Category Archives: Martyrs

The Story of the “Queer Saints and Martyrs”: Taking Shape

Ever since I began writing for the Queer Church, one of the key themes I have been exploring has been that of the place of LGBT men and women in Christian history – recognized and unrecognised saints, martyrs for the church, some who have  been martyred by the church directly or indirectly, and those who have achieved remarkable high office in the church, as popes, bishops or abbots in spite of clear homoerotic interests and activities.

As I have explored individuals and notable groups, I have been seeing the outline of a narrative thread underlying them, which I have been using to draw them together into what I hope will become a book for publication. The outline for the book I have previously published, as a synopsis, and as a reflection of the feast of All (Gay) Saints. I have now expanded this synopsis one level, which I will be posting in instalments over the coming week, under six main divisions. For a preview of these posts and the work in progress, follow the links to my  “Queer Saints and Martyrs” pages here at Queering the Church, and from them to the detailed posts on individuals and groups at my satellite site, “Queer Saints and Martyrs – and others”.

Prologue: Before Christianity

Same sex relationships in other religions, in the stories of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and in the Gospels (before the disciples of Christ came to be known as “Christians”)

The Early Christians: Saints and Martyrs for the Church

From both the Western and Eastern Roman Empire, a wide range of men (and fewer women). These include pairs of lovers, martyrs for the church, bishops who wrote homoerotic verse, and cross-dressing women.

Christian Homoeroticism in the Middle Ages: Saints and Others

Boswell has been criticized by more recent academics for his assertion that the Middle Ages represented a great flowering of a gay sub-culture. However, even if he overstated his case and the term “gay” for this period is subject to misinterpretation, there is no doubt that there were numerous recognized saints and other senior clergy who freely used homoerotic imagery in their spiritual writing, and  others who are notable for achieving high office as popes or bishops, in spite of well-known erotic relationships with men.

The prevalence of such relationships among the clergy prompted the most important of the calls for strong penalties against “sodomy”, by Alain de Lille and St Peter Damian in particular. For a long time though, these calls were rejected by the leaders of the Church.

The Great Persecution: Martyred by the Church

The figure of Saint Joan is of central importance to queer Christians, as a cross-dressing queer saint who was first martyred by the church, and later canonized.  As the Middle  Ages passed into the Early Renaissance, many thousands more alleged sodomites were tried and condemned to death by the church, either directly by the Inquisition or by secular authorities at its instigation.

Ecclesiastical involvement in these trials later gave way to purely secular proceedings, but the initial pseudo-religious motivation for declaring same-sex love a capital offence remained an important factor in the retention of the death penalty in many European countries right up to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and for the export of state-sanctioned persecution by the colonial powers to societies which had previously tolerated or even celebrated sexual minorities.

As secular authorities relaxed or withdrew criminal sanctions though, religious authorities applied a form of figurative martyrdom to gay or lesbian identified people in the church, attempting to censor the writing of theologians who dissented from the orthodox prohibitions, or excluding from ministry those who were seen to be gay or lesbian.

Modern Saints, Modern Martyrs.

In the early church, it was said that the growth of the faith was fed by the blood of the martyrs. Much the same thing appeared to be happening at the close of the twentieth century and start of the twenty first. “Martyr” means one who gives witness, and the witness of the LGBT identified men and women who refused to be silenced by the Church authorities has inspired many more. Over the last few decades there has been a great flowering of writing on faith and spirituality from a queer perspective, and of explicitly queer ministry.

Epilogue: All Saints, and the Call to Witness

“Sainthood” in Christian theology is not simply a matter of those few who have been formally recognised and canonized by the Catholic Church, but is a state to which we are all called.

Queer Saints & Martyrs: Synopsis

Prequel: Before Christianity

Studies of the animal kingdom, and of non-Western and pre-industrial societies show clearly that there is no single “natural” form for either human or animal sexuality. Homosexual activity  has been described by science for all divisions of the animal kingdom, in all periods of history, and in all regions of the world. Most religions recognise this. The monotheistic Christian religion teaches that God made us in His own image and likeness – but other religions, when they attempted to picture their many gods and goddesses, created their gods in human image and likeness, and so incorporated into their pantheon many gods who had sex with males – either divine or human.

The Rape of Ganymede

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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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