Brendan Fay, filmmaker and human rights activist, was born April 26, 1958, in Athy, Ireland, a market town southwest of Dublin. He is the third child of seven and his parents were Mary Kavanagh and Peter Fay. His father, a union leader, also worked as a fitter and welder in an asbestos factory. Outside of his work at the factory, his father also volunteered with the St. Vincent DePaul Society and co-founded the Athy Credit Union in May of 1968.
While his father’s involvement in community impacted Fay, he also was influenced by the Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic women religious congregation. During his childhood, he attended St. Michael’s primary school which was run by the order who also had a reputation of compassionate ministry for the homeless and alcoholics. Growing up in an Irish Catholic community, he became an altar server like other young boys. He grew up with the Catholic Irish traditions of holy wells, Celtic crosses, Corpus Christi processions, the Angelus and benediction in Latin. He lived through the transformative years of the Second Vatican Council, from 1962-1965, while in later years experiencing the growing visibility of the international homophile movement and the nascent gay liberation movement in the United States.
In 1971, Fay’s family moved to his father’s hometown, Drogheda in County Louth. His father transferred to the nearby fishmeal factory in Mornington. While living in Drogheda, he became active with the Augustinian Friars’ church, which according to Fay, was a more progressive church that engaged with the community through youth ministry and popular folk masses. He became a lector, eucharistic minister and wrote for the church’s bulletin on Taize, an ecumenical French Christian monastery, nuclear disarmament, and social justice.
At the age of 14, he joined the Irish Christian Brothers and was a postulant for four years at St Mary’s, Balheary. After being denied admission to the novitiate, he moved to Dublin and worked as a waiter. He later worked at St. Michael’s House caring for children with disabilities. In Dublin, he became aware of an emergent gay movement. He nervously discovered the gay bars and the Hirschfield Center, a gay community center which opened in 1979. During these years, Fay experienced much pain, conflict, and silence. He sought a cure from spiritual healers and counselors that offered conversion therapy. There was little or no acceptance of gayness/queerness during his adolescence. The Irish legislature did not abrogate the criminalization of homosexuality until July of 1993.
From 1978-1984, Brendan was active with the “Light of Christ Community,” a lay community associated with the Charismatic Renewal Movement in Ireland. During these years of searching and transformation, Brendan led prayer meetings and retreats, writing for the national magazine, New Creation. During the summer of 1981, he visited the United States to study at the Institute for Pastoral Studies at Loyola University in Chicago with Richard Westley. He also visited intentional communities including Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario founded by Catherine de Hueck Doherty and New Jerusalem Community in Cincinnati where he first met Fr. Richard Rohr O.F.M.
As a youth representative member of the National Service Committee in February of 1984, Brendan was chosen as a delegate to the International Leaders Conference in Rome where he met Pope John Paul II.
In 1983, he graduated from St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth where he received an honors BA in Theology and Sociology. During this period, he also participated in public protests with the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), Pax Christi and the Irish Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.
From 1983-84, he co-founded the Drogheda Youth Unemployment Action group and edited a magazine entitled Search which drew on the “see, judge, act” reflection paradigm of the Young Christian Worker Movement (YCW).
Increasingly during the 1980s, a more vocal and visible gay liberation movement was emerging in Ireland. Also in theological spaces, there were new reflections and discussions of the neutrality and goodness of homosexuality. Irish gay rights leader David Norris and theologians including Fr. Enda McDonagh, Rev. Raphael Gallagher CSSR and Fr. Joseph O’ Leary emerged as figures who advocated and represented an affirmative theological perspective.
Encouraged by international youth ministry leaders Michael Warren and Connie Loos, Fay traveled across the Atlantic to Queens, NY to attend St. John’s University, where he completed a master’s degree in theology. Warren and Loos also introduced him to writings of Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day and Trappist Thomas Merton. At St. John’s, Fay studied with Michael Warren, Fr. Paul Surlis, Bill De Fazio, and Mary Buckley. He engaged in critical conversations on women in the Church, sexual ethics, and the challenges of liberation. At St. John’s, Brendan acquired a deeper understanding of themes vis-a-vis theology, spirituality, sexuality, catechesis, and cultural silence. He wrote on Celtic Christianity, ecology and the era of nuclear weapons while studying with Celtic scholar Alexei Kondratiev at the New York Irish Arts Center. Another main research focus while he completed his master’s degree was contextualizing the life of Margaret Anna Cusack, Nun of Kenmare (1829-1899). Cusack was an Irish writer, religious pioneer, social reformer and founder of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace.
Fay became involved with the anti-apartheid movement for divestment participating in student protests at St. John’s University and Columbia University. Risking expulsion, Brendan coordinated an indoor protest during US President Ronald Reagan’s March 28, 1985, visit to the St. John’s University campus.
In continuing with his international influence, with support from Professor Mary Buckley, he traveled to Central America in 1985 with fellow theology student Juan Yzuel. They visited El Salvador and Nicaragua. A memorable moment occurred for Fay when he met Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga of Brazil, a leading proponent of liberation theology. Soon after his trip, Fay graduated from St. John’s in 1986.
After graduating from St. John’s University, Fay held teaching positions in New York Catholic high schools for the next five years. From 1986-1988, he taught at La Salle Academy on New York’s Lower East Side and from 1988-1991, he taught at The Mary Louis Academy, an all-female high school in Queens, NY. Besides teaching religion courses, he also led Peace and Justice groups and spearheaded AIDS awareness programs. On weekends, he taught at the adult education program in Queensborough Community College on Celtic Christianity and the history of Irish immigration to the United States.
Inspired by a close friend at St John’s Fay joined Dignity/New York, a Catholic LGBTQ organization that was founded in early 1969 in San Diego, California. By the time Fay joined, it had formed a national network. Dignity NY which began in 1972 held weekly liturgies at St. Francis Xavier Parish in lower Manhattan. Here he was delighted to meet members of the Catholic Worker movement co-founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933.
Following the October 1986 Vatican letter describing homosexuality as an intrinsic disorder in March of 1987, at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, Cardinal O’Connor expelled Dignity chapters from New York parishes. Following the pronouncement the organization met at the LGBT Center in the Greenwich Village, but eventually they found a welcome at a nearby Episcopal Church, which was commonly referred to as “St. John’s in the Village.” Fay describes the Cardinal’s exclusionary order and the further ostracization as a “painful experience of exile.” However, during this time, “we found new understandings of identity and belonging.” Brendan was elected for some years to the newly formed Dignity NY steering committee. He coordinated the annual Pride witness at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and a Lenten Taizé reflection group.
In June 1994 honoring the twenty-fifth anniversary of Stonewall, he hosted an evening of reflections and stories of Dignity/NY pioneers entitled “25 years of Faith and Activism.”
In 1987, Fay met activist Jesús Lebrón, who was a manager at the popular Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in Greenwich Village, the world’s first LGBT bookshop founded by Craig Rodwell in 1967. It was to be a lifechanging encounter. For a time, the two were lovers, but eventually they became lifelong friends and leading activists in the marriage equality movement starting in 1996.
Fay says, “With Jesús Lebrón I found a friendship that became a transformative tenderness sustaining our activism through the years. During the AIDS crisis and anti LGBT violence and prejudice, our friendship was an emotional bonding of solidarity in shared resisting and rising from our silences and our second-class status.”
Fay collaborated with other well-known activists like Gilbert Baker, Robert Pinter, Stanley Rygor, Barbara Mohr, Danny Dromm and Andy Humm on LGBT+ causes including, AIDS awareness, policing reform, immigration rights, cultural inclusion, and marriage equality
Due to the outspokenness of his activist work and especially his visible participation with the Irish Lesbian & Gay Organization (ILGO) and Mayor David Dinkins in the 1991 St. Patrick’s Day parade, Fay was terminated from his teaching position at The Mary Louis Academy. He then worked at the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) of New York and led its AIDS food distribution program. In 1994 while working at “Uplift Lighting”, Randy Wicker’s Greenwich Village lamp shop, he met and encountered leaders from the homophile movement of the 50s and 60s including Barbara Gittings (1932-2007), Jim Kepner (1923-1997) and Harry Hay (1912-2002).
Reflecting on his experience of “coming out” Fay said, “My Dad was an unusual man – with an unusual family and recalled the evening in February 1990 when, against the advice of some, he “came out” to his father as a gay man. It was a transformative moment for both. Fay’s father unequivocally supported his son and after coming out, his father intensively followed the campaigns to expand LGBTQ+ rights in Ireland. His father would send news clippings and updates to Brendan and Tom in New York. In August 2003, when Fay’s parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, Tom and Brendan traveled to Drogheda and became Ireland’s first licit bi-national same-sex couple, which garnered international media attention.
Fay was active with the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO) from May 1990 to 1994. He addressed the New York City Pride rally in June 1991 and in March 1992 organized New York’s faith communities in support of the ILGO’s inclusion in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. On March 16, 1991, at the St. Patrick’s Day parade he marched openly gay and Catholic, joining with ILGO and New York City Mayor David Dinkins. Amidst the jeers and cheers, he made his way up the avenue alongside AIDS activist Robert Rygor (1953-1994).
He also met Donald Maher, a leader at the midtown St. Paul the Apostle parish. Maher began a lesbian and gay ministry at the Catholic parish. While year after year ILGO members were excluded and arrested on Fifth Avenue they were warmly welcomed at the parish. Through the ‘90s Fay was invited to speak from a gay Catholic perspective. He offered reflections on saints for the LGBT community, on sacraments, the call to activism and cultivating a spirit of compassion and hospitality. Along with Maher and others Brendan was also active with the interfaith “Spiritual Rainbow - a religious and spiritual coalition of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.”
In March 1994, Brendan founded the Irish LGBT group Lavender and Green Alliance. In 1994, for Stonewall 25 with artist Peter Hendrick, he co-curated a “Windows on Gay Life” exhibit on Irish LGBT history in Ireland and among the diasporas. In 1995, he initiated the group’s Roger Casement-Eva Gore Booth leadership Award. For 10 years the group celebrated Irish LGBT heritage and culture with a dinner dance called “Oíche Aerach” (Gay night). For several years, the celebrations found a welcome at the St. Paul the Apostle parish.
For Stonewall 50 Brendan with Jesús Lebron organized a portrait exhibit of Irish LGBT pioneers carried as part of the June 2019 NYC Pride march by members of Lavender and Green Alliance. He co-founded Irish Aids Outreach in 1996 to break the silence and create a more accepting space for persons with AIDS in the Irish community.
Following years of exclusion, protests and arrests he began New York City’s inclusive St. Pat's for All parade in 1999. The parade is known for its diversity and hospitality. The theme of St. Pat’s for All, “Cherishing all the children of the nation equally”, is taken from the proclamation of the Easter Rising 1916. Brendan says- “Out of the experience of exclusion we created a cultural movement of welcome and hospitality.” Through the years he worked with inspiring co-chairs and organizers including Ellen Duncan, Barbara Mohr and Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy. On March 17, 2016, the Irish LGBT group Lavender and Green Alliance was warmly welcomed to join New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, after 25 years of struggle for inclusion. With Irish Consul General Barbara Jones and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio Brendan was among the Irish community leaders announcing the historic threshold in the life of New York City. In November 2021, after 22 years of organizing Brendan resigned from St. Pat’s For All. He wrote – “letting go is to welcome the gifts of others”
Brendan met Franciscan Fr. Mychal Judge, as he was one of the priests who ministered and provided sacraments at Dignity NY. Fay reached out to Fr. Judge during the AIDS crisis. Fay recalls, “When exiled and excluded by the institutional Church, Fr. Mychal provided compassion and sacraments in our living rooms and community centers.” Brendan was among a small circle of Mychal’s sober friends who met for dinner and went on retreat together. He was well known as “Fr Mike” in New York for his ministry with those who were homeless, recovering alcoholics, people with AIDS, immigrants, the LGBT+ community, and others marginalized by society. He was a familiar face in New York AA meetings and befriended many like himself finding freedom from addiction in a new life of sobriety. Judge supported Fay’s work in the Irish LGBT community with Lavender and Green Alliance and the St. Pat’s for All parade. On October 11, 2001, after 9/11 and the death of Judge, Fay organized a memorial at Good Shepherd Chapel at General Theological Seminary in New York City. It was an evening of prayer, traditional Irish music, and personal stories. This celebration of Judge became the basis for Fay’s two films on Father Mychal Judge: Saint of 9-11 (2006) and Remembering Mychal (2021). Dr. Paul Bradley in May 2002, arranged for a screening of Brendan’s film at Union Theological Seminary followed by a panel which also included Australian gay theologian Michael Kelly and Mary Hunt.
Brendan first encountered Jesuit theologian and openly gay priest Fr. John McNeill through his writings while studying theology in St Patrick’s College Maynooth. In New York he joined Dignity NY the community which John co- founded in 1972. “John McNeill created a movement, a communal sacred space where we could be both LGBT and Catholic. Brendan says “I came to John through the movement he helped form”. After he interviewed John for a film on “Being Irish and Gay in America” and for the documentary on Fr. Mychal Judge (Saint of 9-11) Brendan felt compelled to “unwrap even more the uncommon life of this humble priest from Buffalo, who was a POW in Nazi Germany, a voice for peace during the Vietnam war and a pioneering voice for gay liberation. Of this time, he says, “I found John to be an honest and courageous priest. John McNeill was saying it was not only ok to be gay, but it was good to be gay and he was saying this at a time when the medical establishment defined us as sick, the law defined us as criminals and the Church denounced us as sinners.” From 2002 -2011 Brendan researched and directed an award-winning documentary on Fr. John McNeill.
Fay has also been involved in Polish LGBT politics and activism. During Polish President Lech Kaczynski’s March 17, 2008, national address in which he denounced same-sex marriage, he used images of his wedding with Tom Moulton in Canada. Brendan and Tom have visited Poland several times, including Euro Pride 2010. They traveled to Warsaw and Krakow invited by the Polish LGBT faith community group “Wiara i Tacza.” Fay returned to Krakow for the visit of Pope Francis and the World Youth Day gathering in July 2016 to screen films and hold conversations with European youth on activism for change. In July 2019 following an outbreak of violence Brendan was invited by national Polish LGBT leaders in to address rallies in Warsaw and Bialystok. In August 2022 he returned to Poland screening his film “Remembering Mychal- Priest of 9/11” in Warsaw, Poznan, and Krakow.
Fay traveled to Mexico several times, most recently in November 2019 to screen Taking a Chance on God his film on theologian John McNeill hosted by the Irish Embassy and the Museum of Memory and Tolerance. He also traveled on to Puerto Escondido invited by human rights advocate Piotr Piwowarczyk and local group “Trans-Difusion” leader Sofia Guandalain honoring the International Transgender Day of Remembrance – “Dia de la Remembranza Trans.”
Brendan met his spouse Tom Moulton in 1996 at a Dignity/NY Sunday Mass. Tom is a pediatric hematologist-oncologist. On May 24, 2003, Dignity chaplain Fr. Raymond Lefebvre (1957-2015) was the presider at their community wedding. Some weeks after they were among the first bi-national couples to legally marry in Canada on July 27, 2003. Their marriage was the subject of a popular “Would You Believe” documentary on Irish television in October 2003. Brendan was inspired to establish the Civil Marriage Trail Project with Jesús Lebrón, bringing same-sex couples across borders for legal marriage. Among the couples were Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer who married in Toronto on May 22, 2007. The Supreme Court case United States v. Windsor (2013) led to the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
In 2015, Fay organized support in New York and in Drogheda for the historic YES campaign when Ireland became the first country in the world to extend marriage equality by popular vote. In June 2021 Brendan became a marriage officiant for the City of New York.
With his spouse Tom, Fay campaigned for the successful passage of legislation on Sickle Cell Disease in the New York City Council.
On January 28, 2020, Fay was among the leaders of NYCAN (New York Campaign Against clear Weapons) organizing a historic public hearing in City Hall in support of legislation calling on the City Comptroller to divest NYC pension funds from “the production and maintenance of nuclear weapons” and in support for the historic United Nations’ Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the International Campaign to Abolition Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) Cities Appeal. Intro. 1621 establishes an Advisory Committee on nuclear disarmament to investigate and ensure NYC’s status as a “nuclear weapons-free zone.” The legislation became law in January 2022.
Fay’s early film work included consultation and research for the Kevin Mulhern Production on the 1994 film about Irish patriot and humanitarian Roger Casement (1864-1916). Due to his expertise on Irish religious women, he consulted for Miramax on the 2005 film, The Magdalene Laundries. Moreover, with Fay’s Lavender and Green Alliance, they produced the Silence to Speech documentary series on being Irish and Gay in the United States.
He is director of Remembering Mychal (2021) and co-producer and European Field Producer of Saint of 9/11 (2006) documentaries about Fr. Mychal Judge, the FDNY Franciscan chaplain who was killed during the tragedy on September 11th. He is an associate producer of the award-winning Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement.
His film about gay pioneer priest John McNeill (1925-2015), Taking a Chance on God (2012, 2016), has been translated into Polish, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. The film screened at international festivals including Rio, Warsaw, Durban, Belfast, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, Florence, and London. With emmy award winning editor Ed Caraballo he directed a film tribute Remembering Tarlach (2021) in honor of Irish LGBT activist Tarlach MacNiallais (1962-2020).
He has spoken at many colleges, rallies, high schools, and film festivals including Columbia University, Maynooth University, Galway University, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah and New York’s Riverside Church among others. He has spoken at many conventions including the LGBT Creating Change Conference and the College Theology Society and presented workshop on Celtic spirituality, ecology, cultural hospitality, and LGBTQ activism and history. In 2004 he presented one of early workshops at the national Call to Action Conference on “Same Sex Marriage - Catholic Conversations”. He has led retreats and workshops in Ireland, Britain, Poland, and the United States.
Brendan is on the advisory council of Pride for Youth, a service for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth in Long Island and Queens, New York.
Fay is a subject of several films including The Would You Believe documentary An Irish Wedding (RTE- 2003), The Other Parade (2011) by director Dan Messina. He is one of the stories of the 2022 Apple podcast series, Little America.
For his work on human rights and community organizing, Fay was Grand Marshal of the Queen’s Pride Parade in 1996. He has received several awards including the Carmel Tavadia Award from PFLAG Queens in 2001, The Gormley Award from Dignity NY in 1996, the Pax et Bonum Award from Dignity San Francisco in 2008, The LOFT LGBT Center Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer Equality Award in 2014 and the NY Gay City News Impact Award in 2016. He was welcomed to his hometown as Grand Marshal of the 2017 St. Patrick’s parade in Drogheda.
Fay was among the recipients of The Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad presented by Irish President Michael D. Higgins on December 8, 2016. On June 11, 2022 for his advocacy on human rights, creating spaces of cultural hospitality and campaigning for nuclear disarmament and divestment, Fay was awarded the Eileen Egan Peacemaker Award by Pax Christi Metro New York (PCMNY), an international Catholic peace movement.
(This biographical statement written by Thomas Schwartz from an interview with Brendan Fay and edited by Fay.)
Biography Date: November 2022