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.”
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According to the LGBT Catholic Handbook
, this week sees the feast day of St. Apollinaria /Dorotheos of Egypt (5th, 6th January). She is said to have been one of a group of transvestite saints – women who took on men’s clothing in order to live as monks.
For the specific story of Apollinaria, we turn to the Orthodox church, who take these female monks rather more serioulsy than the western church.
This is from the Orthodox website, “God is Wonderful in His Saints”
She was a maiden of high rank, the daughter of a magistrate named Anthimus in the city of Rome. Filled with love for Christ, she prevailed on her parents to allow her to travel on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In Jerusalem she dismissed most of her attendants, gave her jewels, fine clothes and money to the poor, and went on to Egypt accompanied only by two trusted servants. Near Alexandria she slipped away from them and fled to a forest, where she lived in ascesis for many years. She then made her way to Sketis, the famous desert monastic colony, and presented herself as a eunuch named Dorotheos. In this guise she was accepted as a monk.
Anthimus, having lost his elder daughter, was visited with another grief: his younger daughter was afflicted by a demon. He sent this daughter to Sketis, asking the holy fathers there to aid her by their prayers. They put her under the care of “Dorotheos”, who after days of constant prayer effected the complete cure of her (unknowing) sister. When the girl got back home it was discovered that she was pregnant, and Anthimus angrily ordered that the monk who had cared for her be sent to him. He was astonished to find that “Dorotheos” was his own daughter Apollinaria, whom he had abandoned hope of seeing again. After some days the holy woman returned to Sketis, still keeping her identity secret from her fellow-monks. Only at her death was her true story discovered.
The Handbook lists some scholarly references in support, while a look at some orthodox websites corroborates the story and confirms her feast on 5th January. The Advent Catholic Encyclopedia. however, dismisses the tale as ‘hagiographic fiction.’
Apollinaria’s story and motives are remote from our time, and ‘transvestite’ is not to be confused with ‘transgendered’. (UPDATE: After I first described this group of women as “transvestite”, I was taken to task by a reader, who pointed out that these days, “cross-dressing” is more appropriate terminology). Still, whatever the full historic truth of Apollinaria/ Dorotheos specifically, it seems to me this is a useful story to hold on to as a reminder of the important place of the transgendered, and differently gendered, in our midst.
Many of us will remember how difficult and challenging was the process of recognising, and then confronting, our identities as lesbian or gay, particularly in the context of a hostile church. However difficult and challenging we may have found the process of honestly confronting our sexual identities, consider how much more challenging must be the process of confronting and negotiating honestly a full gender identity crisis.
Let us acknowledge the courage of those who have done it, and pray for those who are preparing to do so.
Anson, J., “”, Viator 5 (1974), 1-32
Bennasser, Khalifa Abubakr, Gender and Sanctity in Early Byzantine Monasticism: A Study of the Phenomenon of Female Ascetics in Male Monastic Habit with a Translation of the Life of St. Matrona, [Rutgers Ph.D Dissertation 1984; UMI 8424085]