the first place she read or learned about lesbian and gay identities and it spoke to her deeply. She began to venture out to find other persons like herself.
She continued her active religious life at Wellesley and by her sophomore year was president of the Newman Center group on campus. Although Marianne was only out to a few people at this time, rumors started to circulate. The chaplain confronted her about being a lesbian and forced her to resign, stating that she could not represent Catholics on campus. The juxtaposition of finding affirmation and comfort in a lesbian community while being cut off from a faith community which had been so important throughout her life created much tumult in Marianne’s life.
Marianne graduated with honors from Wellesley. Not long thereafter, she read an article in the Boston Globe about Dignity, the group for gay and lesbian Catholics. The following Sunday she went to her first Dignity Mass with a straight roommate who came along for moral support. Marianne immediately found that she was at home and has been involved in Dignity ever since. This was 1982.
Marianne had been vacillating between going to medical school or seminary. She decided to apply to Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Boston and began studies there in the fall of 1982. As one of only a handful of women enrolled, this was radically different from her past all-female school environments. Given that it was unusual for a woman to have the opportunity to study there, she started out intending to be quiet about her lesbian identity. She still felt a strong call to a church vocation, even the priesthood. But she soon came to realize that she could not stay closeted. Such duplicity was not possible; Marianne could not hide who she was. She recognized that she could not work for the Catholic institution with integrity, thereby being conflicted by being unable to fulfill the vocation to which she was called. Gradually she came to realize a new vocation possibility—service to the LGBT community. She secured work in elder care to support herself so she could finish her studies and volunteer with Dignity.
She became the first woman chaplain for the Boston chapter of Dignity. She facilitated lively discussion about inclusive language and women’s roles and rights. She attended her first national Dignity Conference in New York in 1985. There she was appointed to the National Women’s Concerns Committee. She has held some position at Dignity’s national organization ever since.
At the 1987 convention in the Miami area, DignityUSA was trying to figure out how to respond to the Vatican’s shocking letter the previous Halloween which used language of “objectively disordered” and “intrinsically evil” in reference to LGBT persons. Prior to this time, DignityUSA had not taken a public position on the nature of same-sex relationships. Marianne drew on her theological training to draft language for an amendment to the organization’s Statement of Position and Purpose which stated that sexual relationships between people of the same sex could be unitive, life-giving and life-affirming. Following this publicly affirming statement, the pace of expulsion of Dignity chapters from Catholic spaces across the U.S., which had started soon after the Vatican’s statement was released, increased rapidly. These actions positioned Dignity on the front lines of LGBT advocacy in the years that followed.
In 1991, Marianne was elected vice-president of DignityUSA. She had an enriching and productive relationship with president Kevin Calegari. By this time Marianne was connecting with a strong network of Dignity colleagues and activists around the U.S. In 1993, she was the first woman elected president of DignityUSA and served four years in that position. These were formative and lively years for DignityUSA. Marianne recalls the discovery that expulsion from Catholic spaces was a valuable gift that enabled DignityUSA to become a stronger public voice and advocate on behalf of LGBT Catholics and allies. No longer beholden to the institution, DignityUSA could more aggressively challenge the teachings, policies and practices of the church hierarchy. This enabled and unleashed growing support from more Catholic political leaders and gave many parishioners the language they needed to voice their discomfort with the church’s anti-LGBT teachings.
Marianne met Becky Burke in 1994 when she came to Boston as a Sister of Mercy to study for a Masters in Social Work. Their relationship flourished and they celebrated a marriage covenant with the Boston Dignity chapter in 1998. They joined their names as Duddy-Burke just before the adoption of their first child. Marianne and Becky welcomed an infant girl to their family in 2002 and adopted her a year later. A second daughter joined them in 2008. Both girls joined the family through the foster care system, and the Duddy-Burkes advocate for the right of LGBT people and same-sex couples to become foster and adoptive parents. The family lives in Boston and enjoys a range of activities, as well as traveling together whenever possible.
Delivering the homily at Dignity Chicago The DignityUSA executive director left in 2000 and the group’s fundraising efforts were faltering. President Mary Louise Cervone asked Marianne to join the staff on a short-term, part-time basis to rebuild their development program. The next year, Marianne traveled to Rome with Mary Louise, Mel White of Soulforce and other activists to hold a dramatic sit-in in Vatican Square to protest the Vatican’s negative teachings and policies about LGBT persons. This action garnered widespread media attention around the world.
After another staff transition in 2007, Marianne was invited to join the DignityUSA staff as the full-time executive director, a position which she has held ever since. Under her leadership, DignityUSA has transitioned from being primarily a support and sanctuary movement to being an affirming community that is actively justice-seeking. She has helped the organization address the challenges seeing much of its membership and leadership aging and strive to discern the needs and interests of younger Catholics and younger LGBT persons and allies.
In recent years Marianne has served as a Catholic advisor to the Religion and Social Justice Advisory Group within the Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the U.S. State Department. The Advisory Group assists the State Department in addressing how to support the U.S. goal of affirming LGBTI human rights in its foreign policy and development initiatives, and in understanding how faith and culture impact this goal. This has provided opportunities to help foreign service agents better understand the dynamics of faith in other cultures, i.e., to see beyond official religious leaders and get a picture of how religion is lived and practiced in everyday lives. It has led to interactions with LGBTI leaders from numerous countries who visit the U.S. on State Department study programs. This has even opened opportunities for training and education with staff at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, as well as with United Nations staff.
Marianne speaks regularly at conferences around the country and internationally on issues of importance to LGBT Catholics and their families. She represents DignityUSA in numerous coalitions, ensuring the voices of LGBT Catholics are heard in Catholic and LGBT circles. She serves as DignityUSA’s primary spokesperson, and has appeared in thousands of print, radio, and television stories. She was featured in the video DignityUSA: A Conversation with Marianne Duddy, and her work has been included in several books, including Redemption Stories: Stories of Survival and Transformation and Catholic Women Confront their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope. She is a featured blogger for Huffington Post.
(This biographical statement drafted by Mark Bowman from an interview with Marianne Duddy-Burke and edited by Duddy-Burke.)
Biography Date: October, 2016