Father Mychal Judge was one of the most honored victims of the World Trade Center attack. But after his official funeral, the fallen fire chaplain would be remembered by the gay community at two events. One will occur this Thursday, when a number of groups observe the Irish custom of honoring a friend a month after his passing. The other took place on October 1, when nearly a thousand people packed the Gay and Lesbian Center, bursting into applause when Father Mychal’s name was read. It was a measure of how many New Yorkers regarded him as a hero.
Judge had been out to a number of people, including Fire Commissioner Tom Von Essen. Judge avoided the censure of church hierarchs by conducting his gay activism under the radar. But even at his funeral, he was hiding in plain sight. Eulogizing him, Father Michael Duffy broke up the crowd by noting that when Judge got the word to dash downtown to the stricken Trade Center, “he did take time to comb and spray his hair!” Mark Green spoke of how Judge served people of “every orientation.”
The night before, his 23 years in Alcoholics Anonymous were invoked, but not the fact that Judge went mostly to gay AA meetings. His gay brothers from the program were all over the church. Also present in the pews were Judge’s close friends Brendan Fay and Tom Moulton, a gay couple. Judge had openly supported Fay’s Queens Saint Patrick’s Day Parade that welcomed gay groups. Judge showed up last year in his brown Franciscan robes. (The next parade will be dedicated to his memory.) And when the Emerald Society of the Fire Department honored Father Mychal, he had Brendan and Tom as his guests, and the couple danced together at the banquet. “He felt deeply the conflicts and tensions over being a gay man in a hostile and bigoted society and church,” Fay says.
Hillary Clinton inelegantly spoke of the “AIDS victims” Judge helped. But she did not note how this ministry to people with AIDS came about. When Cardinal O’Connor expelled Dignity, the gay Catholic organization, from St. Francis Xavier Church in the mid 1980s, Judge provided a home for the group’s AIDS ministry, led by the Reverend Bernard Lynch, an outspoken gay priest. Judge later made that outreach St. Francis of Assisi’s own. Several gay men at the funeral recalled that Judge had buried their partners and helped them through their grief.
In 1988, Lynch was falsely accused of molesting a teenage student at a Bronx school where he had been a counselor. The charges were brought while Lynch was visiting his native Ireland, in hopes that he would never return to America. Lynch says that without being asked, Judge “flew to Ireland to meet with my provincial superior to tell him that the charges were politically motivated because I had stood up against the cardinal in 1986 on the gay rights bill.” This, Lynch notes, convinced his superior to hire high-powered lawyer Michael Kennedy to defend Lynch. When Lynch returned to the Bronx, the flimsy case evaporated in court, with Judge Burton Roberts angrily declaring the priest not just “not guilty,” but innocent of all charges.
Judge kept a high profile, from comforting the kin of those who died on Flight 800 to his poignant martyrdom on Bloody Tuesday. But in other ways, he was like the underground priests in Ireland who defied the 18th-century anti-Catholic Penal Laws, saying mass on the sly and always on the run. Working on gay issues, however, he was hiding from many in his own church’s hierarchy.
For Mychal (né Emmet) Judge, an Irish kid from Brooklyn, gayness was one of his many gifts, but this most personal experience of being an outsider blessed him with the empathy that enabled him to connect to and heal so many broken people. “He understood, more than any man I know,” says Lynch, “that compassion is the heart of all morality.”
For information about the October 11 event, call 718-721-2780.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 9, 2001