Peter M. Cicchino, public interest lawyer, activist and scholar, was born in August 1960 and grew up in a devout Roman Catholic household in Kearny, New Jersey. During his youth, the Catholic Church was going through many changes from the Second Vatican Council. Peter’s life was significantly influenced by the Jesuits. He served as an altar boy and participated in a thirty-day silent retreat, which he described as an amazing experience.
As part of his Catholic upbringing, Peter was intrigued by the concept that each person had God within them. He was inspired by Judeo-Christian faith stories filled with God’s preferential care and compassion for the poor and marginalized. He wrote, “I think it motivated me to try to . . . create a world where that basic realization of the dignity of each person was recognized.” (Rasking, 9)
Cicchino joined the Jesuit Community in 1982 and identified openly as a celibate gay man. He graduated magna cum laude in political science and philosophy from University of Scranton in Pennsylvania in 1982. He went on to earn a master's degree in philosophy from Fordham University in 1986. During this time, he also served in prisons, hospitals, homeless shelters and soup kitchens. He spent 1986 to 1988 in Washington, D.C., where he taught theology and classical Greek at Gonzaga College High School and received a teacher-of-the-year award. He was arrested over two dozen times in civil disobedience actions protesting U.S. policy in Central America, nuclear arms proliferation and police brutality.
Reflecting on his sexual identity after leaving the Jesuit Community in 1988, Cicchino wrote: “I think being gay did so much for me. I think it made me more introspective. I think it gave me a kind of intuitive or natural bias towards people who are misunderstood and subordinated. I think it made me more compassionate. I think it made me feel an outsider when here I was a white man in America, well-educated. Being gay made me feel solidarity on the deepest level with all those other outsiders who have lies told about them and who every day confront images of subordination. I really believe it is one of the great gifts of my life being a gay person.” (Rasking, p. 15)
Cicchino attended Harvard University Law School, where he successfully represented eight fellow students who were threatened with expulsion for sitting in the dean’s office to protest inadequate hiring of women and minority faculty members. Upon graduation from law school in 1992, Peter was chosen to deliver the University-wide graduate student address; entitled “Educating Our Vices,” in which Peter cajoled Harvard graduates to use their vices--arrogance, contentiousness and a sense of entitlement—to “console the afflicted and afflict the consoled.”
Following law school, Cicchino served as special death penalty clerk for a New Jersey Supreme Court judge who was a death penalty abolitionist, and assisted the American Civil Liberties Union in its lawsuit that struck down Colorado’s statewide referendum prohibiting gay rights legislation.
In 1994, Cicchino founded the Gay and Lesbian Youth Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York City, since renamed the Peter Cicchino Youth Project. There he served the legal needs of homeless and indigent gay and lesbian teens, ranging from welfare benefits and foster care issues to criminal matters. At this time, he was also a staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project in New York where he handled the welfare, emancipation, and discrimination cases. Also during this time he began a committed relationship with Jonathan Springer.
Cicchino taught in the Program on Lawyering at New York University Law School before he was offered a tenure track position on the faculty of American University's Washington College of Law in 1998. He was drawn to this school because of its obvious commitment to social justice. He said, “It just seemed like a place...where people come to work wanting to do justice.” (Rasking, 16).
Two months after receiving this position, Peter was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. Nonetheless he moved to Washington, D.C. and taught there until his death on July 8, 2000, at age 39. The Washington College of Law established the Peter M. Cicchino Awards in 2000 which recognize and honor three students or alumni each year whose devotion to and creative interest in the public interest exemplify the highest ideals of the Washington College of Law.
“I hope that the basic principle of love has the final say in reality, but I am culticly indifferent. Though I still go to mass, to me there are many paths to the right way.” (Rasking, 8).
(This biographical statement drafted by Thomas Schwartz from the sources below and edited by Doris Malkmus and Mark Bowman:
“An Intimate Portrait of Peter M. Cicchino” by Jamin B. Rasking in Journal of Gender, Social Policy and the Law, vol. 10; #1 as found at:
Biography Date: September 2022
Catholic (Roman) | Catholic Worker Movement | New York City | New York | Washington, D.C. | Marriage Equality | Youth
“Peter Cicchino | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed January 30, 2023, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/peter-cicchino.