|Dutch massacre of sodomites,|
detail (Wikimedia Commons)
This is not just a historical issue. Uganda was in the news last week for passing a law that sends people to prison for homosexual acts, but 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.
Some of the executions for sodomy were recorded by artists, either long ago or in recent times. This post features images, both new and historical, to remember and honor those whose lives were desecrated and cut short.
Sodomy is often considered a male issue, but the facts of history make clear that queer women were persecuted under sodomy laws too. Of course, 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.
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.”
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.
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 I believe that the shame belongs to the church and society who killed them for who and how they loved.
The Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa found homosexuality 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.”
Five Catholic monks were burned to death for homosexuality on June 28, 1578, in Ghent, Belguim.
A total of 96 gay men were executed for sodomy in the Netherlands years 1730-31.
Terence Weldon of Queering the Church is doing extensive research on the whole sad history of execution of queer people. He is assembling a chronology called “Burned for Sodomy” with the goal of listing all those killed for homosexuality in church- or state-sanctioned executions. It 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. Then hostility began to be directed specifically at same-sex erotic behavior. Weldon locates 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 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 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.
More recent examples include the "gay Holocaust" of persecution by the Nazis, who sent an estimated 5,000 to 60,000 to concentration camps for homosexuality.
Many more die in attacks fueled by religion-based hate, including those killed in the arson fire at the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans.
Milder forms of anti-LGBT persecution continue in the church. Now it is common to freeze LGBT people out of church leadership positions. 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.
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.
It is horrifying to remember the "burning times," especially for those of us who count ourselves as 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.
“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)
Here are the 10 countries where homosexuality may be punished by death (Washington Post, Feb. 24, 2014)
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)
Catharina Margaretha Linck, Executed for Sodomy (Queering the Church)
A History of Homophobia, 3 The Later Roman Empire & The Early Middle Ages (Rictor Norton)
A History of Homophobia, 4 Gay Heretics and Witches" (Rictor Norton)
Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook (Rictor Norton, editor)
“Pilloried” - a poem by Andrew Craig Williams
Blessing the Dust: A Blessing for Ash Wednesday by Jan Richardson
International Holocaust Remembrance Day: We all wear the triangle (Jesus in Love)
Ex-gay movement as genocide (Jesus in Love)
Book: Homosexuality and Civilization by Louis Crompton
This post is part of the LGBT Holidays series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series celebrates religious and spiritual holidays, holy days, feast days, festivals, anniversaries, liturgical seasons and other occasions of special interest to LGBT and queer people of faith and our allies.