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Born Today – Queer Icon, Jesus Christ

As the whole of the Christian world focuses today on the incarnation of Jesus Christ, I want to take a different tack. Instead of the familiar (and too often saccharine) focus on the nativity and a cute little infant in a manger, my thoughts have been along the lines we more usually take, in commemorating the births of other great men and women – with tributes to their lives and legacies. In the case of Jesus Christ, of course, we do this routinely throughout the liturgical year, which is why Christmas quite rightly concentrates exclusively on the birth – but for LGBT people, this message is also so inextricably bound up with the false perception that his message is inherently hostile to us, that is important from time to time to step back and consider his life and message as a whole. When we do so, the unmistakable conclusion must be that far from being hostile to sexual or gender minorities (or anybody else), Jesus is more properly seen as a unique queer role model, a superb queer icon.

It is not for nothing that in the letter to the Galatians, we read

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

– Galatians 3:28-29New International Version


1 Erotic Christ, OHLSON, Krucifix2

This direct dismissal of arbitrary distinctions between groups of people goes right to the heart of what is understood by queer theory, which no longer restricts the word to a sexual or gender context. In his life, ministry and teaching, Jesus completely exemplified queer in this broad sense, famously reaching out to marginalised groups of all kinds, associating freely with social outcasts like prostitutes and tax collectors, and not afraid to touch the unclean – lepers, or menstruating women. We can easily see ourselves as included among the marginalized and social outcasts, especially in the religious communities that ought to know better, and (metaphorically) also among the unclean – as that is how far too many so-called Christians have tended to view us.  We also know, with specific reference to same – sex relationships, that he did not hesitate to go to the home of the Roman centurion to heal his sick “boy” – even though it would have been assumed by all around him that this included a sexual relationship between the two men. It is clear that, in modern terminology, he was at the very least what we would call a straight ally.

But we usually think of “queer” in a narrower sense, as referring specifically to one or other of “LGBT”, for which it is often used as a simple synonym. Is it reasonable to think of Jesus as queer in this more restricted understanding? Indeed, it is.

In the first place, consider his own family, which far from being a model for the modern nuclear family as it is often portrayed, was in fact distinctly queer – conceived by an unmarried mother, and with “two daddies”. Later, he downplayed the importance of the biological family, and emphasised instead our families of choice, advising his disciples to leave their fathers and mothers, in order to follow him.

In his own life, there is no evidence that he ever married, in marked contrast with the practice of his day. Instead, his closest associates were a band of twelve men, who had abandoned their wives and families to join him.  For Jews, there was a strong expectation on men to marry and father children, a practice that only the ascetical Essene sect rejected – but Jesus was not an ascetic. (Although he lived simply and encouraged others to do so, we know that he was not averse to a glass of wine). In this direct and public rejection of the hetero-normative emphasis on marriage and family, Jesus was clearly queer in his lifestyle.

He was also queer in his choice of friends. Outside the immediate circle of the twelve, his best known close associates were the household of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, who are described in the bible as two sisters and their brother. This is unlikely however to be literally true, with the extreme social pressures and expectations on all Jewish women to marry. It is quite possible that “sisters” is a euphemism for two women in a lesbian relationship – but even if this were not so, this household was definitely “queer”, in its direct repudiation of conventional marriage. As for Lazarus, when Jesus is given the news of his death, he is described as one whom Jesus loved deeply.

Throughout the Gospel of John, there are repeated references to a “beloved disciple”, with whom Jesus had a particularly close relationship. This may have been John, to whom at the point of death he entrusted the care of his mother (much as a widower might take care of his mother-in-law). Or it may be Lazarus, who we know to have been the object of particular affection. Whoever it was, we know that the relationship was at the least more emotionally intimate than his other relationships, and included a tactile element – at the Last Supper, he sat beside Jesus and laid his head on his breast.

We do not know for certain whether this emotionally intimate relationship with the Beloved Disciple was purely emotional and celibate, or a sexual one  – but it certainly could have been. As one who was fully human as well as fully divine, Christ would certainly have experienced the same sexual feelings and urges as any other adult male. There was even at one time, a tradition in some quarters of the Church that the bridal couple at the famous wedding feast at Cana was – Jesus and his Beloved Disciple, John.

Whether he was sexually active or celibate, whether we choose to interpret the word broadly or narrowly, we cannot avoid the conclusion that Jesus was, most certainly, “queer”.

But makes him a uniquely important queer role model, what warrants my description of him as a “queer icon”?

I’m not going to go into this analysis myself – the theologian Patrick Chen has done a superb job of explaining this in a series of articles on sin and grace  published at Jesus in Love blog, and later expanded in his book,  “From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ

In the first of these, “Erotic Christ“, Cheng emphasises the importance to Christ of relationships.

In Out Christ, he describes how Christ’s example is a role model for us  in coming out, which he sees as grace  – and the closet as sin ).

Liberator Christ emphasises Christ’s role as one who came “to set prisoners free” – and that explicitly includes those imprisoned in any way by sexual oppression and social hostility or prejudice. LGBT activism is thus seen as a Christian grace.

3, Liberator Christ, Jesus Rises

 Transgressive Christ and the last of the series at Jesus in Love, Hybrid Christ illustrate Jesus’ overt flouting and subversion of artificial socially prescribed group boundaries and  restrictive gender norms – and how in his own life he constantly merged different identities.

5 Hybrid Christ, transfigurationscover2


Recommended Books:

Thomas Bohache et al (eds):    The Queer Bible Commentary (especially the chapters on the four Gospels)

Patrick S. ChengRadical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology

Patrick S. Cheng: From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ

Patrick S. Cheng: Rainbow Theology

Susannah CornwallControversies In Queer Theology

Gomes,  Rev Peter:  The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News?

Robert Goss:  Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus Acted Up

Theodore W. Jennings Jr: The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament

Gerard Loughlin: Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body 

Dale B Martin: Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation

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Let Us Remember, for Dec 24th

  • John Boswell, Catholic historian whose extensive research did so much to open up scholarship to renewed interest in both a re-evaluation of the biblical evidence on same – sex relationships, and to the previously hidden history of gay and lesbian people in the church, saints, martyrs, bishops and popes among them.

St John of the Cross: 14th December

John of the Cross is important for queer Catholics, especially gay men, for two reasons. First, because he is a great teacher of spirituality, and the cultivation of spiritual practice, by enabling a more direct experience of the divine, is an excellent way to immunize ourselves from toxic and misguided teaching on human sexuality. Second, and more interestingly, because his language at times uses imagery which is plainly homoerotic, and so easily usable by gay men in their own prayer.

From the Calendar of LGBT Saints:


St. John of the Cross was one of the great Spanish mystics, whose outstanding Dark Night of the Soul is still read by all interested in Catholic mysticism. He also wrote a series of intense religious canticles. St. John, like other mystics such as St. Theresa of Avila, used the language of courtly love to describe his relationship with Christ. He also discussed, with rare candor, the sexual stimulation of prayer, the fact that mystics experience sexual arousal during prayer. With the male Christ of course, this amounts to a homoeroticism of prayer. It must be said that St. John was not entirely happy with this aspect of prayer. He was beatified by Clement X in 1675, canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726, and declared a Doctor of Church Universal by Pius XI in 1926


Quoted at The Wild Reed:

(from ) On a Dark Night


“Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved! 

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze. 

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He caressed my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended. 

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.”

See also:

Homoerotic Spirituality

The Intimate Dance of Sexuality and Spirituality

Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman

b. May 4, 1889
d. December 2, 1967

Born at Whitman, Massachusetts, he became priest in 1916 in the North American College of Rome. He was parish priest in Roxbury then in Boston. He edited the magazine The Pilot. He worked at the State Secretary of the Vatican (11925-32), then was nominated bishop of Boston and later Archbishop of New York. In 1946 he was nominated Cardinal.

He was a major figure in American politics during the first half of the Cold War, and a kingmaker in New York City politics; subject of the 1984 by John Cooney, The American Pope: The Life and Times of Francis Cardinal Spellman.

The details of Spellman’s personal life are elusive. The Cardinal was known as “Telma” or “Franny” Spellman in some circles and was rumored to enjoy an active sexual and social life in New York City, with a particular fondness for Broadway musicals and their chorus boys. It was widely rumoured, for instance, that he attended a party with that other well-known closet case, J Edgar Hoover – in drag.

Bishop Gene Robinson

b. May 29, 1947 

“It’s not so much a dream as a calling from God.”

 In 2003, The Rt. Rev.V. Gene Robinson was elected bishop of the diocese of New Hampshire, making him the first openly gay or lesbian person to be elected as Episcopal bishop. His ordination caused a global rift within the Episcopal Church and led to international debate about the inclusion of gay clergy in church hierarchy. In the weeks leading up to his consecration, Robinson received hate mail and death threats, triggering the FBI to place him under 24-hour protection.

Gene Robinson grew up outside Lexington, Kentucky. The son of poor tobacco sharecroppers, he was raised without running water or indoor plumbing. He recalls his childhood as rustic and religious, with Sunday school and services at a small Disciples of Christ congregation.

Robinson earned his bachelor’s degree in American studies from the University of the South and his Master of Divinity from the Episcopal General Theological Seminary in New York. He was ordained a priest in 1973.

Despite doubts about his sexual orientation, Robinson married in 1972. He and his wife moved to New Hampshire where they raised two daughters. Robinson worked as youth ministries coordinator for the seven dioceses of New England and cofounded the national Episcopal Youth Event. Robinson divorced his wife and came out in the mid-1980’s.

Robinson is the coauthor of three AIDS education curricula. In Uganda, he helped set up a national peer counseling program for AIDS educators working with religious institutions.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force honored Robinson with a Leadership Award in 2004.  In 2007, he received the Flag Bearer Award from Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) for leadership and inclusion in faith communities.

In 2008, Bishop Robinson and Mark Andrew, partners for more than 19 years, exchanged vows in a civil union ceremony in New Hampshire.


“Episcopalians Approve Gay Bishop.” CNN. August 6, 2003

“Gene Robinson Biography.” Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. June 20, 2008

Monroe, Rev. Irene. “Perspective: Gene Robinson.”  Windy City Times. June 11, 2008

Steele, Bruce C. “Robinson Redux.” The Advocate. July 17, 2007


Burns, John F. “Cast Out, but at the Center of the Storm.”  The New York Times. August 3, 2008

Costello, Andrew. “Let God Love Gene Robinson.” GQ. June, 2008

Goodstein, Laurie.  “Episcopalians are Reaching Point of Revolt.”  The New York Times.  December 17, 2006

Goodstein, Laurie. “Gay Bishop Plans His Civil Union Rite.”  The New York Times.  April 25, 2008

Keizer, Garret. “Turning away from Jesus: Gay Rights and the War for the Episcopal Church.” Harper’s Magazine. June, 2008

Lawton, Kim. “Interview: Bishop Gene Robinson.”  PBS. May 2, 2008

Millard, Rosie. “Interview: The Rev. Gene Robinson.” The Sunday Times. July 27, 2008


In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God (2008)


For the Bible Tells Me So (2007)

Other Resources

Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire Website

Remembering Peter Gomes: Black, Gay, Baptist Pastor

Peter Gomes, who died a year ago today, was an anomaly in the growing ranks of out and open gay or lesbian clergy: he was raised Catholic, but became a Baptist pastor. He was also African American, and a Republican. Not, in short, an obvious fit with the popular image of an American gay man. But (and this is important) he was able to recognize and publicly acknowledge his sexuality, and to reconcile it with his faith. This is an important reminder for us that there is no conflict at all between a gay or lesbian orientation and religious faith, or with conservative political philosophy. The only conflict is with those influential people in some churches and in some political circles who seek to impose their own interpretations of Scripture, or their own political prejudices, on everybody else – in disregard of the fundamental Gospel message of inclusion and justice, and the conservative principle of non-interference in private lives. He is also a potent reminder that advocates for equality and sexual justice are no longer found only among liberals, but also include many important conservatives: Republicans in the US, and (some of) David Cameron’s  Tories in the UK. Nor are the advocates for full inclusion in church all liberal or mainline Protestants: they also include Baptists, Mormons – and Catholics.

Gomes was renowned for the power of his preaching: Time magazine named him in 1979 as one of the outstanding preachers in America and he was widely sought after as a speaker and preacher in both the U.S. and Europe. He was equally renowned for his scholarship:  he was a member of both the Divinity School faculty and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, at Harvard, and an Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge.

This scholarship is important, to appreciate his full significance as an advocate for LGBT inclusion and equality. Many of our opponents deny that they are prejudiced, claiming instead to be motivated only by Christian values “as found in the Bible”. But the scriptural evidence for this is flimsy, based primarily on selective recourse to just a handful of verses, poorly translated, and poorly understood. Gomes, who has applied his considerable scholarship in history and Bible study, as well as his impressive communication skills, in writing a series of books on the Bible and its relevance to modern life, is superbly well qualified to counter the popular ignorance of what the Bible really does have to say (or not say) on the subject of homoerotic relationships (among other themes). In “The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (1996)” (which became a best-seller), Gomes analyzes the historical efforts to misuse the Bible to marginalize Jews, blacks, women, and gays, and  encouraged believers to grasp the spirit, not the letter, of scriptural passages that he believed had been misused to defend racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia.

The reasons he gave in 1991 when he came out publicly as gay for are worth reflecting on.

A self-described cultural conservative, Gomes stunned the Harvard community and reluctantly made national news when he came out as a homosexual in 1991 in response to gay bashing on campus. “I don’t like being the main exhibit, but this was an unusual set of circumstances, in that I felt I had a particular resource that nobody else there possessed,” he told The New Yorker in 1996.

“I’m always seen as a black man and now I’m seen as a black gay man. If you throw the other factors in there that make me peculiar and interesting — the Yankee part, the Republican part, the Harvard type — all that stuff confuses people who have to have a single stereotypical lens in order to assure themselves they have a grasp on reality,” he said in an interview with the Boston Herald in 1996.

-full obituary at Harvard Gazette

By confounding stereotypes, Peter Gomes forces us to look beyond them – an important reminder for all of us, especially for Christians, to look beyond the externals, to the real person, and to Christ within each of us.

Some of Rev Gomes’ Books:

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