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: Interrogation by the Bishop of Winchester (Paul Delaroche, 1797 -1856)
In the tragic history of executions for “sodomy”, most trials and executions were of men. In the popular mind, the word today is associated primarily with male anal sex, but this has not always been so. In the original biblical texts, the “sin of Sodom” had nothing to do with sex at all, but referred rather to excessive fondness for luxury, over-indulgence, and a failure to care for travelers and the poor. When in the Middle Ages it began to be associated with sexual sin, it applied to any form of sexual actions that were considered unnatural, including homosexual acts, masturbation, oral sex, heterosexual anal intercourse, even heterosexual intercourse not in the missionary position – and lesbian sex.
Many courts and legislative bodies since then have debated whether sodomy laws do in fact apply to women, with widely differing conclusions. In some cases, the conclusion was that they did – especially in those cases where one of the woman dresses and lived as a man, which provoked particular popular hostility.
At Jesus in Love, Kittredge Cherry has included in her post for Ash Wednesday some notes about the last lesbian executed for Sodomy in Europe, Catherine Linck.
In the image at the top of this post, German artist Elke R. Steinerillustrates the last known execution for lesbianism in Europe. Born in 1694, Catharina Margaretha Linck lived her life as a man under the name Anastasius. She was beheaded for sodomy on Nov. 8, 1721 in Halberstadt in present-day Germany. Linck worked at various times as a soldier, textile worker and a wandering prophet with the Pietists. She married a woman in 1717. Her mother-in-law reported her to authorities, who convicted her of sodomy with a “lifeless instrument,” wearing men’s clothes and multiple baptisms. The subject is grim, but Steiner adds an empowering statement: “But even were I to be done away with, those who are like me would remain.”
Steiner’s work is based on Angela Steidele’s book “In Männerkleidern. Das verwegene Leben der Catharina Margaretha Linck alias Anastasius Lagrantinus Rosenstengel, hingerichtet 1721.” Biographie und Dokumentation. Cologne: Böhlau, 2004. (“In Men’s Clothes: The Remarkable Life of Catharina Margaretha Linck alias Anastasius Rosenstengel, Executed 1721.”)
Earlier in the week, 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.
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.
We are probably all familiar with the story of Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary – but probably forget that all three were particularly close friends of Jesus. Some even believe that Lazarus of Bethany was the “beloved disciple” of Jesus — and maybe even his gay lover.
Today, on Transgender Day of Remembrance, we commemorate those who were killed due to anti-transgender hate or prejudice. The event was founded in 1999 to honor Rita Hester, whose murder on Nov. 28, 1998 sparked the “Remembering Our Dead” web project. Since then it has grown into an international phenomenon observed around the world. It serves the dual purpose of honoring the dead and raising public awareness of hate crimes against transgenders — that is, transsexuals, crossdressers, and other gender-variant people. Mikhaela Reid pictures some of the more prominent victims of anti-transgender violence in the cartoon above: Rita Hester, Brandon Teena (subject of the movie “Boys Don’t Cry”), Gwen Arujo, Chanelle Picket, Nakia Ladelle Baker, Debra Forte, and Tyra Hunter.
St Matrona /Babylas of Perge is one of a number of female saints in the early church who dressed as men to be admitted to all-male monasteries. The stories and motives of these women are remote from our time, and ‘transvestite’, or cross – dressing, is not to be confused with ‘transgendered’. Still, whatever the full historic truth, it seems to me these are useful stories to hold on to as reminders 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. Their stories collectively also carry a sobering reminder of the differing regard given by society of the time to male and female lives – else why would women have sought out male monasteries, in spite of the risks and discomfort to themselves of their lives in disguise, if not expectation of some greater spiritual reward than in a female convent?
At Jesus in Love, Kittredge Cherry has uncovered more ground-breaking work on opening up the previously hidden history of queer elements in the lives of the saints – in this case, Francis of Assisi, whose feast day was yesterday, October 4th. The evidence she has quoted, comes from an unpublished master’s thesis “Gender Liminality in the Franciscan Sources” by the Franciscan scholar, Kevin Elphick.
Reference to “queer” elements in the story and example of Francis are not intended as equivalent to the modern term “gay”, which would be completely anachronisitic, or to imply any specific sexual activity. We must always remember that although some writers use “queer” loosely as a synonym for gay and lesbian, or for the acronym LGBT, in fact it’s application in queer studies, and in queer theology, is much broader. Correctly used, the term does not refer to any specific sexual orientation or gender identity, but to a complete rejection of arbitrary definitions for sexuality or gender. In this sense, it is about breaking down boundaries – including boundaries outside of sex and gender, such as ethnicity, race or class.
So it is, that the Gospel message of radical inclusion and equality for all, is intrinsically a very queer one indeed. The theologian Robert Goss, who is identified by Elisabeth Stuart as initiating the transition from gay and lesbian theology to queer theology, rooted his thinking firmly in Christology, as indicated by the titles of two of his books, “Jesus Acted Up“, and “Queering Christ“. St Francis of Assisi is renowned for his passionate commitment to embracing this Gospel message of breaking down boundaries, and an embrace of a materially simple life in imitation of Christ’s own. To see him as “queer” in this broadest sense, follows naturally.
The queer identity of both Francis and Christ, his model, is neatly illustrated in an image posted by Kittredge, of Francis embracing a Jesus with AIDS, on the cross. I quote here Kittredge’s description of Francis, and of the image:
Francis was born to a wealthy Italian family in 1181 or 1182. As a young man he renounced his wealth, even stripping off his clothes, and devoted himself to a life of poverty in the service of Christ. He connected with nature, calling all animals “brother” and “sister” and celebrating them in his famous Canticle of the Sun.
He saw the face of Christ in lepers, the most reviled outcasts of his time, and nursed them with compassion. William Hart McNichols puts Francis’ ministry into a contemporary context by showing him embracing a gay Jesus with AIDS in “St. Francis ‘Neath the Bitter Tree,” pictured here. Words on the cross proclaim that Christ is an “AIDS leper” as well as a “drug user” and “homosexual,” outcast groups at high risk for getting AIDS. The two men gaze intently at each other with unspeakable love as Francis hugs the wounded Christ. It was commissioned in 1991 by a New Jersey doctor who worked with AIDS patients, and is discussed in the book Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More by Kittredge Cherry.
Kittredge’s post goes further, noting that Elphick’s thesis shows how some aspects of Francis’ life were “queer” even in a narrower sense, breaking down gender boundaries in particular, applying female terms to men, and male terms to some women admitted as brothers in the male community (a reminder here, of the earlier biologically female saints who lived as men, in male monasteries).
Other Franciscan friars referred to Francis as “Mother” during his lifetime. He also liked to be greeted as “Lady Poverty.” He encouraged his friars to live as mothers with children when in hermitage together, and used other gender-bending metaphors to describe the spiritual life.
Francis allowed a widow to enter the male-only cloister, naming her “Brother Jacoba.” (Details about Jacoba are at the end of this article.) His partner in ministry was a woman, Clare of Assisi, and he cut her hair in a man’s tonsured style when she joined his male-only religious order.
There is also evidence of an emotionally intense relationship with another man, described in the earliest known biography of Francis, by one of the saints own followers, who knew him personally:Francis allowed a widow to enter the male-only cloister, naming her “Brother Jacoba.” (Details about Jacoba are at the end of this article.) His partner in ministry was a woman, Clare of Assisi, and he cut her hair in a man’s tonsured style when she joined his male-only religious order.
“Now there was a man in the city of Assisi whom Francis loved more than any other, and since they were of the same age and their constant association and ties of affection emboldened Francis to share his secret with him, he would often take this friend off to secluded spots where they could discuss private matters and tell him that he had chanced upon a great and precious treasure. His friend was delighted and, intrigued by what he had heard, he gladly accompanied Francis wherever he asked. There was a cave near Assisi where the two friends often went to talk about this treasure.”
Elphick is careful to describe this relationship as “homoaffectional”, and not as “gay”:
“The relationship is inescapably homoaffectional, describing a shared intimacy between two Medieval men. That this first companion disappears from the later tradition is cause for suspicion and further inquiry…. The tone in Celano’s earliest account captures the flavor and intimacy of this relationship, perhaps too much so for an increasingly homophobic church and society.”
(Also spelt Hildegund) She was born at Neuss, near Cologne. After the death of her mother, at age 12, she went with her father, a knight, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. For her safety, during the trip, she was dressed as a boy and called “Joseph” for her protection.
While returning from the Holy Land Hildegund’s father died, but she was able to make her own way home and maintained her disguise first as a boy and then as a man. Later, she made a pilgrimage to Rome, during which she had several adventures.
On one of them, she was condemned to be hanged as a robber and escaped only when a friend of the real robber cut her down from the gallows.
After that, she returned to Germany and was accepted into the Cistercian monastery at Shönau, near Heidelberg, concealing her gender, and to her death she was believed to be a man. Her true sex went undiscovered until her death in 1188.
A few years later, abbot Engelhartof Langheim wrote her biography. She is considered saint, even though her cult is not approved by the Roman Catholic Church.