It’s time to welcome the queer saints. Many believe that saints and other souls will visit this weekend for Halloween, All Saints Day, All Souls Day, and Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos). LGBTQ saints are important because people are searching for alternative ways to lead loving lives.
Churches have tried to control people by burying queer history. The LGBTQ saints show us not only THEIR place in history, but also OUR place — because we are all saints who are meant to embody love. We can tap into the energy of our ancestors in faith. They can inspire us to find our voice and be our best. For some they become friends and helpers, working miracles as simple as a reminding us that “you are not alone.” Our history is our power. Remembering it and passing it on is a sacred responsibility that shapes the future. I enjoy making LGBTQ saints easier for everybody to find.
Saints tend to be the folk heroes of various groups, cultures, occupations, and nations. For example, there are Latina/o saints, Irish saints, women saints — and now LGBTQ saints. As Vatican advisor and Jesuit priest James Martin notoriously told faithful Catholics in 2017, “A certain percentage of humanity is gay, and so were most likely some of the saints. You may be surprised when you get to heaven to be greeted by LGBT men and women.”
At first I thought that LGBTQ saints were rare. Gradually I came to see that they are everywhere throughout all time and they are among us now. We have all met saints in our lives. They are ordinary people who are also extraordinary.
Calling someone a “queer saint” is a liberating act in two ways: The most obvious one is that revealing the hidden queer sexual orientation or gender identity of traditional saints liberates people from sex-negative, oppressive church dogmas. In addition, revealing the “saintliness” of LGBTQ people ignored by the church liberates people from the tyranny that says sexuality must be separate from spirituality. Phrases like “queer saint” make a nice shorthand for headlines — neatly challenging the assumption that sainthood and LGBTQ identity are mutually exclusive.
I offer reflections on what I have learned by writing more than 80 profiles in the LGBTQ Saints Series since 2007. This is my queer theology of sainthood.
Who are the LGBTQ saints?
|Sergius and Bacchus
by Robert Lentz
Many people want to know the names and histories of LGBTQ and queer saints. If you want some specifics about this rainbow tribe, visit the LGBTQ Saints page at http://qspirit.net/saints/.
Most mainstream churches would not canonize any saints who were openly LGBTQ, so we must claim our own saints. It’s important to re-evaluate familiar figures as well as to recover those who have been lost and recognize the saints of our own time. The church may seem to have the power to decide who is a saint, but each individual can also choose for themselves. Paul urges us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
Queer Quaker scholar Mitch Gould summed up the dilemma well when he wittily warned me, “Sainthood is a devilishly nuanced accusation.” Traditional stories of the saints tend to be overly pious, presenting idealized super-heroes who seem distant and irrelevant. Saints have been used to get people to passively accept oppressive situations. Too often the saints have been put on a pedestal to glorify virginity and masochistic suffering. The emphasis on miracles disrespects nature, the ongoing miracle of life.
Feminists have criticized saints as tools of the dominant morality, but with LGBTQ saints the opposite is true: They can shake up the status quo. We can restore the complex reality of saints whose lives are being hijacked by hagiograpahies and hierarchy to enforce the established power structures. Queer saints can help reclaim the wholeness, connecting sexuality and spirituality for the good of all.
Why and how I write about LGBTQ saints
|Perpetua and Felicity
by Robert Lentz
I began writing about LGBTQ saints in 2007 after finishing a series of books on the queer Christ (Jesus in Love novels and Art That Dares). Many people told me that they couldn’t relate to a gay Jesus, but they liked the idea that LGBTQ people were among his followers. Church leaders have used saints to impose control from the top down, but the desire for saints springs naturally from the grassroots. People are drawn to the presence of spiritual power in the lives of the saints, and their willingness to use that power for others, even at great cost to themselves. Saints attract others with the quality of their love, even though their personal lives may not be “saintly.”
I was aware of new artwork and research about LGBTQ saints, so I was shocked to discover that it was not easily available online. Largely due to the church’s crackdown on LGBTQ spirituality, much of it was buried under obscure code names like “images that challenge” — if it was available on the Internet at all. I became a citizen historian who applies journalistic skills to the past instead of reporting on current events.
As an independent blogger, I am free to put LGBTQ saints out there where more people can find and benefit from them. I decided to uncover and highlight holy heroes and role models to inspire LGBTQ people of faith and our allies. The positive response quickly affirmed that people are hungry to connect with queer people of faith who have gone before.
People ask how I pick the saints for my LGBTQ Saints series. I’m always on the lookout for queer saints! I’m guided by the Spirit and my own curiosity as I surf the Web. Frequently friends alert me. In many cases, I let artists lead me. A beautiful icon or portrait of a saint often inspires me to do their profile. I make a conscious effort to present a diverse group of both familiar and unfamiliar saints from many times and places. The institutional church only canonizes saints after their death, and I follow that formula in my LGBTQ Saints series. Christian art has a beautiful tradition of using a square halo to identify a living person destined for sainthood.
Working on each profile is like having a visit from that saint. Another blessing is getting to know the people devoted to each saint. Some saints seem to have special advocates who urge me to write about them and supply a wealth of background material. Each year the saints help me touch base with their particular artists or advocates on their feast days.
One of the greatest challenges has been to figure out who is a “saint” and who is “LGBTQ.” If the boundaries of sainthood are slippery, then the definition LGBTQ is even more fluid.
What is a saint?
Dictionaries define a saint as “a holy person” or “an extremely virtuous person.” My definition of who qualifies as an “LGBTQ saint” continues to expand. First I included saints officially canonized by the church, but I soon discovered that many have achieved “sainthood” by popular acclaim. The church didn’t even have a formal canonization process for its first 1,000 years. I also found that the church has overlooked or actively erased many worthy queer Christians of the past. Not knowing our history is another form of oppression. Saints are human beings and the fact that they have flaws mixed with their virtues is part of their appeal. Canonizing real people who combine the sacred and profane affirms the wholeness of life itself. To be an angel implies perfection, but saints push the limits of their humanity.
Saints are often used by the institutional church to promote their own agenda. But there are plenty of saints who stood up against the church during their lifetimes. Like today’s LGBTQ Christians, the saints sometimes faced opposition from within the church. Some LGBTQ martyrs, including cross-dresser Joan of Arc, were killed not FOR the church, but BY the church! The Christian community needs its saintly troublemakers.
Ultimately all believers, living and dead, can be called “saints,” a practice that began in the early church. In the New Testament, Paul used the word “saint” to refer to every member of the Christian community, a practice continued by Troy Perry, founder of Metropolitan Community Churches. One of my memories from working with him was that whenever he wrote a letter to MCC members, he addressed it as “Dear Saints.” We always got back some responses from people protesting, “I’m not a saint!” But in a very real sense, we are all saints.
I rather like the concept of sainthood that emerged in comments on this blog during a discussion of the post “Artist shows sensuous gay saints.” Atlanta artist Trudie Barreras wrote: “My definition of saint has absolutely nothing to do with what the hierarchical church defines, and everything to do with the quality of love displayed.” Or, as gay author Toby Johnson commented, “Being a saint means creating more love in the world.”
Can LGBTQ martyrs be called saints?
|Joan of Arc
by Robert Lentz
Sainthood comes in many different forms. Some become saints by leading an exemplary life, but the surest path to sainthood is to risk or lose one’s for the good of others. As Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13). Martyrs, from the Greek word for “to bear witness,” are a common type of saint.
Sometimes readers object that my LGBTQ saints series includes modern martyrs whose lives were not “saintly.” My understanding is that martyrs need not be role models, but they are honored simply because they were killed for a particular cause. Therefore I include people such as Matthew Shepard because they were killed for being gay and their deaths furthered the cause of LGBTQ rights, regardless of their flaws.
Anyone who is murdered for being LGBTQ can also be considered a martyr because the attack was triggered by their courage to live their lives and reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity, even if only partially or with some qualms. LGBTQ martyrs are witnesses to the truth of how God created them, and thereby reveal God. Traditional religious martyrs are killed due to odium fidei (hatred of their Christian faith), but Robert Shine of New Ways Ministries points out that LGBTQ martyrs are victims of odium amoris, or “hatred of love.” Whether or not they died as martyrs, the lives of the saints were indeed difficult. Our lives are difficult too — and that can become a point of connection.
The modern LGBTQ saint most likely to be recognized by the Roman Catholic church is a martyr: Mychal Judge, the gay chaplain to New York City firefighters who was killed in the line of duty during the 9/11 terrorist attack. A movement to canonize him is underway.
Can historical people be called LGBTQ?
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer did not exist as categories throughout most of the history in which the saints lived. A convenient way around this dilemma is to say that LGBTQ saints are those of special interest to LGBTQ people and our allies. The term “queer” is increasingly used to describe gender-variant people of the past, so I often use the phrase “queer saints.”
Critics make a valid point when they say that it’s anachronistic to call historical figures “LGBTQ” because the concept didn’t back exist then. This is where I boldly go where some careful scholars fear to tread. Elaborate scholarly and historical terms such as “same-sex desire,” “romantic friendship,” “homophile,”“homoaffectionate” and “inverts” are unfamiliar to the general public and can serve as gatekeepers that prevent ordinary people from getting access to the life-saving info that God loves LGBTQ people. The proof is in the lives of the LGBTQ saints.
by Robert Lentz
Some deny the existence of historical LGBTQ saints because it’s almost impossible to prove their sexual activity. Likewise is it difficult to decide whether historical figures fit into the contemporary category of transgender. However, same-sex love does not have to be sexually consummated for someone to be honored as an LGBTQ saint. Deep love between two people of the same gender is enough.
Homosexuality is more than sexual conduct. The American Psychological Association defines sexual orientation as “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions.” The dominant Christian culture tried to suppress overt homosexuality, so any hint of homosexuality that survives in the historical record should be given extra significance. Many official saints were nuns or monks living in same-gender convents or monasteries. Naturally their primary emotional attachments were to people of the same gender. Soon almost all saints seem LGBTQ!
Let us be inspired by the LGBTQ saints who surround us as a “great cloud of witnesses” and commit ourselves to our own queer paths toward sainthood.
Litany of LGBTQ Saints
I close with a “found prayer” — a litany built over time from Facebook comments on my various LGBTQ saints articles:
Saints of Stonewall who “performed the miracle of transforming self-hatred into pride,” pray for us.
All our holy innocents and martyrs, pray for us.
Saints of Orlando, shielding those you loved with your own bodies, pray for us and lend us your courage.
Blessed be their memory!
On their shoulders we stand!
Links related to why we need LGBTQ saints
I have expanded on the ideas presented here by writing theological reflections based on feminist and queer theology at the following two blogs:
Feminism and Religion Blog: Feminism leads to a queer theology of sainthood by Kittredge Cherry
99 Brattle (Episcopal Divinity School blog): A queer theology of sainthood emerges by Kittredge Cherry
Litany of the Queer Saints by Tony O’Connell
Queer Saints series by Terence Weldon (queerchurch.com)
To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
¿Por qué necesitamos santas y santos LGBT?
To read this post in Italian, go to:
Perché abbiamo bisogno di santi LGBT (Gionata.org)
To read this post in Russian, go to:
Зачем нужны ЛГБТ-святые? (Nuntiare.org)
Sanctity And Male Desire: A Gay Reading Of Saints by Donald Boisvert
Top image credit:
God is enthroned in concentric rainbows with 24 elders seated within the outer rainbow in a detail from the 15th-century St. John Altarpiece by Hans Memling (Wikipedia.com). The image is based on John’s vision of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation.
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.
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