Sunday, May 15, 2011

Hunky Jesus contest: Liberating or offensive?

Brokeback Mountain Jesus (photo by Xero Britt)

For me as a lesbian Christian, there’s a lot to love about the Hunky Jesus contest held every Easter in San Francisco by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of “queer nuns” who do street theater for charity.

First and most important, it makes me feel like Jesus is right here with us, queer or not -- living up to his name Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”

Happy crowds attend the costume competition every year to see the sexy side of Jesus exposed by contestants with nicknames such as Stimulus Package Jesus, Gym Bunny Jesus and Victoria’s Secret Jesus.

Hunky Jesus contestant,
photo by Xero Britt
The Hunky Jesus contest is packed with living, breathing gay Jesuses -- or “Jesi,” as they are called. Many of the Hunky Jesus photos are wonderful, and a few favorites are posted here. See more photos below.  I put a lot of energy into promoting images of a queer Christ in order to heal the damage done by homophobes in Jesus’ name. You can see them on this blog and in my book “Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More.” The Hunky Jesi can free people who feel left out when Jesus is presented as a straight man. Maybe they can even enlarge the way some people see God.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence say that the Hunky Jesus contest is a fun way to promote the ideal of a loving God who has a sense of humor. It’s also a birthday party for their organization, which has raised more than $1 million for LGBT groups, AIDS service organizations, and other non-profits that don’t see a penny from conservative Christians.
Classic Jesus and Roma,
photo by Xero Britt

It’s no surprise that the Hunky Jesus contest offends the religious right. But even gay Christians are denouncing it in the news media this year. Some LGBT Christians and our allies fear that such events could provoke a backlash. Political commentator Andrew Sullivan, a gay Catholic, attacked it as “the tired, lame bigotry of some homosexuals” and gay Catholic priest Donal Godfrey of San Francisco called it “sacrilege” at

I wouldn’t go that far, but parts of it do disturb me. I decided against posting the recent 2011 Hunky Jesus contest video here because it includes nudity, the f-word and simulated gay sex. A link to the video is at the end of this article.

I’m sure that Jesus felt sexual attractions for both men and women, but the more extreme Hunky Jesus contestants express it in a hyper-sexual way that seems, well, unChristlike. Even many progressive Christians will be offended.

Still, the critics are wrong when they say that the hunky Jesus contest is hate speech against Christians. As Sister Zsa Zsa wrote in her recent defense of the event, “Offending prudes and tyrants is not our purpose, but we consider it a bit of a bonus.” In my opinion, the real purpose is reclaiming Jesus from bigots who have attacked LGBT people in Christ’s name. We are the body of Christ, ALL of us, of every sexual orientation and gender identity. The contest is also about healing the split between sexuality and spirituality. And that can get messy, very messy.

Vintage Jesus,
photo by Xero Britt
Let’s not forget that Jesus himself was accused of blasphemy. It was one of the charges leading to his crucifixion. He broke rules, hung out with prostitutes and other “sinners,” taught that God loved everybody, and got killed for it. The Christ who appears at the Hunky Jesus contest is not an object of worship, but he does remind me of the Jesus who angered the Pharisees by eating and drinking with “sinners.” In the Bible, Jesus is always trying to demystify God, comparing God to some ordinary, even vulgar thing like yeast or a poor woman desperate to find a lost coin.

Founded in 1979, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have a vision statement that says, “We believe all people have a right to express their unique joy and beauty and we use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency and guilt that chain the human spirit.”

Surely Jesus, hunky or otherwise, is with them.

Hunky Jesus Contest, photo by Jere Keys,

Before and After Jesuses, photo by Xero Britt

Double-Crossed Jesi and Roma, photo by Xero Britt

Here are additional resources on the Hunky Jesus contest:

Video of the 2011 Hunky Jesus contest
(Warning: contains profanity, male nudity and simulated gay sex.)

More photos! The photos by Xero Britt come from the following sets:
2008    2009    2011

It Ain't Easy Being Queer and Christian by Douglas Blanchard (aka Counterlight)

Caught in the Crossfire by Terence Weldon

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Evan said...

I just have to ask whether the peoply behind "Hunky Jesus" have considered the ways in which they are perpetuating stereotypes of LGBT people as hyper-sexualized libertines. Just because it's not homophobic doesn't mean it's a "positive" expression of the universal Body of Christ. It can be "gay-friendly" and still be completely the wrong message.

I'm inclined to agree with Sullivan and see this as more immature than liberating.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Let the debate begin! Thanks, Evan, for making the valid point that the Hunky Jesus contest may perpetuate stereotypes about LGBT people. And yet maybe the people at the margins are helping push the edges so that we can all experience more freedom? I titled this post with a question because I can see both sides.

Sage said...

Kitt Katt,

I found this piece to be balanced and very well written. Thank you!

The topic of how far is too far/how much is too much is a perennial topic that comes up from time to time in a more pronounced way in the LGBTQI community with regard to how both the overarching community and the various and diverse sub and sub, sub groups in the community deal with sex, sexual imagery and the like.

As you point out, some people take things too far by most people's standards and sensibilities. I however, don't believe such people represent the absolute largest segment of the community. Plus, its all so individual.

Living in San Francisco for almost a decade, I saw and witnessed things I definitely considered over-the-top and/or offensive. And I view myself as someone who is extremely difficult to offend. I also look very deeply into myself whenever I get offended at anything in order to investigate where that offense is coming from. Is it coming from corner of self hatred I had not previously discovered? Is it coming from some place of judgment or superiority within me that has not previously looked at? Is it coming from some place where criticism is embraced as a knee jerk reaction of some sort or reactivity itself?

Essentially I disagree with Sullivan and Godfrey because in both cases their criticism seems too general/not specific enough to me. Plus, I'm always at least a little suspicious when anyone feels a need to resort to name calling (tired, lame) in order to make their point. Still, I have been to Hunky Jesus contests and there were things in every such case that brought about discomfort in me. By the same token I always found myself enjoying the overall experience and believing I understood the spirit in which it was offered by "The Sistas"

CJ Barker said...

Ah the Sisters. Always there to stir the pot if life threatens to get too boring.

LIberating? I don't think so. Funny as all h***? Absolutely - as always.

Somehow, I find find it hard to be offended by well done satire - and alot of that was well done. Where was the hate? Gay people and our lives are mocked and lied about routinely by people from Christian faith communities who find offensive the very idea that we exist- that there is any such thing as a gay *person* (rather than just straight people so twisted that we like doing perverted things, and are inured to the horror of them). They routinely mock and belittle our very ability to love and find intimacy; they deny the very existence of our marriages- the most important and sacred covenant you can make with another human being, and one of the most transforming sacramental endeavors a person can experience this side of death. But this? I didn't see any mocking of my beliefs or practices in that "contest." No one made fun of how I pray, or what I pray, or how I worship, or even *who* I worship. There was no scathing humor about the texts I hold sacred or how I - or others- use (or misuse) them, no belittling of the rituals I take part in, or what I believe them to represent for me and the world. What I saw was people giving me ribald pictures of many puns- including an all too common curse ("jesus f****ing christ") that I'll *never* hear in quite the same way again!

I think it can rightly be said that the adherents of almost any religion would take issue with irreverent use of their symbols, and the contempt implied by disrespect to their understanding of the sacredness of the Person of their founder or leaders. Could you do that to Mohammed; or Krishna; or the Buddha; or Joseph Smith; or the Virgin of Guadalupe; or Confucius, or the recently beatified Pope, or St. Francis; or any number of Imams or Bodhisattvas, or other holy men and women that people count as gurus and spiritual authorities - or even a modern secular quasi-spiritual leader like a gang boss or a mafia don- without risking reprisals? Probably not. But here's the thing: there's nothing you can do or say about Jesus that wasn't already done at the cross. Say what you want, mock all you like, get as violent, irreverent, contemptuous and hateful as you please- it's all "been there done that." You can't muster a level of hate or contempt or vilification or irreverence or sacrilege that could hope to outdo what was showered on him in actual historical time, when he was physically here to take it. (I speak as a believer, who thinks my scriptures tell me the truth about the Passion). And on Easter morning, all across this planet, literally billions of people who believe the words of the New Testament celebrate the fact that all that hate, all that contempt- and the inevitable physical violence that accompanies such things- was ultimately and finally and irrevocably defeated, once and for all. We don't have to live in it's power anymore. "When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly."

Disturbing? I suppose so. But Easter is *supposed* to be disturbing. And -in my estimation- "Hunky Jesus" has alot better shot at getting people to consider and contemplate contempt, hatred, and the meaning of the words, "It Is Finished," than any number of cuddly made-abroad-by-slave-labor-from-toxic-products bunnies, or un-fairtraded chocalate-grown-where-rainforests-once-stood eggs ever could.

Sage said...

Excellent points CJ.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, CJ, for your comments!

Historically, "Hunky" Jesus is probably pretty accurate- he ate a very healthy diet, got the proper rest, and certainly got lots of exercise. And he was a young man!

Also historically, Jesus loved to have fun and had a brilliant sense of humor. His great love for the disenfranchised is meant to inspire us all!

I am sure Jesus would tell those who find this offensive to loosen up and find some joy, for Christ's sake!

Knowing many of the Sisters personally and the many good works they do without ceasing, I'll bet Jesus would love to dance at their weddings (legal or not) and turn the water into a nice Nouveau Beaujolais.

Trudie said...

Yes, YES, YES!!! I thoroughly agree with the comments, and loved the original post. I found especially delightful CJ's remark about the exclamatory "Jesus F-ing Christ", given to us by mainstream society, and not in the fun-loving parody but usually in much more abusive contexts. And that brings me, of course, to my main contention that in our culture, the rejection of erotic aspects of spirituality has been on of the most destructive things there is. I define obscenity not as sexuality but as violence and abusiveness, and there in none of that in the "Hunky Jesus" contest.

Anything that will make the prudes come out of the closet and confront their "sexophobia" is, in my opinion, all to the good. The real problem through the centuries has been that heterosexuals have never been able to see sexual interaction between men and women in any terms other than possessiveness and domination, and this is NOT, as John McNeill so clearly explained in his most recent book, Sex as God Intended. The first step in bringing out the clear connection between sexuality and love is to recognize and accept the playful aspects, and that is also the way to bring spirituality into full flower as the joyful relationship of consenting, willing beings.

Turtle Woman said...

"....cuddly made-abroad-by-slave-labor-from-toxic-products bunnies, or un-fairtraded chocalate-grown-where-rainforests-once-stood eggs ever could..." Now this has to take the cake as the best rant sentence bar none of the year C.J.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Wow! I wasn’t sure what would happen when I posted my reflections on Hunky Jesus, but the discussion here is fantastic. This post really struck a nerve!

It’s great to hear the different viewpoints, including those from people who actually attended a Hunky Jesus contest or know the Sisters personally.

Sage, I appreciate your deeply thoughtful approach of using your feelings about the Hunky Jesus contest to become the means for self examination and spiritual growth. Our society would be better if more people stopped, like you do, and asked themselves when they are offended, “Is it coming from corner of self hatred I had not previously discovered?”

CJ, you have outdone yourself with a witty comment that is right on target. From the other comments, I know that others are equally delighted by your insights. I’ve never gotten so many comments praising another comment! Thank you for pointing out that the Hunky Jesus contest does not mock Christian worship or texts. You are so right to make the connection with Easter and point out that Jesus already endured much worse on the cross. Your oh-so-accurate critique of Easter bunnies and Easter eggs made my partner and me laugh out loud. I love this part of your comment:

“I think it can rightly be said that the adherents of almost any religion would take issue with irreverent use of their symbols, and the contempt implied by disrespect to their understanding of the sacredness of the Person of their founder or leaders…. But here's the thing: there's nothing you can do or say about Jesus that wasn't already done at the cross. Say what you want, mock all you like, get as violent, irreverent, contemptuous and hateful as you please- it's all "been there done that." You can't muster a level of hate or contempt or vilification or irreverence or sacrilege that could hope to outdo what was showered on him in actual historical time, when he was physically here to take it.”

Many times I hear critics of gay Jesus images say, “You wouldn’t dare do this to Mohammad,” meaning that gay Jesus art only exists because Christians tolerate it. But you help explain a more sophisticated reason… because Jesus himself was one with the outsiders, suffering with us in a way that’s unique.

Anonymous, thank you for highlighting some truths about the historical Jesus: he must have been “hunky” and had a good sense of humor.

Trudie, you named the underlying issue that offends many when they see the Hunky Jesus contest: “sexophobia.” I’ve also heard it called “erotophobia,” based on “erotic.” If this were simply a contest of openly gay men trying to look like the standard asexual Jesus, it would not cause much controversy. (This echoes the idea that it’s OK to be a gay priest as long as you’re not “practicing” homosexuality.) But a contest of heterosexual Hunky Jesus contestants openly showing their sexual attraction to women would probably cause a scandal.

Turtle Woman, I loved that particular line by CJ too. RFLOL!

I’ve been thinking about how powerful it is for people to play the role of Jesus. Usually this is only possible in “Passion plays” where the violence of the crucifixion is re-enacted. Sometimes, like in the Philippines, these involve REAL crucifixions where the man playing Jesus is nailed to a cross, but removed before he dies. I’ll never forget the strong connection to Christ that I felt when I got to read the role of Jesus in a Holy Week service at MCC San Francisco years ago. Why not allow people to experience being Christ in a joyful way???

Anonymous said...

thats a great article. A big kiss from Colombia.