As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Queerty is profiling the people, issues and themes surrounding the tragedy that have made an indelible impact over the past decade, especially for the LGBT community.
“He was our spiritual leader but he was our buddy too,” is how one firefighter described Father Mychal Judge, the FDNY chaplain who raced back into the crumbling North Tower on September 11, 2001. When the South Tower collapsed, sending concrete and debris through the North Tower lobby at 100mph, he became the first recorded victim of the terrorist attacks. Judge’s faith, sacrifice and sense of duty came to embody the brave rescue workers, firemen, police and others who risked—and in some cases gave up—their lives on that fateful day.
Tending to his flock for 40 years, Judge was a compassionate and gregarious man who nonetheless kept certain aspects of his life private. But in the wake of 9/11, his personal life came under scrutiny:
He was a recovering alcoholic, 23 years sober (actor Malachy McCourt would bump into him at AA meetings).
And though he had never officially come out, Judge was gay.
“He and I often laughed about it, because we knew how difficult it would have been for the other firemen to accept it as easily as I had,” said former Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen. “I just thought he was a phenomenal, warm, sincere man, and the fact that he was gay just had nothing to do with anything.”
By all accounts celibate after taking his priestly orders, Judge didn’t shy away from gay causes. He was involved with Dignity, a Catholic LGBT support group—inviting them to meet at a Franciscan church when Bishop O’Connor banned them from his diocese—and would tend to AIDS patients at a time when many would shun them as sinners. He was also close friends with outspoken gay activist Brendan Fay, who co-produced The Saint of 9/11, a documentary about Judge. He even quietly helped fund “St. Pats for All,” a St. Patrick’s Parade in Queens that welcomed gay groups.
There are those who would dismiss or deny Judge’s homosexuality—”[His sexuality] was an issue that was a distraction and an unfortunate one,” says producer/filmmaker Burt Kearns, an early champion for Judge’s canonization—but his effect on the gays and lesbians who knew him was profound. “Mike taught me how to come out as a young man,” Brian Carroll, a Franciscan friar and psychotherapist, told New York magazine. “And how to see sexuality as an important part of who I am. He took away the shame… Mychal helped people embrace all the shame parts of themselves and turn them into something good.”
As “Father Mike” himself once said, “Is there so much love in the world that we can afford to discriminate against any kind of love?”