Detail from engraving of Dutch massacre of sodomites in Amsterdam in 1730-31
Today on Ash Wednesday queer martyrs rise from the ashes as we recall the thousands who were executed for homosexuality throughout history.

This is not just a historical issue. The death penalty for homosexuality continues today in 10 countries (Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, and United Arab Emirates).

Christians traditionally put ashes on their foreheads as a sign of repentance on Ash Wednesday. It is an appropriate time to reflect on the sins of the church and state against queer people, including the burning of “sodomites” and thousands of executions for homosexuality over the past 800 years. This is not intended to diminish the importance of other lives and other sins.

Some of the executions for sodomy were recorded by artists, either long ago or in recent times. This post features artwork, both new and historical, to remember and honor those whose lives were desecrated and cut short.

Another LGBTQ-affirming approach to the holiday is “Glitter+Ash Wednesday.” The project was launched in 2017 by the LGBTQ Presbyterian group Parity. They encourage visibility of LGBTQ Christian people and allies by mixing glitter with the traditional grey ashes.

The whole sad history of church- or state-sanctioned executions of queer people stretches from the 13th century almost to the present. For the first 1,000 years of church history, Christianity was relatively tolerant of homoerotic relationships.

Then came campaigns of terror that started to use the terms “heresy” and “sodomy” interchangeably.  Eventually hostility began to be directed at same-sex erotic behavior in particular.

Long history of executions for sodomy

For its first thousand years, Christianity was fairly tolerant of homosexuality and even honored queer love through paired same-sex saints, “brother-making” commitment ceremonies for male couples, and homoerotic devotional imagery.  Christian art usually celebrated Jesus as the Good Shepherd or the ruler of God’s bountiful creation.

A shift began when the church joined forces with political and military powers near the end of Christianity’s first millennium.  The oldest surviving crucifix with a dead Jesus is the Gero Cross from 970.  The life-sized wooden sculpture was carved by the descendants of Saxons who survived vicious military campaigns led by Charlemagne.  The Pope crowned him as Holy Roman Emperor in 800, and soon he forced Christianity upon the native cultures of Europe.  In what is now Germany, Charlemagne’s armies killed or deported thousands of Saxons and chopped down the sacred tree of their indigenous religion.

As the centuries passed, Jesus’ death on the cross was portrayed with increasing intensity and realism.  Crucifixion scenes spread across Europe, along with a new theology of atonement.  Christians were urged to imagine themselves at the foot of the cross and contemplate Christ’s agony as he was killed to atone for their own particular sins.  People who felt guilty for killing Jesus were less likely to resist domination.  The Gero Cross expressed the anguish of a conquered people, but it also served to normalize violence.  Leaders expanded their use of religion to justify bloodshed with the first Crusade in 1095. As crucifixion art proliferated, hostility began to be directed specifically at same-sex erotic behavior.

Terence Weldon of Queering the Church discusses the fateful period when the atrocities began in a well researched overview titled “Lest We Forget: The Ashes of Our Martyrs”:

In 1120, the Church Council of Nablus specified burning at the stake for homosexual acts. Although this penalty may not immediately have been applied, other harsh condemnations followed rapidly. In 1212, the death penalty for sodomy was specified in in France. Before long the execution of supposed “sodomites”, often by burning at the stake, but also by other harsh means, had become regular practice in many areas.

The Council of Nablus  set a new precedent in medieval church law.  Then came campaigns against heresy, which often used the terms “heresy” and “sodomy” interchangeably.

The church contributed to the deaths of thousands for homosexuality over the next 700 years. Witch burning occurred in the same period and claimed the lives of countless lesbian women whose non-conformity was condemned as witchcraft. (Current events in Uganda and elsewhere prove that some are STILL using Christianity to justify the death penalty for homosexuality up to the present day.) As Weldon concludes:

Obviously, the Catholic Church cannot be held directly responsible for the judicial sentences handed down by secular authorities in Protestant countries. It can, however, be held responsible for its part in fanning the flames of bigotry and hatred in the early part of the persecution, using the cloak of religion to provide cover for what was in reality based not on Scripture or the teaching of the early Church, but on simple intolerance and greed.

It is important as gay men, lesbians and transgendered that we remember the examples of the many who have in earlier times been honoured by the Church as saints or martyrs for the faith. It is also important that we remember the example of the many thousands who have been martyred by the churches – Catholic and other.

A new set of historic images showing sodomy executions

On the night before Ash Wednesday, I discovered a new set of historic images of sodomy executions! I am still doing research on them, so I will keep updating this article.

Discovery of sodomy in a monastery in Bruges

“Discovery of sodomy in a monastery in Bruges” by Frans Hogenberg (Wikimedia Commons)

An engraving dated May 18, 1578 shows a long line of monks being marched out of a monastery in Bruges, Belguim, under armed guard after “sodomy” was discovered there.  The title and verses explain that the revelations came from two Franciscans with Calvinist leanings after they were whipped and interrogated. As a result, “they were all taken prisoners and led away to the gate for their godlessness.”

____________________________________

Execution of monks for homosexuality, Bruges, 26 July 1578

“Execution for Sodomitical Godlessness in the City of Bruges” by Frans Hogenberg (Wikimedia Commons)

The consequences of the investigation are shown in another engraving in the series.  Dated July 26, 1578, it shows two scaffolds in the public square. Three Fransciscan monks are about to be executed by burning while two are flogged. The inscription adds that two younger monks (in the left foreground) were banished “for they were young and inexperienced and had been seduced by the old ones, so that they unjustly practiced sodomy (unzuchtt) upon their bodies.”

For more info on this incident, see:

1578: Three Bruges Minnenbroder (ExecutedToday.com)

Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470-1650,” edited by Kenneth Borris

____________________________________

Burning Sodomites Netherlands 1730 Een_nieuw_liedt_van_Regt_ofte_Justitie

Engraving “Burning sodomite,” 1730, by Anthony Bywegen, Netherlands. (Wikimedia Commons)
Dutch title: Een nieuw liedt van Regt ofte Justitie
____________________________________

Sodomy execution of “Barbara Brunner” in Lenzburg 1586

A man dressed as a woman who identified herself as “Barbara Brunner” was burned in Lenzburg on May 28, 1586. The same day a man was executed between Lenzburg and Aarau for sodomy. Miniature from the manuscript “News collection on contemporary history from the years 1560-87 (with more older songs)” (Sammlung von Nachrichten zur Zeitgeschichte aus den Jahren 1560-87 (mit älteren Stücken) by Johann Jakob Wick. (Wikimedia Commons)

____________________________________

Sodomy execution of James Pratt and John Smith 1835

The last men executed for sodomy in England were two London men: James Pratt and John Smith in 1835.  They hanged in front of London’s Newgate Prison on Nov. 27, 1835. Court records say that they “feloniously, wickedly, diabolically, and against the order of nature, carnally … commit and perpetrate[d] the detestable, horrid, and abominable crime (among Christians not to be named) called buggery.”  More info

____________________________________

Allegories of Truth and Virtue uncover a group of sodomites in an engraving from 1730

“Representation of the Netherlands destroyed by water and fire, while allegories of Truth and Virtue uncover a group of sodomites. On top, Justice looks at it from above, as does a figure holding a flaming sword and a scroll that reads “men, leaving the natural use of the woman” (Romans 1:27). The conveyed meaning is that Dutch sodomites will incur Gods wrath, who, as a consequence, will destroy the Netherlands.  Anonymous engraving from 1730.” (Wikimedia Commons)

A same-sex wedding was planned between Gasparo Vittorio of Monzon and Brother Gioseffe at the the Basilica of Saint John at the Latin Gate on the outskirts of Rome. Gioseffe didn’t show, but a group of 11 including Gasparoy were arrested on July 20, 1578 and executed on Aug. 13, 1578 in Rome. Their story is covered in the 2016 book “Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome: Sexuality, Identity and Community in Early Modern Europe” by Gary Ferguson.

 

Posted before:
An old set of historic images showing sodomy executions

“The Shameful End of Bishop Atherton and his Proctor John Childe,” hanged for sodomy in 1641 in Dublin (Wikimedia Commons)

John Atherton, Anglican bishop of Waterford and Lismore, and his lover John Childe were hanged for “buggery” in 1640 in Dublin, Ireland. The bishop was executed under a law that he helped to institute! The picture comes from an anonymous 1641 booklet titled “The Shameful End of Bishop Atherton and his Proctor John Childe.” The title tries to shame and blame the victims, but the shame belongs to the church and society who killed them for who and how they loved.

Balboa executing two-spirit Native Americans for homosexuality in 1513 in Panama — engraving by Théodore De Bry, 1594 (Wikimedia Commons).  

The Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa found homosexual activity among the Native American chiefs at Quarqua in Panama. He ordered 40 of these two-spirited people thrown to his war dogs to be torn apart and eaten alive to stop the “stinking abomination.” Executions for homosexuality continued during the “Mexican Inquisition,” an extension of the Spanish Inquisition into the New World. In one of the most notorious examples, 14 men were executed by public burning on Nov. 6, 1658 in Mexico City.

The knight of Hohenberg and his servant, accused of sodomy, were executed by burning in Zürich in 1482. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Alsatian knight Richard Puller von Hohenburg and his servant, Anthony Mätzler, accused sodomites, were executed by burning before the walls of Zurich, Switzerland in 1482.  From illustration in Die Grosse Burgunderchronik by Diebold Schilling de Altere, c. 1483.

More info:
1482: Richard Puller von Hohenburg and Anthony Mätzler (ExecutedToday.com)

Execution of sodomites in Ghent in 1578 — drawing by Franz Hogenberg (Wikimedia Commons)

Five Catholic monks were burned to death for homosexuality on June 28, 1578, in Ghent, Belgium. The inscription explains that four were Franciscans and one was Augustinian.

More info:
1578: Five sodomite monks, by Calvinist Ghent (ExecutedToday.com)

Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470-1650,” edited by Kenneth Borris

Timely Punishment Depicted as a Warning to Godless and Damnable Sinners” shows Dutch massacre of sodomites in Amsterdam in 1730-31 (Wikimedia Commons)

A total of 96 gay men were executed for sodomy in the Netherlands years 1730-31.

More recent examples include the Holocaust or “homocaust” of persecution by the Nazis, who sent an estimated 5,000 to 60,000 to concentration camps for homosexuality. Executions on homosexuality charges in Iran continued to make news multiple times since 2011.

Many more die in attacks fueled by religion-based hate, including those killed in the 2016 shooting at the Pulse gay night club in Orlando and the 1973 arson fire at the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans.

Women were also killed for sodomy

Sodomy is often considered a male issue, but the facts of history make clear that queer women were persecuted under sodomy laws too. The meaning of sodomy has changed a lot over the centuries. The “sin of Sodom” in the Bible was described as arrogance and failure to care for travelers and the poor.

“Catharina Margaretha Linck, executed for sodomy in Halberstadt in 1721” by Elke R. Steiner. Steiner’s work is based on Angela Steidele’s book “In Männerkleidern. Das verwegene Leben der Catharina Margaretha Linck alias Anastasius Lagrantinus Rosenstengel, hingerichtet 1721.” Biographie und Dokumentation. Cologne: Böhlau, 2004. (“In Men’s Clothes: The Daring Life of Catharina Margaretha Linck alias Anastasius Rosenstengel, Executed 1721.”)

German artist Elke R. Steiner illustrates the last known execution for lesbianism in Europe. Born in 1694, Catharina Margaretha Linck lived most of her life as a man under the name Anastasius. She was beheaded for sodomy on Nov. 8, 1721 in Halberstadt in present-day Germany. Linck worked at various times as a soldier, textile worker and a wandering prophet with the Pietists. She married a woman in 1717. Her mother-in-law reported her to authorities, who convicted her of sodomy with a “lifeless instrument,” wearing men’s clothes and multiple baptisms. The subject is grim, but Steiner adds an empowering statement: “But even were I to be done away with, those who are like me would remain.”

“Catharina aka Anastasius Linck” by Ria Brodell

Genderqueer Boston artist Ria Brodell portrays Linck and several other historical women who were killed for sodomy in her “Butch Heroes” series. They include Katherina Hetzeldorfer of Germany, drowned in 1477 for female sodomy, and Lisbetha Olsdotter aka Mats Ersson of Sweden, who was decapitated in 1679 for cross-dressing and other crimes.

Recent executions for sodomy

Christianity is no longer used to justify state-sponsored executions for homosexuality, but religion is still a big factor in nations where executions continue.

Ayaz and Mahmoud by Matt Pipes sodomy executions

“Ayaz and Mahmoud” by Matt Pipes

A new artwork commemorates two Iranian teenagers who were killed in one of the more recent cases. “Ayaz and Mahmoud” by San Francisco artist Matt Pipes depicts Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari. They were executed by hanging in Mashaud, Iran on July 19, 2005 for violating Shari’a (Islamic law) in a case that drew international attention. They were convicted for homosexual rape of another teenage boy, but the British LGBT group Outrage! insisted that that they were lovers engaging in consensual homosexual sex. The facts of their particular case are still being debated, but the artwork is a poignant expression of the universal grief over executions of same-sex lovers for the “crime” of being gay.

News reports chronicle some of the other 21st-century executions for homosexuality:

Iran’s New Gay Executions (Daily Beast, 8/12/2014)
“Two men, Abdullah Ghavami Chahzanjiru and Salman Ghanbari Chahzanjiri, were hanged in southern Iran on August 6, possibly for consensual sodomy…”

Four Iranian men due to be hanged for sodomy (Pink News, 5/12/2012)
“Iran court sentenced four men… to death by hanging for sodomy… named ‘Saadat Arefi’, ‘Vahid Akbari’, ‘Javid Akbari’ and ‘Houshmand Akbari.’”

Iran executes three men on homosexuality charges (guardian.com 9/7/2011)

Prayers and poetry for Ash Wednesday

I created my own Ash Wednesday prayer to counteract the negative messages imposed on LGBTQ people:

We are light, and to Light we will return!

This is a queer counterpoint to go with the usual Bible reading for Ash Wednesday: “You are dust, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).

Milder forms of anti-LGBTQ persecution continue in the church. Now it is common to freeze LGBTQ people out of church leadership positions. Gay pastor and author Chris Glaser writes about the exclusion from clergy roles as a “fast imposed by others” in the following prayer based on the practice of fasting during Lent, the season of individual and collective repentance and reflection between Ash Wednesday and Easter.

One: Jesus,
our fast has been imposed by others,
our wilderness sojourn their choice more than ours.
Many: Our fast from the sacraments,
our fast from ordination:
our only choice was honesty.
One: With the scapegoats of the ancient Hebrews,
sexual sins of generations
have been heaped upon our backs,
and we have been sent away,
excommunicated, into the wilderness to die.
Many: Yet we choose life,
even in our deprivation
One: Jesus, lead us to discern our call
parallel to your own:
rebelling against the boundaries,
questioning the self-righteous authorities,
breaking the Sabbath law
to bring healing.

This prayer comes from “Rite for Lent” by Chris Glaser, published in Equal Rites: Lesbian and Gay Worship, Ceremonies, and Celebrations. Glaser spent 30 years struggling with the Presbyterian Church for the right to ordination as an openly gay man before he was ordained to the ministry in Metropolitan Community Churches in 2005. He writes progressive Christian reflections at chrisglaser.blogspot.com.

Faggots We May Be,” a 2015 poem by Georgia poet S. Alan Fann, makes connections between gay men burned to death, global warming and the Rainbow Christ.

“Pilloried”, a poem by Andrew Craig Williams, is based on a news report from Nov. 12, 1726: “Two persons stood in the Pillory this Week for Sodomy, and were sadly maul’d.”

It is horrifying to remember the “burning times,” especially for those LGBTQ people who consider themselves part of the Christian tradition. Let us rise from the ashes with these verses from the Bible:

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased.
[Psalm 51: 10, 17]

Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a you to humble yourself?
Is it to bow down your head like a rush,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under you?
Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to God?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily.
[Isaiah 58:5-8]

Links related to executions for sodomy and homosexuality

“Burned for sodomy” (Queering the Church)

Lest We Forget: The Ashes of Our Martyrs (Queering the Church)

The blood-soaked thread (Wild Reed)

List of people executed for homosexuality (Wikipedia)

LGBT Victims (Gay History Wiki)

List of unlawfully killed transgender people (Wikipedia)

Victims of anti-LGBT hate crimes (Wikipedia)

Victims of Hate” gallery on Facebook

Here are the 10 countries where homosexuality may be punished by death (Washington Post, 2016)

Significant acts of violence against LGBT people (Wikipedia)

BURN BABY BURN: A Knight, a Squire, a Bishop, a Steward, Five RC Monks and Millions of murders initiated by bigots at Church! (Eruptions at the Foot of the Volcano Blog)

The Gay Holocaust (Matt and Andrej Koymasky)

A History of Homophobia (Rictor Norton)

‘Glitter Ash Wednesday’ sparkles for LGBT Christians and others (ReligionNews.com)

Ex-gay movement as genocide (Jesus in Love)

Books:
Homosexuality and Civilization by Louis Crompton

Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470-1650,” edited by Kenneth Borris

___
Top image credit:
Detail from “Timely Punishment Depicted as a Warning to Godless and Damnable Sinners,” an engraving showing the Dutch massacre of sodomites in 1730/1731. Published in Amsterdam, 1731.(Wikimedia Commons)
___
This post is part of the LGBTQ Calendar series by Kittredge Cherry. The series celebrates religious and spiritual holidays, events in LGBTQ history, holy days, feast days, festivals, anniversaries, liturgical seasons and other occasions of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people of faith and our allies.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Qspirit.net presents the Jesus in Love Blog on LGBTQ spirituality.

Kittredge Cherry
Follow

Kittredge Cherry

Founder at Q Spirit
Kittredge Cherry is a lesbian Christian author who writes regularly about LGBTQ spirituality.She holds degrees in religion, journalism and art history.She was ordained by Metropolitan Community Churches and served as its national ecumenical officer, advocating for LGBTQ rights at the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches.
Kittredge Cherry
Follow