Category Archives: Recognized Saints

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)


Continue reading St. Joan of Arc, Trans Martyr

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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Valentine’s Day: Same Sex Lovers in Church History

For St Valentine’s day,we should remember the same sex lovers (a surprising number of them) who feature in Scripture and in the history of the Catholic Church.  In the list below, I do not not claim that the relationships were necessarily sexual (although some of them most definitely were, but all are deserve attention by modern queer Christians. (For fuller assessments, follow the links).
SS Sergius & Bacchus, Gay lovers, Roman soldires, martyrs and saints.

Biblical Lovers

Right at the beginning, the Hebrew Bible opens with the greatest love story of them all – that of God for humankind. Chris Glaser (“Coming Out as Sacrament”) points out that at the most literal level, this can be seen as a same-sex relationship, as God is conventionally described with a male pronoun and Adam pictured as a man. However, even if we recognize that God is more properly pictured as omnigendered, the relevance of the idea is not diminished, and even enhanced. “Adam” is more properly seen in the earliest traditions as “ ‘adam“, that is humankind, and androgynous. We can therefore view both parties to this love relationship in whatever gender terms is most appropriate to us. The important point, which we really ought to remember, is that whoever we are, God’s love for us is unconditional, and is totally free of bias to any particular biological sex, gender role, or sexual orientation. This thought should sustain us, no matter how much we may sometimes feel condemned or rejected by the Church or by secular society.
Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, Glaser notes that the two longest love stories are those of same sex couples. The love of David for Jonathan “surpasses that for women”, and the words of Ruth to Naomi, although from one woman to another, are regularly used in liturgies for marriage ceremonies. The Song of Songs is not between a same sex couple (although some believe it may originally have been so. See a discussion at The Wild Reed), but is nevertheless worth consideration, for its frank celebration of physical, erotic love, without being tied to procreation or even to marriage. This is simple, joyous celebration of love on its own terms – while also standing as a metaphor for God’s love for God’s people, just as our love relationships can also have sacramental value, in mirroring God’s love.
In the New Testament, we have the celebrated example of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple, whoever he was (possibly, but not necessarily, John the Evangelist). It is unclear whether there was a physical dimension to this relationship – but some scholars believe there may have been, and there was once a popular tradition that the bridal couple in the wedding at Cana were precisely Jesus and his Beloved Disciple, John. Even if we reject this idea, we should remember the entirely orthodox idea that the Mass commemorates the wedding at Cana, as the marriage of Christ and his church. For half of all Catholics, this mystical marriage is certainly  male to male .
Martha and Mary are described as “sisters”, but this could be a euphemism. In the cultural context, they could well have been a lesbian couple. Equally, the Roman centurion and his “servant” probably included a sexual element in their relationship.
 

The Early Church

The early Christian Church honoured as saints several pairs of same sex couples. The Roman soldiers and martyrs Sergius and Bacchus are the best known, with Polyeuct and Nearchos another pair of military martyrs. Felicity and Perpetua are often mentioned as a corresponding pair of female martyrs.
Saints Galla and Benedicta were a devoted pair who lived in a 6th century Roman community of religious women. At about the same time, Symeon of Emessa and John were not martyrs, but hermits in Syria.  Theirs was not a sexual relationship, but it was clearly emotionally intimate, and was formally blessed by an abbot in what appears to have been a rite of adelphopoeisis, or “making brothers”.
This rite, formally recorded with specific liturgies for blessing in church, is an important reminder that for many centuries, the church regularly blessed same sex unions in church. (These rites still exist today, and can be easily adapted for modern blessing ceremonies). In addition to celebrating same sex unions in church as they were formed, the Church also recognized special unions at their dissolution in death.  Archaeological evidence from Macedonia shows many examples from the  4th to the 6th centuries of same sex couples who were buried in shared graves.
Also from about this period of the early church, we have a bishop and saint who celebrated homoerotic love in verse directed at his lover, Ausonius – St Paulinus of Nola.  In Ireland, there is some evidence that St Patrick may have taken a young (male) lover in later life, while St Brigid had her soulmate, Drogheda.
 

The Middle Ages.

As in the early church, there are notable examples of saints, bishops and abbots who are remembered for their literary output – addressed to the men they loved, either in verse or in letter form: Saint Aelred of Rievaulx wrote explicitly of the value of close spiritual friendship, and addressed intimate love letters to a series of special friends of his own. One notable example of this kind of intimate (but celibate) love between clerics was that of St Bernard of Clairvaulx, and Malachi, the Archbishop of Armagh, who  after death were buried in a shared grave. Alcuin of Tours also addressed love letters and poems to his own special friends, such as this one to Arno, the bishop at Salzburg:

Love has penetrated my heart with its flame,
And is ever rekindled with new warmth.
Neither sea nor land, hills nor forest,
nor even the Alps 
Can stand in its way or hinder it
From always licking at your inmost parts, good father…

Other notable saints and senior clerics who wrote love letters or erotic verse to their colleagues included Saint Anselm of CanterburyMarbod of RiennesArchbishop Baudri of Bourgeuil, a “Spanish Monk“,  Walafrid Strabo (c. 808-849) to the cleric Lutziger, Saint Notker Balbulus (c. 840-912), and Salamo (c. 860-920), and Egbert the monk, to Saint Boniface.
 
There are also others who are remembered not for their sanctity, but for their notoriety. It is said that in the early 11th century, the papal reign of Benedict IX became infamous for having “turned the Vatican into a male brothel”. Later in the 11th Century, under a reforming pope, Archbishop Ralph of Tours succeeded in having his lover John appointed as bishop of Orleans, even though the younger man was well known as a former bed-partner of many highly placed men in the Church and the royal court – including a previous archbishop, and also the king of France.
In the Western Church, there was a rite corresponding to the Eastern adelphopoeisis, known as the rite of “sworn brotherhood”, which Alan Bray describes in “The Friend”, especially from the medieval and later periods . This too has an echo in modern liturgies, for another term for the “sworn brother” was – “wedded brothers”.  Same sex “weddings” in Church are not newalthough the term then referred to a contract, not to marriage in the modern sense. (These “sworn brothers” did not necessarily include a sexual relationship, although some did, often in parallel with heterosexual marriages). One high profile example of these sworn brothers was that of the English king, Edward II, and Piers Galveston. (After his execution, Edward was for a time popularly venerated as a saint).
In addition to the practice of blessing same sex unions in Church, there is also abundant evidence of same sex couples who, like SS Bernard and Malachi, were buried in shared graves.  Bray describes many of these in the Western (especially the English) church, from the medieval period right up to the 19th century (Blessed John Henry Newman and St John Ambrose).

The Renaissance Paradox

With the persecution of “Sodomites” by the Inquisition and the secular authorities at their instigation, it is not surprising that there were fewer accounts of homoerotic relationships, and less literary celebration of same sex love. However, this does not mean that they did not occur. For those with sufficient power or influence in the church, male sexual relationships continued, at the highest level.  Pope Julius III was so infatuated with a young street urchin he fell in love with, that he appointed the youngster a cardinal at the grand age of 17 – in spite of a notable lack of any appropriate qualifications whatever. Pope Paul II is said to have died of a stroke – while being sodomized by a page boy. (For more on the gay popes, see “Gay Popes, Papal Sodomites“).

The Modern Period

 
The best known same sex relationship among the modern clergy is that of Blessed John Henry Newman and his beloved Ambrose St John, who were famously buried in a shared grave in Birmingham Oratory. Less well known are two examples of nineteenth century women from the United States. Phebe Ann Coffin Hannaford, possibly the first woman since ancient times to be ordained in a major Christian denomination, and lived openly with her partner Anne Miles. Saint Vida Scudder, who lived in a clearly lesbian relationship with her partner Florence Converse, is recognized as a saint by the American Episcopal Church.
In the twentieth and twenty first centuries, it has become possible for countless male and female couples to declare their loves openly, and even to have them formally recognized in church – as full marriages, or as blessing of unions. I’m not going to attempt to list them, here. While we celebrate the continuing advances to marriage equality, in church and in secular society, let us also recognize and honour all those same – sex couples who have preceded us in loving partnerships – whether sexual or celibate
[Updated January 2015]
 
Recommended Books
Bray, Alan: The Friend
Glaser, Chris: Coming Out as Sacrament


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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:

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

Saints Basil and Gregory Nazianzus: Doctors of the Church

Two of the most notable saints deserving special attention by queer Christians are St Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, and his dear friend St Gregory “the theologian”, Bishop of  Nazianzus, whose relationship was of such great intimacy that they are frequently described as having shared “one soul in two bodies”. Today, January 2nd, the Church celebrates their joint feast day.

 “Then not only did I feel full of veneration for my great Basil because of the seriousness of his morals and the maturity and wisdom of his speeches, but he induced others who did not yet know him to be like him…. The same eagerness for knowledge motivated us…. This was our competition: not who was first but who allowed the other to be first. It seemed as if we had one soul in two bodies”

(The phrase was used by Gregory  himself, after the death of his friend Basil, and has been regularly repeated across the sixteen centuries since by many others,  including Pope Benedict).

Both are regarded by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches as Doctors of the Faith, and the Eastern Orthodox churches  have further honoured them, together with John Chrysostom, with the title “Great Hierarch”.

Continue reading Saints Basil and Gregory Nazianzus: Doctors of the Church

St Venantius Fortunatus, Italian Bishop and Homoerotic Poet

c.530-c.603
Venantius Fortunatus was a poet, born c. 530 in Treviso, near Ravenna in Italy. He spent his time as court poet to the Merovingians. After visiting the tomb of St. Martin of Tours at St. Hilary at Poitiers, he decided to enter a monastery. He continued to write poetry, some of which have a permanent place in Catholic hymnody, for instance the Easter season hymns “Vexilla Regis” and the “Pange Lingua” (Sing, O my tongue, of the battle). Three or four years before he died he was made bishop of Poitiers. Although never canonized, he was venerated as a saint in the medieval church, and his feast day is still recognized on 14th December each year.
vexilla_regis01

St. Joan of Arc

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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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.

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