Category Archives: LGBT history

The Story of the Queer Saints and Martyrs

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 Hebrews’ concept of a single all-powerful God did not incorporate any concept of divine sexuality, but they did include into their Scriptures numerous passages that describe same sex loving relationships  as well as the books of the prophets who were eunuchs.

The Christian Gospels offer tantalizing hints at Jesus’ own sexuality which may have included some male love interest. However, more directly relevant to us are His teaching and example , which clearly show that His message is an inclusive one, that quite explicitly does include sexual minorities of all kinds.

After the Gospels, the most important Christian writings are the letters of Paul, who has a reputation as strongly condemning same sex behaviour – but a more careful consideration of his life as well as his letters, in their own context, can offer a different perspective.

The Early Christians.

The cultural context of the early was one where  they were political and even social outcasts, in a society of a bewildering range of attitudes to sexuality, ranging from substantial sexual licence for Roman citizens, to negligible freedom of sexual choice for slaves, to sexual abstemiousness for those influenced by Greek stoicism. The stories of queer saints that come down to us include those of martyred Roman soldiers, martyred Roman women, bishops who wrote skilled erotic poems, and (especially in the Eastern regions), cross-dressing monks.

In addition to the examples of individuals who were honoured as saints, there are also important examples from Church practice. Evidence from archaeology and written records shows clearly that from the late Roman period onwards, the Church made liturgical provision for the recognition of same sex couples. From Macedonia, there is extensive evidence of Christian same sex couples who were buried in shared graves. More telling evidence for church recognition of same sex couples comes from the existence of formal liturgical rites for blessing their unions. In the Eastern Church, these rites (known as “adelphopoeisis”)  date from the late Roman period. In the Western Church, where the evidence begins a little later, they were known as making of “sworn brothers”.

Medieval Homoeroticism

The early Middle Ages were once known as the “Dark Ages”, a disparaging term, which nevertheless is descriptive of the murky information we have about the saints: some of what is commonly believed about these saints is clearly mythical. Nevertheless, knowledge of the queer associations of saints like Patrick and Brigid of Ireland, George the dragon slayer and “Good King Wenceslas” is simple fun – and literal, historical truth or not, can provide useful material for reflection.

This period is also notable for the widespread use of specific liturgies for blessing same sex unions in Church. Even if these unions are not directly comparable with modern marriage, understanding of this recognition by the church deserves careful consideration, for the guidance it can offer the modern church on dealing with recognition for same sex relationships.

By the time of the High Middle Ages, influenced by increasing urbanization and greater familiarity with more homoerotic Muslim civilization, the earlier moderate opposition and grudging toleration of same sex love softened to a more open tolerance, with some remarkable monastic love letters with homoerotic imagery, more erotic poetry, and acceptance of open sexual relationships even for prominent bishops  and abbots – especially if they had suitable royal collections.

It was also a time of powerful women in the church, as abbesses who sometimes even had authority over their local bishops.

However, the increase in open sexual relationships among some monastic groups also led to a reaction, with some theologians starting to agitate for much harsher penalties against “sodomites”, especially among the clergy. Initially, these pleas for a harsher, anti-homosexual regime met with limited support – but bore fruit a couple of centuries later, with disastrous effects which were felt right through to the present day – and especially the twentieth century.

The Great Persecution

Symbolically, the great change can be seen as the martyrdom of Joan of Arc – martyred not for the Church, but by the Church, for reasons that combined charges of heresy with her cross-dressing. A combination of charges of heresy and “sodomy” were also the pretext for the persecution and trials of the Knights Templar – masking the naked greed of the secular and clerical powers which profited thereby. The same confusion of “sodomy” and heresy led to an expansion of the persecution from the Templars to wider group, and  also the expansion of the methods and geographic extent, culminating in the executions of thousands of alleged “sodomites” across many regions of Europe. This persecution was initially encouraged or conducted by the Inquisition, later by secular authorities alone – but conducted according to what the church had taught them was a religious justification. Even today, the belief that religion justifies homophobic violence is often given as a motivation by the perpetrators – and the fires that burned the sodomites of the fifteenth century had a tragic echo in the gay holocaust of the second world war.

Yet even at the height of the persecution, there was the paradox of a succession of  popes, who either had well-documented relationships with boys or men,  or commissioned frankly homoerotic art from renowned Renaissance artists, which continues to decorate Vatican architecture. This period exemplifies the continuing hypocrisy of an outwardly homophobic, internally.

Modern Martyrs, Modern Revival

The active persecution of sodomites by the Inquisition gradually gave way to secular prosecutions under civil law, with declining ferocity as the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment and more modern times (although executions continued until the nineteenth century). From this time on, theoretical condemnation of “sodomites” co-existed with increasing public recognition of some men who had sex with men, and records relating to queers in the church are less prominent than either earlier or later periods.  In the nineteenth century, Cardinal Newman’s request to be buried alongside Ambrose St John does not appear to have aroused any opposition.

In the twentieth century, the increasing visibility of homosexual men produced the horrifying backlash in Germany in the gay holocaust, with its echos of the medieval bonfires of heretics and sodomites – the modern gay martyrs.

Only after WWII did the Vatican begin to seriously address the question of homosexuality, with increasingly harsh judgements and attempts to silence theologians and pastors who questioned their doctrines and practice. Other denominations drove out existing gay or lesbian pastors, and refused ordination, or even church membership, to other openly gay or lesbian church members. However, these victims of church exclusion, who can be seen metaphorically as modern martyrs, martyred by the church for being true to their sexual identity,  refused to be silenced. Like St Sebastian before Emperor Maximilian, they found new ways to minister to the truth of homosexuality and Christianity.

Today, these early pioneers for queer inclusion in church have been joined by countless others, who work constantly at tasks large and small, to witness to the truth of our sexuality and gender identity, and to its compatibility with authentic Christianity. In effect, that includes all of who identify as both Christian, and simultaneously as lesbian, gay trans, or other  – and the women who refuse to accept the narrow confines of the gender roles church authorities attempt to place on us.

November 1st is the day the Church has set aside to celebrate All Saints – the recognition that sainthood is not only a matter of formally recognized and canonized saints, but is a calling to which we must all aspire. For queers in Church, it is especially a day for us to remember our modern heroes, who in facing and overcoming their attempted silencing are martyrs of the modern church – and that we, too, are called to martyrdom, in its literal sense: to bear witness, in our lives, to our truth.

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James Stoll, Unitarian Pioneer of LGBT Inclusion in Church

Rev. James Lewis Stoll, who died on December 8th 1994, was a Unitarian Universalist minister who became the first ordained minister of any religion in the United States or Canada to come out as gay. He did so at the annual Continental Conference of Student Religious Liberals on September 5, 1969 in La Foret, Colorado. Later, he led the effort that convinced the Unitarian Universalist Association to pass the first-ever gay rights resolution in 1970.
After training at Starr King School for the Ministry, in Berkeley, followed by ordination, he served as pastor at a church in Kennewick, Wash., from 1962 until 1969. For reasons that have not been disclosed, he was asked to resign, and then moved to San Francisco, where he shared an apartment with three others.
In September of 1969, he attended a convention of college-age Unitarians in Colorado Springs. One evening after dinner, he stood up and came out publicly as a gay man. He declared his orientation, stated that it was not a choice, that he was no longer ashamed of it, and that from then on, he would refuse to live a lie.

“On the second or third night of the conference,” according to Mr. Bond-Upson, “after dinner, Jim got up to speak. He told us that he’d been doing a lot of hard thinking that summer. Jim told us he could no longer live a lie. He’d been hiding his nature — his true self — from everyone except his closest friends. ‘If the revolution we’re in means anything,’ he said, ‘it means we have the right to be ourselves, without shame or fear.’

“Then he told us he was gay, and had always been gay, and it wasn’t a choice, and he wasn’t ashamed anymore and that he wasn’t going to hide it anymore, and from now on he was going to be himself in public. After he concluded, there was a dead silence, then a couple of the young women went up and hugged him, followed by general congratulations. The few who did not approve kept their peace.” ’

After the convention, Stoll wrote articles on gay rights, and preached sermons on the subject at several churches. The following year, the full annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association passed a resolution condemning discrimination against homosexual persons, beginning a gradual but irresistible move towards full LGBT inclusion.
No action was ever taken by the church against Stoll, and so he remained a minister in good standing, but he was never again called to serve a congregation. It is not clear whether this had anything to do with lingering prejudice against his orientation. It could also be on the grounds of some suspicions of drug abuse, or of inappropriate sexual behaviour.
Later, he founded the first counseling center for gays and lesbians in San Francisco. In the 1970s he established the first hospice on Maui. He was president of the San Francisco chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1990s. He died at the age of 58 from complications of heart and lung disease, exacerbated by obesity and a life-long smoking habit
Stoll’s name is not well known today, but for this brave and honest public witness, he deserves to be better remembered.In declaring himself, he was not the first ordained clergyman to come out, but he was the first to do so voluntarily, and the first in an established denomination. His action undoubtedly made it easier for the others who followed him, and to the formal acceptance by the Unitarians of openly gay men and lesbians in the church, and to the now well-established process to full LGBT inclusion in so many denominations.

Source:

Haunted Man of the Cloth, Pioneer of Gay Rights (NY Times)

Nzinga (1583-1663), Female King of the Mbundu.

Nzinga is renowned in Black history for her courageous part in resistance to the Portuguese colonial power in what is now Angola.
Her father had been the “ngola” or ruler (from which the Portuguese took the name for their colonial territory), and was followed in that position by Nzinga’s brother, Ngola Mbande. As a child, Nzinga had been greatly favoured by her father, who gave her the opportunity to watch him closely as he governed, and even went with him to war. Later, she was sent by her brother as envoy to the Poruguese governor at a peace conference,  in Luanda in 1622, aiming to have the Portuguese withdraw a fortress they had built on Mbundu land, return some of her brother’s subjects who had been captured, and to put an end to the marauding raids by bands of Portuguese.
She was able to secure a peace treaty – which the Portuguese failed to keep. Her brother then committed suicide, leaving his son Kaza as heir, with Nzinga acting as regent.Instead, she had him killed, and assumed the throne herself. As ruler, she continued to resist the Portuguese in numerous battles, personally leading her army in war, and forming alliances with both the neighbouring African peoples of Kongo in the African interior, and with the Dutch on the coast. She maintained this resistance for over thirty years, until well into her sixties, before finally signing a peace treaty in 1657.
The queer interest in Nzinga rests in her assuming the throne of her people, which traditionally could only be held by men. As she had occupied a position absolutely restricted to men, so she was necessarily regarded as male.  As a man, and as king, it then became important that s/he acquire a harem of wives. As Nzinga was biologically female, her wives then needed to be biologically male, who dressed as women and took female gender roles.
In the African context, her story is not as extraordinary as it may sound. Ethnographic reports from all regions of the continent have shown that gender roles were traditionally less closely identified with biological sex than in the West, so that wealthy women who could afford it, could and sometimes did acquire wives, and take on the roles of “husband” – while some wealthy men included the occasional male among their “wives”.

Natural Families: Africa’s Female Kings and Husbands.

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Nzinga – misleadingly represented here as “queen”
The standard platitudes about two-called “traditional  families” are full of completely groundless assumptions.  One, that this idea is in any way “traditional”, I have previously shown to be false (“Traditional” Families, Traditional “Family Values”). Another is that love, marriage, sex and child-bearing  “naturally” all belong together.  As part of a more extended investigation into the enormous variety of “natural” families to be found across the world, I have been reading about some of the extraordinary ways in which in some societies, these can be entirely independent. Today, I look at some notable crossing of female gender stereotypes from Africa.
A fascinating story of a female king comes from the country of Angola, which takes its name from the hereditary king, “ngola”, of the Ndongo people.  During the colonial wars of conquest, the Portuguese met the fiercest resistance from a king called Nzinga – who turned out to be biologically female.  Although the monarchy was reserved for men, she had forced her way into office, and so was necessarily regarded as male.  As a man, and as king, it then became important that s/he acquire a harem of wives. As Nzinga was biologically female, her wives then needed to be biologically male, who dressed as women and took female gender roles.
Nzinga was one example from history, but her story is not in any way unique in Africa. In South Africa, one of those recurring stories that crop up from time to time on the inside pages of the newspapers, often on the travel & tourism sections, concerns the remote, near mythical person, the Rain Queen of the Lovedu people. (I have seen a website on African Mythology that describes her as an actual mythical deity. she is not – she is very real, just very reclusive, shunning all publicity).  The Rain Queen is the hereditary ruler of her people by matrilineal succession. From her title, it is clear that one of her duties is to apply her hereditary supernatural skills in rain making. But it is another feature of her tradition that catches the papers’ attention: by tradition, she always marries only women, whom she takes in polygamous marriages. While the Queen gets on with the domestic duties usually associated with a husband, these wives will take on typical female gender roles, including procreation and childrearing. Obviously the Queen cannot pysically father children, so the wives are sent outside of the family unit for sex, and conception. The children thus conceived are raised in the royal family, and have nothing whatsoever to do with their biological fathers.



Female Husbands

Ethnographic studies have documented similar practices in over thirty populations across the continent. I find these fascinating, for the clear way in which they highlight the difference between biological sex and gender, and for the distinctions between sex, marriage, procreation and child rearing.

The records show that in these societies, women who have sufficient wealth to come up with the required bride price may take wives. When they do, they form households in which they take on the traditional roles and duties of husbands, while the other women behave exactly as any other wives, taking on the domestic chores and the child-rearing.

Children? Clearly, all-female marriages are not able to conceive children. Instead, some or all of the wives will have sexual relationships with men outside the marriage, sometimes with men chosen for them by their husbands, specifically for the pusposes of procreation. The biological father’s role though, stops right there. The children are raised in the all female household, by their mothers – and their female stepfather. physical procreation is entirely distinct from the chikl-rearing that follows. Sexual relationships too, may be distinct from both the marriage, and from procreation. In some cases, the marriages will include lesbian sexual relationships, but in others some or all of the women have erotic relationships outside of the family which are not necessarily geared to procreation.

Africa is a large, diverse continent, so it should not be a surpsie that there are many other forms of same sex relationship observed as well. Here, I have only touched on one little-known aspect of some female relationships. Later, I will also look at other unusual forms of relationships that totally contradict the idea that homoerotic relationships are foreign to Africa and introduced by outsiders, either European colonials, or the Arabs.

See also:

Gay Ugandans, Ugandan Martyrs

African Myths about Homosexuality – Guardian

Books:

Naphy, William: Born to be Gay: A History of Homosexuality (Revealing History)

Greenberg, David F:   The Construction of Homosexuality

Ifi Amadiume Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society

Murray, Donald O: Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities

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