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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Alcuin of Tours

Alcuin was an Englishman who, after a period as monk and teacher at the great cathedral of York, served at the court of Charlemagne, whom he had met while returning from a visit to Rome. The Emperor recruited him to his court specifically because he recognised in him the potential to achieve a renaissance of learning and church reform. Note that the widely reproduced picture of him above, as well as another extant painting, shows him presenting books of learning.
We usually think of the “renaissance”, as a rediscovery of classical thought, as dating from several centuries later, but in many respects he was an early precursor.

He kept copies of important works by the great Latin writers, and also explored many different fields of learning: in addition to theology, literature and poetry, he is also remembered for some notable mathematical problems he formulated, and which are still known today as popular diversions, such as an early version of the problem with transporting a wolf, a goat and a cabbage across a river. However, he was not known so much as an original thinker, but as a superb scholar, teacher and guide.
I warm to this image of Alcuin, as the kind of person I would like to be: one who collects and shares knowledge from a range of sources, digging into the past while looking for reform – and blending literature, theology and mathematics. (My degree is in mathematics, but I also have a deep love for books  of all kinds, and worked for several years as a school librarian.)
The  case for Alcuin’s inclusion in a collection of  queer saints does not rest on any known sexual adventures (he was after all a monk, and sworn to celibacy), but rather for the quantity of passionate letters he wrote to some (very) close clerical friends and pupils, and for some notable poetry. Alcuin is the third early saint and cleric that I know of whose poetry is represented in the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse. (The others are Saints Paulinus of Nola, andVenantius Fortunatus.)
One of his poems which is widely quoted in this regard is about a departed cuckoo. At first reading, there is nothing particularly “gay” about this. The key, however, lies in understanding the background.  This was written to one close pupil and friend about the recent departure of another – who is represented as the cuckoo. So this poem is in fact a description one man makes to a close male friend about the sense of loss and pain felt at the loss of another, mutual, friend. (“Daphnis” in line 20 is the pet name Alcuin used for the friend he is addressing in the poem. The departed friend, he referred to as “Dodo”.)

 

“Lament for a Cuckoo”
O cuckoo that sang to us and art fled,
Where’er thou wanderest, on whatever shore
Thou lingerest now, all men bewail thee dead,
They say our cuckoo will return no more.
Ah, let him come again, he must not die,
Let him return with the returning spring,
And waken all the songs he used to sing.
but will he come again? I know not, I.
I fear the dark sea breaks above his head,
Caught in the whirlpool, dead beneath the waves,
Sorrow for me, if that ill god of wine
Hath drowned him deep where young things find their graves.
But if he lives yet, surely he will come,
Back to the kindly nest, from fierce crows.
Cuckoo, what took you from the nesting place?
But will he come again? That no man knows.
If your love sings, cuckoo, then come again,
Come again, come again, quick, pray you come.
Cuckoo, delay not, hasten thee home again,
Daphnis who loveth thee longs for his own.
Now spring is here again, wake from thy sleeping.
Alcuin the old man thinks long for thee.
Through the green meadows go the oxen grazing;
Only the cuckoo is not. Where is her?
Wail for the cuckoo, every where bewail him,
Joyous he left us: shall he grieving come?
let him come grieving, if he will but come again,
Yea, we shall weep with him, moan for his moan.
Unless a rock begat thee, thou wilt weep with us.
How canst thou not, thyself remembering?
Shall not the father weep the son he lost him,
Brother for brother still be sorrowing?
Once were we three, with but one heart among us.
Scare are we two, now that the third is fled.
Fled is he, fled is he, but the grief remaineth;
Bitter the weeping, for so dear a head.
Send a song after him, send a song of sorrow,
Songs bring the cuckoo home, or so they tell
Yet be thou happy, wheresoe’er thou wanderest
Sometimes remember us, Love, fare you well.
[trans. Helen Waddell, in Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse]

Calendar of LGBT Saints

BBC/Ancient History

The Gay Love Letters of Medieval Clerics

And the ever valuable

John Boswell: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality

 

 

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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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