Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mary, Diana and Artemis: Feast of Assumption has lesbian goddess roots

Mary, left, took over the Aug. 15 holiday from the goddess Diana, right

A mid-August holiday was once the festival of the lesbian goddess Diana (Artemis), but it has been adapted into a feast day for the Virgin Mary.

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Mary, Diana and Artemis: Feast of Assumption has lesbian goddess roots

Midsummer feasts have celebrated the divine feminine on Aug. 15 since before the time of Christ. Now devoted to Mary, the holiday known as the Feast of the Assumption (or Dormition) carries the torch of lesbian spiritual power to a new generation on the same date.

Saint Mary, mother of Jesus, is honored by churches on Aug. 15 in a major feast day marking her death and entrance into heaven. Catholic and Orthodox churches call it the Feast of the Assumption or Dormition because they believe that Mary was “assumed” into heaven, body and soul.

The connections between Diana and Mary raise many questions. The concept of virginity has been used to control women, but sometimes it is a code word for lesbian. What shade of meaning is implied by the “virginity” of these two heavenly queens? Did the church patriarchs substitute wild lesbian Artemis with mild straight Mary -- or is Mary more versatile and dynamic than many thought?

The Virgin Mary’s holiday was adapted -- some would say appropriated -- from an ancient Roman festival for Diana, the virgin goddess of the moon and the hunt. Diana, or Artemis in Greek, is sometimes called a lesbian goddess because of her love for woman and her vow never to marry a man. The ancient Roman Festival of Torches (Nemoralia) was held from Aug. 13-15 as Diana’s chief festival.

According to mythology, Diana preferred the company of women and surrounded herself with female companions. They took an oath of virginity and lived as a group in the woods, where they hunted and danced together. Homoerotic art and speculations often focus on Diana’s relationship with the princess Callisto. The god Jupiter (Zeus) lusted after Callisto, so he disguised himself as Diana and seduced Callisto in a woman-to-woman embrace. The lesbian love scene is painted by artists such as Francois Boucher in “Jupiter and Callisto” (below).

“Jupiter (disguised as Diana) and Callisto” by Francois Boucher (Wikimedia Commons)
There are many more stories about Diana and the women, nymphs and goddesses whom she loved. The goddess Britomaris was another favorite of Diana. When the lustful king Minos pursued Britomaris, she escaped by leaping into the sea. Diana rescued her and, some say, fell in love with her. Diana also showed love for various princesses.  She gave the princess Cyrene a pair of magical dogs and granted the princess Daphne the gift of shooting straight. The princess Atalanta almost died of exposure as a baby girl after her father abandoned her because he wanted a son. Diana saved her and, with the help of a she-bear, Atalanta grew up to become one of Diana’s beloved companions. And this is just the beginning.

Diana’s main holiday was the Festival of Torches or Nemoralia. Hundreds of women and girls carried torches and candles in a night-time procession through the woods. They wore wreaths of flowers -- and even put flowers on the hunting dogs who walked with them. The group hiked a few miles from Rome to a sacred site, the circle-shaped Lake Nemi. The dark waters reflected the moon and the torchlight of the pilgrims. There they left offerings of apples, garlic, statues and prayers handwritten on ribbons. Click here for a vivid description of the festival. Ovid, a Roman poet who lived before Christ, described the magic of the festival:

Often does a woman whose prayers Diana answered,
With a wreath of flowers crowning her head,
Walk from Rome carrying a burning torch...

Click here for a beautiful painting of “Diana Asleep in the Woods” by surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. Diana sleeps beside an offering of fruit, her bow and arrow, and her large black-and-white spotted dog.

Artemis of Ephesus
Aspects of Diana and Artemis were taken over by the church more than 1,300 years ago. The Festival of Torches became the Feast of the Assumption. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in Turkey was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, with an awe-inspiring statue of the “many-breasted” Artemis. The temple was destroyed and replaced by the Church of Mary. The Virgin Mary even assumed some titles once given to Artemis, including Queen of Heaven.

Books such as Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary by cultural historian Marina Warner show how the figure of Mary was shaped by goddess legends and other historical circumstances, resulting in an inferior status for women. In the novel “Mary and the Goddess of Ephesus: The Continued Life of the Mother of Jesus,” former seminarian Melanie Bacon explores the little-known tradition that after Jesus died, his mother spent most of her adult life in a community dedicated to worshiping Artemis.

Feminists praise Diana/Artemis as an archetype of female power, a triple goddess who represents all phases of womanhood. She is the maiden, wild and free, with no need for a man. She is the “many-breasted” mother who nurtures all life. She is the crone, the mature hunter who provides swift death with her arrows in harmony with the cycles of nature.

LGBTQ people and allies may be inspired by the queer origins of this midsummer holiday. May the Queen of Heaven, by whatever name, continue to bless those who remember her.
Related links:
Are there any lesbian goddesseses?

Black Madonna becomes lesbian defender: Erzuli Dantor and Our Lady of Czestochowa (Jesus in Love)

Queer Lady of Guadalupe: Artists re-imagine an icon (Jesus in Love)

Related books:
Mother of God Similar to Fire” with icons by William Hart McNichols and reflections by Mirabai Starr presents a wide of variety of liberating icons of Mary, including a black Madonna. McNichols is a New Mexico artist and Catholic priest who has been rebuked by church leaders for making icons of LGBTQ-affirming martyrs and saints not approved by the church.

Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology” by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow. Two pioneering leaders in the study of women and religion discuss the nature of God / Goddess.

Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary” by cultural historian Marina Warner shows how the figure of Mary was shaped by goddess legends and other historical circumstances, resulting in an inferior status for women.

Holiness and the Feminine Spirit: The Art of Janet McKenzie,” edited by Susan Perry, includes many black Madonnas in an art book to nourish devotion to Mary with reflections by diverse women.

Image credits:

“Diana of Versailles,” Roman artwork, Imperial Era (1st-2nd centuries CE). Found in Italy. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Assumption of Mary” by Guido Remi, 1642 (Wikimedia Commons)

“Artemis of Ephesus,” 1st century CE Roman copy of the “many breasted” Artemis stattue of the Temple of Ephesus (Wikimedia Commons)
Icons of the Assumption of Mary and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at

This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.

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

Friday, August 24, 2012

Bayard Rustin: Gay saint of civil rights and non-violence

Bayard Rustin was a black gay man and chief organizer of the influential 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington. A follower of the Quaker faith with its pacifist tradition, he brought Gandhi-style non-violent protest techniques to the movement for racial equality and become a close advisor to Martin Luther King. Today is the anniversary of his death on Aug. 24, 1987 at age 75.

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Bayard Rustin: Gay saint of racial justice and non-violence

Rustin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in a White House ceremony in 2013. “For decades, this great leader, often at Dr. King's side, was denied his rightful place in history because he was openly gay. No medal can change that, but today, we honor Bayard Rustin's memory by taking our place in his march towards true equality, no matter who we are or who we love,” President Obama said when he presented the medal for Rustin.

Bayard Rustin
Pushed into the background because he was openly gay in a more homophobic era, Rustin has been called “an invisible hero,” “a lost prophet” and “Brother Outsider.”  He summed up his philosophy when he said, “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.”  He is honored here as a gay saint.

Rustin (Mar.17, 1912 - Aug. 24, 1987) rarely served as a public spokesperson for civil rights because he was openly gay at a time when homosexuality was criminalized and stigmatized. His sexuality was criticized by both segregationists and some fellow workers in the peace and civil-rights movements. In the 1970s he began to advocate publicly for lesbian and gay causes.

From 1955-68 Rustin was a leading strategist for the African American civil rights movement. His decades of achievements include helping launch the first Freedom Rides in 1947, when civil disobedience was used to fight racial segregation on buses. He helped organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and much more.

Rustin’s sexual orientation became publicly known in 1953, when he was arrested for homosexual activity in Pasadena, California. He pleaded guilty to a charge of consensual “sex perversion” (sodomy) and served 60 days in jail. It was not his first stint in jail. He had been arrested before for his pacifist refusal to participate in World War II and he served on a chain gang for breaking Jim Crow laws requiring racial segregation on public transportation.

Mug shot of Bayard Rustin (Wikimedia Commons) taken for failure to report for his Selective Service physical exam

Rustin saw the connections between racial justice, women’s equality and LGBT rights. He made it vividly clear in a controversial speech to the Philadelphia chapter of Black and White Men Together on March 1, 1986. The speech, titled “The New ‘N*s’ are Gays,” is one of several pieces about LGBT rights in his book Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin. Rustin states:

“Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new “n*s” are gays. … It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. … The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.”

The following year Rustin died of a ruptured pancreas on Aug. 24, 1987. Late August is also significant for him because the March on Washington held on Aug. 28, 1963. Organized by Rustin, the March was where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. An estimated 250,000 people attended, making it the largest demonstration held in the U.S. capital until that time. The full synthesis of Rustin’s black and gay identities -- the “two crosses” of his book title -- came as the culmination of a life well lived.

The play “Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin,” starring and written by Michael Benjamin Washington, premiered in fall 2015. It was a co-production of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse in California. Set in summer 1963, it shows how his gay orientation was considered a public relations problem when Rustin is planning the march. Other characters include King and Rustin’s ex-lover Davis Platt. Washington discusses Rustin as a lost prophet and American hero in a YouTube video preview of the play.

A campaign is underway to convince the U.S. Postal Servie to honor Rustin with a postage stamp.

Walter Naegle was Rustin’s life partner from 1977 until his death a decade later. As executor and archivist for the Bayard Rustin estate, Naegle continues to promote Rustin’s legacy by organizing programs and providing materials for books and exhibits on Rustin’s amazing life.

Rustin’s biography is told in the film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin and books such as Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by historian John D’Emilio. The book "I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters", edited by Michael Long was a 2013 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award.  A chapter on Bayard Rustin by Patricia Nell Warren is included in the 2015 book “The Right Side of History: 100 Years of LGBTQI Activism.”

Rustin appears against a quilted background reminiscent of a rainbow flag in a tapestry portrait by queer Chicana autistic artist Sabrina Zarco. “The implied rainbow and words in the clouds in this work speak to the many causes for which he worked and his love of all things hand made by marginalized artists,” Zarco said in her artist’s statement. “His necktie with musical notes is a nod to his love of music and time as a musician. He wears the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom on his chest.” The original artwork was unveiled at a National Black Justice Coalition event after Naegle accepted Bayard's medal. It is now in the private collection of black LGBT activist Mandy Carter, cofounder of the coalition. The image is available for purchase at the artist’s online store.

In the another image, Rustin and Naegle hold hands as an interracial gay couple on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was created by artist Ryan Grant Long for his “Fairy Tales” series of gay historical figures. For more on Long, see my previous post Artist paints history’s gay couples: Interview with Ryan Grant Long.

“Bayard Rustin - Pride” by Sean J. Randall

A different kind of rainbow portrait created by Portland artist Sean J. Randall. He adds rainbow colors to Rustin’s mug shot to emphasize his gay pride.
Related links:

Walter Naegle, Activist Bayard Rustin’s Partner, On Rustin’s Enduring Legacy (Lambda Literary)

For Bayard Rustin’s partner, an effort to preserve legacy (Washington Post)

Bayard Rustin: One of the Tallest Trees in Our Forest by Irene Monroe (Huffington Post)

Top image credts:

Detail from “Bayard Rustin” art quilt by Sabrina Zarco

“Bayard Rustin and Walter Naegle” by Ryan Grant Long

This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts

Friday, August 17, 2012

Gay Christ wears rainbow flag in art by Latuff

“Gay Christ” by Carlos Latuff

A crucified Jesus wears a rainbow flag for a loincloth in “Gay Christ” by Brazilian political cartoonist Carlos Latuff.

He created the digital artwork to show Christ’s opposition to religion-based prejudice against queer people. “I support LGBT movement 100 percent,” Latuff told the Jesus in Love Blog.

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1968, he creates cartoons promoting a progressive vision of global justice, diversity, peace and environmental protection. Latuff, who has Arab roots, is best known for his images of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Latuff startles the viewer by putting a contemporary LGBT rainbow flag on an image of Jesus from history. While the historical Jesus didn’t have access to rainbow flags, cutting-edge scholars such as Theodore Jennings of Chicago Theological Seminary believe that he did have a homosexual relationship. Jennings presents the evidence in his book The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives in the New Testament.

Latuff’s gay Christ is related to liberation theology, which states that God sides with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience. By becoming one with oppressed people through Jesus Christ, God feels pain wherever people are attacked and humiliated. The gay Jesus embodies God’s solidarity with queers.

Jesus taught love for all, but Christian rhetoric is being misused to justify hate and discrimination against LGBT people. Gay-positive images of Jesus are needed now as an antidote to the poisonous messages of those who attack queers in the name of God.

Much of Latuff’s work presents a sharp critique of capitalism, globalization and militarism. His blog Latuff Cartoons cautions visitors: “Warning! Razor-edged cartoons!” For more cartoons by Latuff, visit his blog or Twitpic page.

Thanks, Carlos, for permission to share your art on the Jesus in Love Blog!

Related link:
LGBT rights versus Christian faith in Latuff cartoon: International Day Against Homophobia calls for prayers (Jesus in Love)

This post is part of the Queer Christ series series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series gathers together visions of the queer Christ as presented by artists, writers, theologians and others. More queer Christ images are compiled in my book Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Queer grace: Beyond sex and race, beyond time and space

“Grace is a Bit Queer” by Felicia Follum

grace is a bit queer
the gays get it
the straights don’t deserve it
the bad need it
the good are expected to give it
the poor, the homeless
the helpless, the meek,
the humble
are loved by the laws of grace


In between all that can and can’t be seen
Where the dirty meets the clean, 
somewhere in the dark
Beyond sex and race, beyond time and space
In a state of grace is the spark

Grace is a bit queer, as social justice artist Felicia Follum points out in a new poster. She is among the artists, musicians and thinkers who are shining a queer light on grace -- undeserved help from God.

“The idea for this poster came from my life drawing class. During a critique the class discussed how the model looks like Jesus. It was interesting because the model was a friend who happened to be gay,” says Follum, who often unites art with activism. She lives in Laramie, Wyoming, site of the infamous 1998 gay-bashing murder of Matthew Shepard.

Follum decided to explore the Christian concept of grace and combine it with the Christ-like drawing of her gay friend. “From a Christian perspective, the ‘grace of God’ is a fascinating, strange, and almost incomprehensible. Jesus died on the cross for everyone, including gay people. There is nothing that anyone can do to make God love you less or to make God love you more. That being said, ‘Grace is Queer,’” explains Follum, who earned a bachelor’s degree in art this year from the University of Wyoming.

She purposely muddled the lettering so it would be hard to read. “The text in this poster is jumbled and confusing because that is how grace is in comparison to our culture,” Follum says. “Our culture tells us that if we work hard we will get something better. We can earn anything that we want. Grace is different. We can not earn grace and we can not lose grace. Grace does not make sense and it is not fair.”

“James Cone’s Black Jesus”
by Felicia Follum
Racial justice and African American history are common themes in Follum’s art. She challenges traditional concepts of Jesus based on race as well as sexual orientation. Her work includes not only a gay Jesus, but also a black Jesus. Follum’s black Jesus poster is based on theology of James Cone, the founder of black liberation theology. The poster shows the black face of Jesus is surrounded by the scripture: “As you did unto one of the least of these, you did unto me.”

In his landmark book A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone wrote, “The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God's own condition.”

Cone laid the groundwork for Patrick Cheng and other queer theologians who use his approach to liberate LGBT people and our allies. Cheng, who teaches at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, studied with Cone as his doctoral advisor. Cheng discusses queer grace in depth in his latest book, From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ.

“We, as LGBT people of faith, must address the doctrine of sin -- and its companion doctrine of grace -- head on. We can no longer avoid or ignore the subject,” Cheng writes. “It is time for LGBT people to take back the words ‘sin’ and ‘grace’ in the same way we have taken back the word ‘queer’!” He proposes seven models of grace (and sin) that arise from LGBT experience:

1) Erotic Christ (grace as mutuality)
2) Out Christ (grace as coming out)
3) Liberator Christ (grace as activism)
4) Transgressive Christ (grace as deviance)
5) Self-Loving Christ (grace as pride)
6) Interconnected Christ (grace as interdependence)
7) Hybrid Christ (grace as hybridity)

Long before liberation theology, the idea of grace has always been a bit queer. It comes to mind when people see someone less fortunate and say with grateful compassion, “There but for the grace go I.”

Avant-garde rock singer-songwriter Richard Haxton celebrates grace in his song “The Spark,” which is quoted above. More of his work is available online at, a town / solar system built of Haxton’s songs and drawings, music and art.

And the Bible is full of mysterious promises about God’s grace, such as these words from 2 Corinthians 9:8:

“And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.”

Related links:

20 Inspirational Bible Verses About Grace (

Felicia Follum Art

Felicia Follum Art + Design Blog