The life of Father Robert Carter, SJ, who had the distinction of being the first openly gay Roman Catholic priest in the early 1970s, was celebrated at the LGBT Community Center on June 5 at a memorial organized by gay Catholic activist Brendan Fay.
Carter, who died on February 22 at the age of 82, was a co-founder of Dignity/New York in 1972 and an original board member of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) in 1973.
As a college student in the late 1940s, he was playwright Tennessee Williams’ lover. A Jesuit classics scholar, he worked in later years as a social worker for people with AIDS at Bellevue.
“He invited us to discover the treasure of our God-given sexuality,” said Father Bernard Lynch, who served on the board of Dignity with Carter. “That was his true vocation. Coming out as a gay man gave his life meaning.”
Andy Humm, who worked with Carter in Dignity in the late 1970s, recalled the quiet things Carter did, such as standing outside the Eagle Bar on Sundays in the mid-1970s to collect a dollar cover to benefit NGLTF.
“He was unpretentious,” Humm said, “but steeped in the very best of our culture” from opera and classical music to literature.
Fay shared that Carter had the courage to go into recovery as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1970s.
NGLTF’s Sue Hyde recalled how miserably gay people were treated in this country before Carter and his fellow pioneers emerged, adding, “We thank you, Father Robert Carter, for your steadfast and quiet leadership, for your scholarship, for your life well-lived.”
“He was a Christian gentleman,” said Robert Riley, former president of Dignity/ NY. “I never once heard him raise his voice,” though Carter was outspoken in support of gay rights through public testimony, demonstrations, and TV appearances.