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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Harvey Milk, Secular Gay Saint and Modern Martyr

In California, May 22 is officially recognised as “Harvey Milk Day“. The reasons for this secular honour are well-known, and recorded in several books and notable movies.  In 1977, he became the first openly gay man elected to public office as a gay man, but served for only a short term before he was assassinated on  Nov. 27, 1978. Even in that brief term of office, he made his mark with his contribution to San Francisco’s landmark Gay Rights Ordinance, and to the defeat of the Briggs initiative, which would have required California school districts to fire openly gay and lesbian teachers, but was defeated in the November election shortly before Milk’s assassination. Rather than rehashing the bare facts of Harvey Milk’s life and career, which can be read elsewhere, I want to reflect a little on the symbolism and lessons that these have acquired, three decades later.

Although he is best known for his unique position as a trailblazer for out gay politicians, his work was not limited to queer advocacy, as Kittredge Cherry reminds us at Jesus in Love:

Milk (1930-1978) served only 11 months on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors before he was killed, but in that short time he fought for the rights of the elderly, small business owners, and the many ethnic communities in his district as well as for the growing LGBT community.


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Queer Saints and Martyrs: Calendar for May

Queer saints, martyrs and other notable dates for October feature lesbian lovers, a renowned female mystic, a notable secular saint, and two dates of importance for combating homophobia.


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Some Divine Patrons of Queer Love

In Christian theology, we are told that we are made “in God’s image and likeness.” Taking a broader view across all religions, it is more accurate to say that humans make gods & goddesses in our image and likeness – even where they are visualized in non-human form, their reported behaviour is frequently anthropomorphic.

This is especially obvious outside of the monotheistic religions. In these, the necessity for imagining gods & goddesses in relationships and interactions with other gods produces tales of jealousy, rivalry, and amorous adventures that look remarkably human.   Reflecting what each culture sees in itself, the deities also reflect a range of interests, temperaments – and sexual preferences. Many pantheons, especially those from Classical Greece and Rome, China, India, South America and Oceania, feature prominent gods and goddesses who had homosexual relationships or adventures. (Hindu deities are especially notable for the ease with which many of them change gender from time to time).

This much I knew. But the biggest surprise for me yesterday, when I was reading some more about LGBT themes in mythology, was the discovery that in some mythologies, there are gods who are specifically designated not just as practitioners, but even as patrons of male homosexuality.


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Jan 20th: Not Dead Yet: St Sebastian as Role Model

Writing about St Joan of Arc, I observed that she carries a particular importance for us as gay men, lesbians and transsexuals in the church, as her martyrdom at the hands of church authorities can be seen as a powerful metaphor for the persecution we receive from parts of the church, just for being honest about ourselves, for refusing to renounce our God-given identity. I’ve been thinking further along these lines, and in fact all the Christian martyrs can similarly seen as role models – although the others were not typically executed by the church itself. One martyr in particular has been closely identified as a gay (male) icon – St Sebastian.

This is strictly speaking inappropriate, because there is not anything about Sebastian or his martyrdom that is particularly gay . The main reason quite frankly, that he has acquired this cult status is that painters for centuries have made striking images of his martyrdom, featuring half naked, desirable young men pierced with arrows: soft porn masquerading as inspirational religious art. ( The Independent newspaper has an excellent analysis, still available on-line, on just how this association developed through the art works.) Now, I have no problem with gay men enjoying pictures of St Sebastian, but have had some trouble seeing him as a specifically gay saint. However, I have come across one particular painting, quite different from the original, which immediately put me in mind of a concept I have written about before as a possible model for us in negotiating a proper relationship with the church. Here’s the picture:
“St Sebastian and the Emperor Maximien Hercules 

This is how I wrote about his death, in an earlier post:

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St Aelred of Rievaulx, Abbot and Patron of Same Sex Spiritual Love

St Aelred,  whose feast we celebrate today, is recognised in all sources as an important English saint, who lived in the north of England in the 12 C. As a young man, he joined the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, later returning there as Abbott.  He is remembered especially for his writings on friendship, some of which have led gay writers such as John Boswell to claim him as ‘homosexual’. For instances, Integrity USA, an Anglican LGBT organisation, have designated him as their patron. From the website of Integrity, this Collect for the feast of Aelred:

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SS Polyeuct and Nearchos, Roman Soldiers, Lovers and Martyrs

The Roman soldiers, lovers and martyrs Sergius and Bacchus are well known examples of early queer saints. Polyeuct and Nearchos are not as familiar- but should be.  John Boswell (“Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe“) names the two as one of the three primary pairs of same sex lovers in the early church, their martyrdom coming about half a century after Felicity and Perpetua, and about another half century before  Sergius & Bacchus .

Like the later pair, Polyeuct and Nearchos were friends in the Roman army in Armenia. Nearchos was a Christian, Polyeuct was not. Polyeuct was married, to a woman whose father was a Roman official. When the father-in-law undertook as part of his duties to enforce a general persecution of the local Christians, he realized that this would endanger Polyeuct, whose close friendship with Nearchos could tempt him to side with the Christians.  The concern was fully justified: although Polyeuct was not himself a Christian, he refused to prove his loyalty to Rome by sacrificing to pagan gods. In terms of the regulations being enforced, this meant that he would sacrifice his chances of promotion, but (as a non-Christian) not his life. Christians who refused to sacrifice faced beheading. When Nearchos learned of this, he was distraught, not at the prospect of death in itself, but because in dying, he would enter Paradise without the company of his beloved Polyeuct. When Polyeuct learned the reasons for his friends anguish, he decided to become a Christian himself, so that he too could be killed, and enter eternity together with Nearchos.

Three Queers of the East: Thought for the Epiphany

Earlier, I wrote that some Bible stories are so familiar, we do not stop to consider their significance. I could also add, that some others are so familiar, we do not stop to ask if they are accurate. A case in point is that of today’s feast of the Epiphany, which we routinely celebrate as the visit of the three kings of the East to the infant Jesus – but the Gospel text does not specify that there were three, nor that they were kings.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
 

It is the term “magi” that has been traditionally adapted to “wise men”, or corrupted in popular imagination to “kings”. Astrologer-magicians, in the Zoroastrian religion, would be a more accurate translation. (Note the obvious linguistic connection between “magus” and “magic”). Kittredge quotes Nancy Wilson and Virginia Mollenkott, to suggest that the Magi were probably either eunuchs, or trans.

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