Category Archives: Queer Saints and Martyrs

St Paulinus of Nola: Bishop, Poet, Saint – and Gay: (June 22nd )

Although some would dispute the description of Paulinus as ‘gay’, the description seems to me entirely appropriate to his sensibility. Although history records no evidence of physical expression of his same sex attraction, nor is there any evidence against it.  Given the historical context he was living in (4th/5th century Roman empire) , when sex with either gender was commonplace for men at at all levels of society, inside and outside the Christian church, the absence of written records of private activities after 15 centuries is completely unremarkable.  Nor is the fact that he was married particularly significant – for Romans, marriage and sex with men were entirely compatible.
What is known is that he was married, but also passionately in love with a man, Ausonius, to whom he addressed exquisitely tender love poetry.   This is of sufficient quality and gay sensibility to be included in the Penguin book of homosexual verse:

“To Ausonius”

I, through all chances that are given to mortals, And through all fates that be, So long as this close prison shall contain me, Yea, though a world shall sunder me and thee,
Thee shall I hold, in every fibre woven, Not with dumb lips, nor with averted face Shall I behold thee, in my mind embrace thee,Instant and present, thou, in every place.
Yea, when the prison of this flesh is broken, And from the earth I shall have gone my way, Wheresoe’er in the wide universe I stay me, There shall I bear thee, as I do today.
Think not the end, that from my body frees me, Breaks and unshackles from my love to thee; Triumphs the soul above its house in ruin, Deathless, begot of immortality.
Still must she keep her senses and affections, Hold them as dear as life itself to be, Could she choose death, then might she choose forgetting:
Living, remembering, to eternity.

[trans. Helen Waddell, in Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse]

It is surely entirely clear from the above that whatever his physical erotic activities, his sensibility was entirely what we would today call “Gay”.  Paulinus’ feast day was on Monday of this week (June 22nd).  It is fitting that we remember him, and the multitude of other LGBT saints in the long history of the church.

Further reading:

For more  online, see Paul Hansall’s invaluable LGBT Catholic handbook, or the Catholic Encyclopedia(Note though that the latter’s entry on Paulinus is an excellent case study on how official Church history scrupulously edits out our LGBT history.  In a reasonably lengthy entry, Ausonius and the verses addressed to him are noted – but the essential facts that the relationship was passionate, or that the verses were clearly love poetry, are carefully filtered out.)

In print, see  John Boswell’s “Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality”, pp133 – 134.

Uganda Martyrs: Charles Lwangwa and companions

For queer Christians, the phrase “Ugandan Martyrs” carries a tragic double meaning. In Catholic hagiography, it refers to the execution / martyrdom in 1886 of a band of young men, pages in the Royal court of the Bugandan King Mwanga II, who had converted to Christianity and thereafter resisted his sexual advances. June 6th, is the anniversary of their joint beatification by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. Their feast day, known as the Feast of Charles Lwanga and companions, is celebrated annually on June 3rd.

Uganda_Martyrs

From a modern LGBT point of view, there is  a quite different significance, almost it’s polar opposite. This perspective recalls that in the cultural context of the time, King Mwanga’s expectation of sexual service from his pages did not make him a perverted monster, as seen by the missionaries. Before the arrival of European colonials, different forms of homosexual practice and non-conformist gender expression were commonplace across Africa.  Seen in this light, the execution of the pages was a legal penalty for resisting customary law – and the introduction by foreign missionaries of what has since become deeply entrenched cultural homophobia.

In recent years, the flames of  homophobia have been further  fanned by missionaries, this time especially by American evangelicals, who have promoted draconian legislation to criminalize homosexuality, carrying harsh penalties for those convicted of transgressions.  Along with the legal penalties, the popular mood in Uganda has become so hostile, that life for ordinary gay and lesbian people in the country has become exceedingly difficult. Even to be suspected of being gay, frequently frequently leads not only to simple social ostracism, but also to outright exclusion from homes and families, to discrimination in employment and social services,  to police harassment, to violence, and even to murder, such as that of David Kato. For many LGBT people,  the only viable response is to leave the country entirely as refugees seeking asylum abroad.

So, the double meaning of the phrase “Ugandan Martyrs”: from the traditional Catholic perspective, the martyrs are those who were executed in 1886 for sticking by their Christian faith, in the face of Royal commands to renounce it. For modern gays and lesbians, the words refer to all those who are persecuted or even murdered, often in the name of the Christian religion, for their sexuality.

For a more extended analysis and reflection on the martyrs, and what this commemoration means for queer people of faith, see Kittredge Cherry at Jesus in Love Blog, who introduced her post on the feast day, by observing (accurately) that

Tough questions about homosexuality, religion and LGBT rights are raised by the Uganda Martyrs whose feast day is today (June 3).

Recommended Books:

 

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Rev. Phebe Ann Coffin Hannaford, Pioneering “Lesbian” Minister

b. May 6, 1829
d. June 2, 1921
Gay and lesbian clergy have been around for a long time – right from the start of ordained ministry (barring some quibbles over terminology: the words “gay” and “lesbian” do not apply directly to the earliest years). Even in modern times, there are numerous reports of openly gay or lesbian clergy going back a lot further than I had recognised. Among many who are described as the “first” in one or other specific field, the earliest clear example I have come across (so far) is Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, who was raised a Quaker,where she was accustomed to full participation by women,  was briefly a Baptist, and finally ordained in the Universalist church in 1968, claiming to have been the first woman of any denomination ordained in New England.  She was also plainly and openly “lesbian”, many years before the term or concept was widely recognized.
Phebe Ann Coffin was born into a Quaker family in Siasconset, on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, the only child of the merchant and shipowner George W. Coffin and his wife Phebe Ann (Barnard) Coffin. Both were Quakers and direct descendants of the island’s first white settlers, Tristram Coffin and Peter Folger.
Phebe lived amidst women who bore the responsibilities of daily life as the whaling men were at sea. These two influences made Phebe an extraordinarily independent woman. She was educated in public and private schools on the island, tutored in mathematics and Latin and her talents were encouraged at home. She was a formidable scholar and active reformer: she wrote the first biography of Lincoln to be published after his death, and was active in both the abolitionist and women’s movements.
She spoke openly of her desire to be a Quaker preacher. She took the pledge at the early age of 8 and at age 18 was chaplain and treasurer of the Daughters of Temperance and Deputy Grand Worthy Chief Templar in the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.
She taught school on Cape Cod and in Nantucket until her marriage in 1849 to Dr. Joseph H. Hanaford, a homeopathic physician and school teacher. She joined her husband’s Baptist church. Their son, Howard, was born in 1841 and their daughter, Florence, in 1854.
Living in Beverly during the Civil War, her commitment as an abolitionist led her to relinquish her Quaker pacifism. As her marriage was failing she supported and educated her children with her writing. Her contact with Universalist women opened up a world of activism for the rights of women. In 1868 she was ordained a minister in the Universalist church. From 1874, she was pastor to a congregation in New Jersey, but after her initial three year term, controversy arose over her reappointment which she did not get.
The controversy was nominally over her involvement in the “women’s issue” (ie, the suffragette movement), but in reality it was her relationship with coworker Ellen Miles, which had begun in 1870. Newspaper clippings preserved in Hanaford’s scrapbook reported that the disgruntlement among congregation members was, in fact, over Hanaford’s liaison with Miles, whom the papers called the ‘minister’s wife.’ Hanaford, it seems, was not simply asked to cease her women’s rights activities, but more specifically, to ‘dismiss’ Miss Miles… their letters testify to a deep and abiding affection. The two remained life-long companions, separated after forty-four years together only by Miles’s death in 1914.
After her failure to be reappointed in New Jersey, she attempted to set up a new congregation of her own. However, when her dissident New Jersey congregation applied for formal recognition and was rejected by the General Universalist Convention in 1878, Hanaford had no settled pulpit, and for years she conducted lecturing and preaching tours across New England and the Middle Atlantic and Western states. Deprived of formal ministry, she created a successful independent ministry of her own – ultimately achieving high honour in the early twentieth century , when she was asked to officiate at the at the funeral services for two leading women’s rights activists of the nineteenth century: the feminist philosopher Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the woman-suffrage organizer Susan B. Anthony. The two friends, who had shared a life of labor, died within four years of each other, and Hanaford had known them both well.
After Ellen’s death Phebe lived with her granddaughter in Basom, New York where she was isolated from the activities she enjoyed. Both her children predeceased her. She voted in the New York election but not in the federal election of 1920. The family moved to Rochester, New York where she died alone in her bedroom. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Orleans, New York next to her daughter Florence Hanaford Warner.
There is a great deal in the story of this remarkable woman for us to reflect on and learn from. The story of her extraordinary achievement as a woman in defying and transcending gender boundaries as an impressive scholar and pioneer female ordained minister is remarkable in itself. Thereafter, after commencing a new life committed to a woman, she was confronted by a demand from her congregation to give up her partner and conform, or to face the loss of her ministry.  Courageously, she chose commitment and truth over expedience, and paid the price. She persevered independently for decades, forging an independent ministry where she was unable to work within the formal structures – and ultimately achieved honour and recognition for it.
Rev Hanaford deserves to be better remembered and celebrated.Source:A Paper Trail: Piecing Together the Life of Phebe Hanaford
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St. Joan of Arc, Trans Martyr

Among all the multitude of queer saints,  Joan of Arc is one of the most important. In her notorious martyrdom for heresy (a charge which in historical context included reference to her cross-dressing and defiance of socially approved gender roles), she is a reminder of the great persecution of sexual and gender minorities by the Inquisition, directly or at their instigation. In LGBT Christian history, “martyrs” applies not only to those martyred by the church, but also to those martyred by the church. In her rehabilitation and canonization, she is a reminder that the leaders and theologians of the church, those who were responsible for her prosecution and conviction, can be wrong, can be pronounced to be wrong, and can in time have their judgements overturned.(This is not just a personal view. Pope Benedict has made some very pointed remarks of his own to this effect, while speaking about Joan of Arc).  In the same way, it is entirely possible (I believe likely) that the current dogmatic verdict of Vatican orthodoxy which condemns our relationships will also in time be rejected.  We may even come to see some of the pioneers of gay theology, who have in effect endured a kind of professional martyrdom for their honesty and courage, rehabilitated and honoured by the Church, just as St Joan has been.

Joan of Arc Iinterrogation by the Bishop  of Winchester (Paul Delaroche, 1797 -1856)
Joan of Arc:  Interrogation by the Bishop  of Winchester (Paul Delaroche, 1797 -1856)

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Continue reading St. Joan of Arc, Trans Martyr

Rosa Bonheur: Cross-dressing painter honored “androgyne Christ”

Rosa Bonheur, the most famous female painter of the 19th century, was a queer cross-dresser who honored what she called the “androgyne Christ.” She had two consecutive long-term relationships with women. She died on this date (May 25) in 1899.

Born in France in 1822, Bonheur received much acclaim in her lifetime for her paintings of animals. In recent years she has been celebrated as a queer pioneer, feminist icon, and role model for the LGBT community. Her achievements grew out of an unusual religious upbringing in the proto-feminist Saint-Simonian sect, and the queer Christian ideals that she expressed in adulthood. Bonheur’s gender-bending lifestyle has been covered extensively by scholars, but her spirituality has received much less attention.

Her parents raised her in Saint-Simonianism, a French utopian Christian-socialist movement that advocated equality for women and prophesied the coming of a female messiah. Her father was an artist and an ardent apostle for the Saint-Simonian religion. Bonheur writes a whole chapter about growing up as a Saint-Simonian in the book “Rosa Bonheur: The Artist’s (Auto)biography,” which she wrote with her companion Anna Klumpke.

The Saint-Simonian concept of gender equality paved the way for Bonheur’s father to train her as a painter… and for her own defiance of gender norms. As she put it, “To his doctrines I owe my great and glorious ambition for the sex to which I proudly belong and whose independence I shall defend until my dying day.”

read more:  Jesus in Love Blog

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"All Will be Well, and All Shall Be Well" : Julian of Norwich, 8th May

There is no way that we should be thinking of Julian as gay or lesbian, but we should certainly think of her as queer (and as, she was undoubtedly female, in spite of her name). There are two reasons for including her here. The first is her pioneering unequivocal feminism. These are shown by her gender bending references in her book to God as mother – and even to Jesus as “mother Jesus”, which are habits for us too to acquire in our prayer. In her own career, she was remarkable for producing the first book to be written in English by a woman. Can we think of her as the first feminist theologian?

“The Mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side, and show us there a part of the godhead and of the joys of heaven with inner certainty of endless bliss.

 

The second is the fundamental nature of her spirituality, which was centuries ahead of her time, and can be especially valuable to those who, like the LGBT community, feel threatened by an accusatory and hostile  institutional Church.  Here, it is important to note that her optimistic spirituality, as indicated in the well-known quotation in my headline, is not simply a Panglossian, mindless “always look on the bright side”. There is a very sound theological basis for it, made clear in an expanded formulation of the idea:

“And so our good Lord answered to all questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortably: I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well, and you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well”.

All will be well – because God has promised to make them well. Hope is a virtue – and optimism a theological obligation.

Julian (not her birth name) was born in 1342. At the age of 30, she fell dangerously ill, coming close to death. At this time, she experienced a series of mystical visions on the Passion of Christ and on the love of God. After her recovery, she became an anchoress, and recorded her experiences which she described as “showings”, in her book. She is renowned for her insistence in these on God’s unbending love and care for Her people, which was unusual for a time when religion was seen in much stricter, more judgemental terms of avoiding eternal damnation.

Read “The Showing Of Love” on-line

The “Umilta” website has an astonishing collection of links to scholarly work on Juliana and her times ( including this useful one : Equally in God’s Image  Women in the Middle Ages

Friends of Julian describes itself as the  “official” Julian website. I don’t know on what authority they make the claim, but the site is at least attractive and informative.

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SS Benedicta, (6 May) and Galla (5 October), Roman nuns – and lovers?

One of the curiosities of the Catholic tradition of honouring our saints and martyrs, is how hagiography seamlessly combines historical biography, myth with collective amnesia. The stories of Saints Patrick and Brigid of Ireland, for instance, are replete with well-known legends that have absolutely no verifiable foundation in historical fact, and the delightful story of St Wilgefortis (aka Uncumber), the crucified bearded woman, turns out to have a much more plausible basis in reality. For many other saints, the distortions of hagiography are not just the accretions that are added by popular imagination, but the important details that are so often omitted in the transmission down the ages. St Paulinus, for instance, is widely honoured for his missionary work and for the impressive quality of his Latin devotional poetry. The standard Catholic sources on the saints, however, discreetly omit any reference to his other poetic legacy – equally fine homoerotic verse addressed to his boyfriend, Ausonius.

The story of Saints Galla and Benedicta of Rome may be another example of this selective memory.  

 

Neither of these is particularly well-known, and Benedicta is even less-so than Galla, but I start with her. There are references to her scattered across the internet, but they all seem to come down to a few lines similar to these, from Catholic Online:

Mystic and nun. Benedicta lived in a convent founded by St. Galla in Rome. Pope St. Gregory the Great states that St. Peter appeared in a vision to warn her of her approaching death.

This seems innocuous enough, until it is set against the parallel warning of imminent death that St Gregory also gave to the better known St Galla.

From a large selection of on-line sources, Wikipedia sums up the key uncontested points of her story, those widely reported elsewhere:

Galla was the daughter of Roman patrician Symmachus the Younger, who was appointed consul in 485. Galla was also the sister-in-law of Boethius. Her father, Symmachus the Younger, was condemned to death, unjustly, by Theodoric in 525. Galla was then married but was soon widowed, just over a year after marriage. It was believed that she grew a beard, to avoid further offers of marriage. Being wealthy, she decided to retreat to theVatican Hill, and found a hospital and a convent, near St. Peter’s Basilica. Galla is reputed to have once healed a deaf and mute girl, by blessing some water, and giving it to the girl to drink. Galla remained there for the rest of her life, tending to the sick and poor, before dying in 550, of breast cancer. 

 Notice, please, that little sentence tucked away in the middle, and its cautious qualifier: “it was  believed that she grew a beard, to avoid further offers of marriage.” This strategy of a holy woman, to grow a beard to avoid marriage, is precisely that adopted by Wilgefortis. Her legend appears to have a much more mundane explanation. I have no knowledge of any firm evidence to either corroborate, or to contradict, Galla’s legendary beard. What interests me is the rest of Galla’s story, and its treatment in hagiography.

An article at Catholic Culture is a good example. It seizes on the beard, and uses it as a moral fable, encouraging us to “dare to be different”.  Catholic Culture, however, claims that the beard story was only a threat, and the beard never did grow.

A story about St. Galla of Rome, illustrating the importance to not follow the crowd, but to be oneself. Legend says that St. Galla, after becoming a widow, grew a beard to avoid any offers of remarriage.

Not only girls who want to be nuns, but girls who just want to be good have to ignore a marvelous lot of nonsense from those who “follow the pack.” Life will pass you by, they say, and you won’t have any fun if you don’t do as we do! About as fast as St. Galla grew her beard, it will!

 So, then dare to be different – the cause of following holiness. But there’s one little detail also included in the  same article, which they do not comment on – a detail that has been omitted from all the other accounts I have seen about Galla. These all tell how, as reported by St Gregory, St Peter appeared to Galla in her final illness to predict the date of her imminent death. The other reports omit the crucial detail that the deaths of Galla and Benedicta were directly linked – at Galla’s express request to Peter:

One night she saw St. Peter standing before her between two candlesticks and she asked him if her sins were forgiven her. St. Peter nodded and said, “Come, follow me.” But Galla asked if her dear friend Benedicta might come too. Yes, she might, said St. Peter, after thirty days — and that is precisely what happened. St. Galla and another holy woman departed this life for heaven three days later, and Benedicta thirty days after them.

 As Censor Librorum at  Nihil Obstat noted in her reflection on Galla last December, a woman who first grows or threatens to grow a beard to avoid marriage, and then implores Saint Peter to allow her female beloved to accompany her into heaven, is not displaying a conventional heterosexual orientation.

I have no hesitation in hesitation in adding Saints Galla and Benedicta to my collection of queer saints and lovers.

St. George the Dragon Slayer

I’ve always been somewhat amused by the idea that St George, with no discernible link to this country, known primarily for an obviously mythical reputation as a dragon slayer, should have been adopted as patron saint of England. It’s also rather odd that of the four constituent “countries” in the UK, the English are oddly reserved about flying the flag of St George, at least outside of  sports events.  The Scots, the Welsh and (especially) the Irish will celebrate their national days with enthusiasm, but the English are very ambivalent about George, with claims that he has been hijacked by right wing nationalist racists. However, his feast day comes at a good time of year (springtime), and coincides happily with Shakespeare’s birthday, so I’ve always been happy to drink a quiet toast to George, and to Will Shakespeare, when April 23rd comes around.
Now, though, I have found an excellent reason to take him rather more seriously.

I knew that Paul Halsall, in his calendar of LGBT Saints, lists George, but I had not previously investigated why.  Now that I have done, I find several features that appeal to me personally.
As stated above,  his irrational status as ptaron Saint of England, my adopted home, delights my sense of the absurd. That he should have a claim to a status as a gay icon increases the appeal. To cement the deal, the nature of his claim, to a mystical experience in which he is described as the “bridegroom of Christ” pretty closely resembles the central experience of the most intense retreat of my own life.

I think I should change my middle name to “George”.
Now, consider the dragon.  The value of plainly mythical beasts lies in their potential as symbols.  If we use the dragon image to represent ignorance, homophobia and the institutional hostility from heterosexual theology, can we all march under his banner?
I’d like to think so.

This is how “Pharsea’s World” explains his significance for gay men:

Nothing whatsoever can be established about St. George as a historical figure. Nethertheless, no one reading early texts about George can fail to notice their homoeroticism. George at one stage is about to marry, but is prevented by Christ:
“[George] did not know that Christ was keeping him as a pure virginal bridegroom for himself”.
[E.W. Budge: “The Martyrdom and Miracles of St. George of Cappodocia”: The Coptic Texts,
(London: D. Nutt, 1888) page 282]
In these texts ….George is presented as the bridegroom of Christ. Bridal imagery is quite common in discourse about Christ, but usually male saints are made into “brides of Christ”, but with George homo-gender marital imagery is used.


Related posts:

Let Us Remember, March 17th: St Patrick of Ireland- a Gay Role Model?

So why should we see St Paddy as a gay icon?

In a notable book on Irish gay history (Terrible Queer Creatures“) Brian Lacey presents some evidence that Patrick may have had a long term intimate relationship with a man:
“St. Patrick himself may have had a relationship tinged with homoeroticism. Tirechan, a late seventh century cleric who wrote about St. Patrick, tells the story of a man Patrick visited and converted to Christianity, who had a son to whom Patrick took a strong liking. Tirechan wrote that “he gave him the name Benignus, because he took Patrick’s feet between his hands and would not sleep with his father and mother, but wept unless he would be allowed to sleep with Patrick.” Patrick baptized the boy and made him his close lifelong companion, so much so that Benignus succeeded Patrick as bishop of Armagh.”
saint-patrick
Among the few verifiable facts of Patrick’s life, are that when he was about 16, he was captured from his home and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he lived for six years before escaping and returning to his family. After becoming a cleric, he returned to northern and western Ireland as an ordained bishop, but little is known about the places where he worked. By the seventh century, he had already come to be revered as the patron saint of Ireland.
It is his return to his place of hardship and slavery that should interest LGBT Catholics. Somewhere, I read a report* that after his escape from slavery and return to Ireland, he supported himself by working for a time as a prostitute  – yes, good old Patrick is said to have sold sexual favours.

*  In a comment to an earlier posting of this piece, theologian John McNeill has said that he thinks the book with this story was “How the Irish Saved Civilization“, by Thomas Cahill. “He claims that Patrick paid for his passage back to Ireland by servicing the sailors on the boat.”

 

 

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