All posts by Terence

Trans Saints? Cross-Dressing Monks

The “LGBT Catholic Handbook lists an intriguing group of transvestite saints – women who took on men’s clothing in order to live as monks. The Handbook lists some scholarly references in support, but the Advent Catholic Encyclopaedia however, dismisses the tales as ‘hagiographic fiction.’ The stories and motives of these women are remote from our time, and ‘transvestite’ 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.
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“I have treated these saints as a group as their stories are often similar. These are the large number of saints who were famous for their holy cross-dressing. All of these were women, and the stories, largely but not exclusively fictional, generally have them escaping marriage or some other dreaded end by dressing as monks. This is no short term ploy, however. The women then live their lives as men (in direct contradiction to the Levitical Law which calls cross-dressing an “abomination”), some of them becoming abbots of monasteries. In such positions it is hard to imagine that they would not perform roles such as confessor. Their biological sex is only discovered after they die. It is sometimes argued that these transvestite saints did not cross-dress because they wanted to but because they had to, and so calling them “transvestites” is wrong. It is true that we know nothing of the psychology of these women, but when they dressed as man for 20 years and became abbots of monasteries, it is hard to know in what way they were being “forced” to cross-dress. These women chose to live their Christian lives as members of the opposite biological sex – it is fair to see them as “transgendered”. There are no male saints, it seems, who dressed as women (with the possible exception of Sergius and Bacchus, who were forcibly paraded through the streets in women’s clothes). At work here is an old notion that women are saved in so far as they have “male souls”, a repeated term of praise in lives of female saints. These women’s lives do show that the Levitical Law was not determinative in Christian estimations of holiness, and that modern rigid gender categories had much less role in earlier epochs of Christianity than nowadays. These saints found a place in both Orthodox and Roman calendars.
  • St. Anastasia the Patrician (or “of Constantinople”) March 10th ORC/ORTH
  • St. Anna/Euphemianos of Constantinople Oct 29 ORTH
  • St. Apollinaria/Dorotheos Jan 5, 6 ORTH
  • St. Athanasia of Antioch Oct 9 ORTH
  • St. Eugenia/Eugenios of Alexandria Dec 24th ORTH
  • St. Euphrosyne/Smaragdus Feb 11th ORC (Sept 25 ORTH)
  • St. Marina of Sicily July 20th ORTH
  • St. Marina/Marinos of Antioch July 17th ORTH (July 20th ORC – as St. Margaret)
  • St. Mary/Marinos of Alexandria Feb 12th ORTH
  • St. Matrona/Babylas of Perge Nov 9 ORTH
  • St. Pelagia/Pelagios June 9 ORC (Oct 8 ORTH)
  • St. Theodora/Theodorus of Alexandria Sept 11 ORTH
  • St. Thekla of Iconium Sept 23 ORC (Sept 24 ORTH) See also
  • St. Hildegonde of Neuss near Cologne April 20th ORC d. 1188 OE: A nun who lived under the name “Brother Joseph” in the Cistercian monastery of Schoenau near Heidelberg.
  • St. Uncumber [or ] July 20th ORC A bearded woman saint, also known as St. Liverade (France), Liberata (Italy), Liberada (Spain), Debarras (Beauvais), Ohnkummer (Germany), and Ontcommere (Flanders) She was represented as a bearded women on a cross.

Gay Saints: Do They Exist? Do They Matter?

Lovers & Martyrs?

“Sergius & Bacchus: Lovers & Martyrs?”

The recognition of saints is an important part of Catholic history and tradition. Growing up in a Catholic school, I was frequently urged to read the lives of the saints, of which our small school library had a copious supply, for my spiritual well-being.

Many adult Catholics retain a special affection, even devotion, to particular favoured saints. For some of us, this makes us a little uncomfortable. Partly, this is because the more demonstrative forms of veneration may come dangerously close to the Protestant perception of a cult of idolatrous ‘worship’ of the saints; for others , the problem is simply that of the remoteness of most of the saints: remote in time, overwhelmingly limited in geography to Europe, and particularly certain regions of Europe. There is also the problem that the recognised saints were, if not ordained clergy and religious sisters, at least celibate lay people – creating a perception that saintliness is reserved to the asexual, even unsexed, among us, leading lives devoid of intimate personal relationships. (This creates the further problem of a simplistic association of healthy emotional and sexual lives with ‘sin’.) Pope John Paul II, during his long pontificate, set about creating an unprecedented number of new saints for the modern age, deliberately seeking to undo this sense of remoteness. We now have many more saints, and beatified saints-in-waiting, from recent history and from beyond Europe. There were even reports that he was actively looking for a suitable married couple for elevation, to counter the perception that sainthood applied only to the celibate. But we in the LGBT community remain excluded – or think we are. “How great it would be”, we think, if we too could have saints of our own. It is in this spirit that a number of modern scholars (most notably John Boswell, followed by others) have dug into history and produced evidence of recognised ‘gay saints’ in church history. The LGBT Catholic Handbook has an extensive listing of the best known of these. Is it realistic to think of these as ‘gay saints’? Is it helpful? I suggest that the answer to the first question is probably “No”, at least not as narrowly defined. But to the second question, I would answer, most certainly, “Yes, helpful indeed, if interpreted more broadly.” The problem with the term, narrowly interpreted is that it is so fluid, imprecise and anachronistic. For St Jerome and St Alcuin, where the status of sainthood is uncontested, there is a different problem. Although there is clear evidence that these two, and others, experienced strong, even intimate emotional relationships with other men, it is not absolutely agreed that these relationships were sexual. And so, it is argued, these men cannot be understood as ‘gay’. (Others would suggest that the naysayers are deliberately ignoring the plain evidence infront of their eyes, but no matter, the dispute is plainly there. So where are the gay saints, narrowly defined? I do not know of any who unambiguously meet both criteria: agreed to be saints, agreed to be gay. Nevertheless, I don’t think this is important. It is not only the canonised saints who are important: I was taught that we are all potentially saints, even if not recognised. The “communion of saints” includes many more than the limited number who have been publicly acknowledged. It is also of no consequence whether particular individuals expressed their emotional intimacy in genital acts to be considered in some snese ‘gay’. (We do not require that other saints show evidence of genital activity with the opposite sex to be considered ‘heterosexual’). By applying a looser, broader definition, then I suggest that there will be many ‘gay saints’ that have gone before us, and many who still live among us. This not to suggest that praying to them is likely to produce miracles in support of official canonisation – but it is important that we recognise and offer respect to role models in our history. It is in this spirit that I commend a closer examination of the many figures who have been suggested as supposed ‘gay saints’.

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