Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Marriage equality wins at Supreme Court: Religious reactions

Uploaded with

Today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality.

Let the weddings begin!

DOMA is done!

Praise to all-loving God!

Thanks to everyone who worked and prayed to make this happen!

My email in-box is overflowing of statements from various LGBT religious groups:

“Freedom and equality won today as the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the US Constitution and every family.” -- Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson, moderator of Metropolitan Community Churches

“As members of the Catholic Church and citizens of the United States, we are elated that the U. S. Supreme Court has both struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and cleared the way for marriage equality in the state of California. We are especially pleased to see that Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Catholic, wrote the opinion striking down DOMA, and that Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is also a Catholic, concurred in this historic decision.” -- Equally Blessed, a coalition of four Catholic organizations

“Today, the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down DOMA’s Section 3 and dismissed California’s Proposition 8 case on lack of standing. These historic rulings affirm that all families deserve equal respect and treatment under the law.” -- Joseph Ward, director of Believe Out Loud, an online network empowering Christians to work for LGBT equality

“June 26, 2013 will be remembered as the day this nation took two giant steps forward toward making liberty and justice for all not just a pledge but a reality for LGBT Americans. By affirming the federal district court ruling that found California's Prop 8 unconstitutional, and by striking down Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the Supreme Court made history with rulings that told all loving and committed couples who marry that they deserve equal legal respect and treatment.” -- Rev. Susan Russell, Episcopal priest and past president of Integrity, in Huffington Post

“I welcome today’s decision of the United States Supreme Court that strikes down the 17-year-old law prohibiting federal recognition of same-sex civil marriages granted by the states. …
I am deeply aware that faithful Americans find themselves on all sides of these issues, including those who have not yet clearly discerned an effective or appropriate response. It is possible to disagree AND work together for the good of the larger community. That is the bedrock of our democratic political system. It is also the foundation of life in the Body of Christ. “
--- The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in an official statement

Last but not least:
“I applaud the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. This was discrimination enshrined in law.” -- President Barack Obama

Thanks to the Ms. Foundation for Women for permission to share the image “Marriage for all is a Constitutional right! June 26, 2013.”

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

UpStairs Lounge fire remembered 40 years later: 32 died in deadliest attack on LGBT people

“See You at the UpStairs Lounge” by Skylar Fein

The deadliest attack on LGBT people in U.S. history is being remembered in powerful new ways today on its anniversary, including two new films. An arson fire killed 32 people at the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans, 42 years ago today on June 24, 1973.

For a new version of this article, click this link to
UpStairs Lounge fire: 32 killed in deadly attack on LGBTQ people

Upstairs Inferno,” directed by Robert Camina and narrated by Christopher Rice, premieres tonight in New Orleans, where “Tracking Fire” is currently filming on location with director Sheri Wright. “Upstairs Inferno” brings humanity to the headlines by interviewing more than 20 people, including several survivors who have kept silent for decades.

Few people cared about the UpStairs Lounge fire at the time. The crime was never solved, churches refused to do funerals for the dead, and four bodies went unclaimed. Now there is a resurgence of interest in the martyrs of New Orleans.

The fire is examined in depth in the 2016 book “Stand by Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation” by Harvard history professor Jim Downs. The fire is covered in the first chapter, titled “The Largest Massacre of Gay People in American History.”

Other recent works about the fire include an award-winning online exhibit at the LGBT Religious Archives Network; the 2014 book “The Up Stairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-two Dead in a New Orleans Gay Bar, June 24, 1973” by Clayton Delery-Edwards; and the musical drama “Upstairs” by Louisiana playwright Wayne Self. In 2013 the New Orleans Museum of Art acquired Louisiana artist Skylar Fein’s major installation “Remember the UpStairs Lounge.” The tragedy is also recounted in a short documentary by award-winning film maker Royd Anderson released on June 24, 2013, and in the 2011 book “Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire” by Johnny Townsend.

For queer people, the UpStairs Lounge served as a sanctuary in every sense of the world. It was a seemingly safe place where LGBT people met behind boarded-up windows that hid them from a hostile world. Worship services were held there by the LGBT-affirming Metropolitan Community Church of New Orleans. The pastor, Rev. William R. Larson, died along with a third of congregation. Half the victims were MCC members. Those who died included people from all walks of life: preachers, hustlers, soldiers, musicians, parents, professionals and a mother with her two sons.

The horror of the fire was compounded by the homophobic reactions. Churches refused to hold funerals for the victims. Finally MCC founder Rev. Troy Perry flew to New Orleans to conduct a group memorial service. Families of four victims were apparently so ashamed of their gay relatives that they would not identify or claim their remains. The City refused to release their bodies to MCC for burial, and instead laid them to rest in a mass grave at a potter’s field.

UPSTAIRS INFERNO - Teaser Trailer [HD] from Camina Entertainment on Vimeo.

The full-length feature documentary “Upstairs Inferno” was produced and directed by Camina, whose previous film was the widely praised “Raid of the Rainbow Lounge” about a police raid at a Texas gay bar. Now he has created the most comprehensive and authoritative film on America's biggest gay mass murder. Survivors interviewed in the film include Ricky Everett and Francis Dufrene and a survivor who lost her lover Reggie Adams in the blaze.

Narrator Chrisopher Rice is an openly gay New York Times bestselling author whose hometown is New Orleans. His debut novel "A Density of Souls" got a landslide of media attention, mostly because he is the son of famed vampire author Anne Rice.

“Upstairs Inferno” will play at film festivals around the United States over the next 18 months before it becomes available on DVD. Two videos trailers for the film have been released. The first trailer provides an overview while the second trailer present additional interviews about the personal impact of the fire.

UPSTAIRS INFERNO - Trailer 2 [HD] from Camina Entertainment on Vimeo.

Meanwhile a different film crew working on “Tracking Fire” discovered vandalism on the memorial plaque while filming an interview there in May 2015. Someone through a paint bomb at the plaque, leaving it discolored even after the paint was cleaned off.

A sidewalk memorial plaque outside the UpStairs Lounge building in New Orleans was dedicated in 2003 and vandalized in 2015 (photo courtesy of "Tracking Fire")

“Tracking Fire” is just about to wrap filming and a video trailer is posted. “My focus is to tell the story of what happened, honor the victims, including the mother who died with her two sons, the survivors, their friends and family. It is also my intention to present a way for healing to replace the pain of tragedy and to offer a healthy resolution for personal and social conflict,” the film’s website explains.

Announcing the full-length trailer for Tracking Fire, a documentary which chronicles an unsolved case of arson that claimed 32 lives - one of the worst tragedies in LGBT history in America.
Posted by Tracking Fire on Monday, March 24, 2014

LGBT Religious Archives created an online exhibit about the UpStairs Lounge Fire with more than 120 artifacts that weave together stories about the fire and its aftermath, early gay activism, and the beginnings of Metropolitan Community Church in New Orleans. Original artifacts include newspaper and journal articles, photographs, correspondence, government reports and recordings from the time. The exhibit went online in September 2013 and received the 2014 Allan Bérubé Prize for “outstanding work in public or community-based LGBT and/or queer history.”

The crime received little attention from police, elected officials and news media.  The only national TV news coverage at the time was these video clips from CBS and NBC:

Louisiana playwright and composer Wayne Self spent five years weaving together the stories of the UpStairs Lounge fire victims and survivors. The result was the dramatic musical "Upstairs," which has been performed in various cities in Louisiana, New York and California after opening in New Orleans and Los Angeles in June 2013. He says his work takes the form “of tribute, of memorial, even of hagiography.”

The musical "Upstairs" brings back to life people such as MCC assistant pastor George “Mitch” Mitchell, who managed to escape the fire, but ran back into the burning building to save his boyfriend, Louis Broussard. Both men died in the fire. Their bodies were found clinging to one another in the ashes. In the musical, Mitchell sings a song called “I’ll Always Return”:
…Modern age,
Life to wage.
To get ahead, must turn the page.
I can't promise I'll never leave,
But I'll always,
I'll always return….

“I’ll Always Return” is one of five songs from the musical that are available online as workshop selection at

Self raised funds so that Mitchell’s son and the son’s wife and could travel from Alabama to attend the play. Many victims of the UpStairs Lounge fire were survived by children who are still alive today.

The musical also explores the unsettled and unsettling question of who set the fire. Rodger Dale Nunez, a hustler and UpStairs Lounge customer, was arrested for the crime, but escaped and was never sentenced. He was thrown out of the UpStairs Lounge shortly before the fire for starting a fight with a fellow hustler. He committed suicide a year later. Self says that other theories arose to blame the KKK and the police, but he implicates Nunez -- with room for doubt -- in the musical.

A gay man may have lit the fire, but the real culprit is still society’s homophobia that set the fuse inside him. Hatred for LGBT people was also responsible for the high death toll in another way. The fire was especially deadly because the windows were covered with iron bars and boards so nobody could see who was inside. But they also prevented many people from getting outside in an emergency.

The UpStairs Lounge is recreated with haunting detail in Skylar Fein’s 90-piece art installation. He builds an environment with artifacts, photos, video, and a reproduction of the bar’s swinging-door entrance, evoking memories of how the place looked before and after the fire. “Remember the UpStairs Lounge” debuted in New Orleans in 2008 and was shown in New York in 2010. In January 2013 the New Orleans Museum of Art announced that it had acquired the installation. Fein donated it to the museum, saying that he did not want to dismantle the work or profit from its sale. He discusses the fire and shows objects from his installation in this video.

The victims of the UpStairs Lounge fire are part of LGBT history now, along with the queer martyrs who were burned at the stake for sodomy in medieval times. Their history is told in my previous post Ash Wednesday: Queer martyrs rise from the ashes.

The UpStairs Lounge fire gives new meaning to the Upper Room where Jesus and his disciples shared a Last Supper. It was also the place where they hid after his crucifixion, but the locked doors did not prevent the risen Christ from joining them and empowering them with the Holy Spirit.

The shared journey of LGBT people includes much loss -- from hate crimes, suicide, AIDS, and government persecution. But the LGBT community has also found ways to keep going. Reginald, one of the survivors of the UpStairs Lounge fire, expresses this strength in the song "Carry On" from the "Upstairs" musical:
I can speak.
I can teach.
I can give of the compassion I've received.
I can build.
I can sing!
I can honor all the loves,
That have passed away from me,
By sharing all the good that they have ever shown to me.
I can live my life.
I can carry on.
Carry on.
Carry on!

New Orleans film maker Royd Anderson's “The UpStairs Lounge Fire” documentary lasts 27 minutes (longer than the fire itself) and includes interviews with an eyewitness, a son who lost his father, a rookie firefighter called to the scene, author Johnny Townsend, and artist Skylar Fein, whose art exhibit about the tragedy gained national prominence. Here is a video trailer for the documentary.

The value of remembering the UpStairs Lounge fire was summed up by Lynn Jordan in the LGBT Religious Archives online exhibit that he co-curated. Jordan, founding member of MCC San Francisco, visited New Orleans shortly before and after the fire. In his introduction to the UpStairs exhibit, he explains:

“I left New Orleans with the promise to each of the 32 who would become immortal, that I would remember their sacrifice and carry them with me in all that would unfold in my life. The research and documentation that is an integral part of this Upstairs exhibit is “my” living into completion the promise to these “32 martyrs of the flames” that they “would not” be forgotten.

For those who would say that this event was so yesterday, i.e., we have achieved so many advances in our civil rights and in our acceptance for this to happen again, I would remind them that hate and intolerance are not constrained to finding shelter in any one moment, any one location in our “queer” history. To focus only on how far our LGBTQI communities may have progressed in 40 years; to fail to remember the sacrifice of all the lives lost or shattered in this journey; to lapse into complacency about our personal security: places us at risk of reviving the tragedy of our past in the present.”
Related links:

UpStairs Lounge online exhibit (LGBT Religious Archives)

The Horror Upstairs ( - June 21, 2013)

UpStairs Lounge arson attack (Wikipedia)

The Tragedy of the UpStairs Lounge ( - website of the bar now at the same location)

32 Died, and I Wrote a Musical About It: Why I Did It and Would Do It Again by Wayne Self (HuffingtonPost)

NOMA acquires evocative major artwork by Skylar Fein: 'Remember the Upstairs Lounge' (

‘Upstairs Inferno’ Recounts The Gay Mass Murder You Didn’t Know About (2015 interview with Robert Camina)

This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, humanitarians, 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

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Saints of Stonewall inspire LGBT justice -- and artists

“It was Beautiful” by Douglas Blanchard shows the Stonewall Rebellion
Oil on canvas, 24" x 36," 1999.

Queer people fought back against police harassment at New York City’s Stonewall Inn in June 1969, launching the modern LGBT liberation movement. The Stonewall uprising began 44 years ago today (June 28, 1969).

Their bold rebellion against government persecution of homosexuality is commemorated around the world during June as LGBT Pride Month. The Stonewall Uprising continues to inspire a variety of art that is featured here today.

For a new version of this article, click this link to
Saints of Stonewall inspire LGBTQ justice -- and artists, authors and film makers

The LGBT people who resisted police at the Stonewall Rebellion (also known as the Stonewall Riots) are not saints in the traditional sense. But they are honored here as “saints of Stonewall” because they dared to battle an unjust system. They do not represent religious faith -- they stand for faith in ourselves as LGBT people. They performed the miracle of transforming self-hatred into pride. These “saints” began a process in which self-hating individuals were galvanized into a cohesive community. Their saintly courage inspired a justice movement that is still growing stronger after four decades.

Before Stonewall, police regularly raided gay bars, where customers submitted willingly to arrest. A couple of dozen acts of resistance pre-dated and paved the way for Stonewall, such as the 1967 demonstration at the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles.

Despite the progress made, police raids of gay bars have continued in recent years, such as the notorious 2009 Rainbow Lounge raid in Forth Worth, Texas. June 28 is also the anniversary of the 2009 raid on the Rainbow Lounge, a newly opened gay bar in Fort Worth, Texas. Five customers were zip-tied and taken to jail, multiple others were arrested or detained, and one got a severe brain injury while in custody. The raid sparked an unprecedented public outcry that led to historic change.

The Stonewall Inn catered to the poorest and most marginalized queer people: drag queens, transgender folk, hustlers and homeless youth. Witnesses disagree about who was the first to defy the police raid in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969. It was either a drag queen or a butch lesbian. Soon the crowd was pelting the officers with coins, bottles, bricks and the like. The police, caught by surprise, used nightsticks to beat some people before taking refuge in the bar itself. News of the uprising spread quickly. Hundreds gathered on the street and a riot-control police unit arrived. Violence continued as some chanted, “Gay power!”

Drag queens started spontaneous kick lines facing the police with clubs and helmets. That dramatic moment is captured in the painting “It was Beautiful” by Douglas Blanchard. The drag queens met violence with defiant humor by singing,

We are the Stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We wear no underwear
We show our pubic hair
We wear our dungarees
Above our nelly knees!

That night 13 people were arrested and some hospitalized. The streets were mostly cleared by 4 a.m., but a major confrontation with police happened again the next night, and protests continued on a smaller scale for a week.

A month later the Gay Liberation Front was formed, one of many LGBT rights organizations sparked by the saints of Stonewall. LGBT religious groups are indebted to the saints of Stonewall for our very existence.

“Gay Liberation” by George Segal commemorates the Stonewall rebellion (Photo by Wally Gobetz)

One of the most significant Stonewall artworks is also the world’s first piece of public art honoring the struggle for LGBTQ equality. “Gay Liberation” was created in 1979 by famed pop sculptor George Segal. It consists of four statues, a gay couple and a lesbian couple, cast in bronze and painted white in Segal’s typical style. The figures are arranged realistically in casual poses, evoking the power of love with their ghostly presence.

The idea for a public sculpture honoring the 10th anniversary of Stonewall came from LGBT activist Bruce Voeller. His vision inspired the Mildred Andrews Fund of Cleveland to commission Segal to create the sculpture. After much controversy, vandalism and alternate locations, the sculpture was installed permanently across the street from the Stonewall Inn at Christopher Park, which also holds two monuments to Civil War heroes.

Artists usually choose between two approaches when addressing the Stonewall Uprising. Some focus on the action in the past while others highlight the present-day Stonewall Inn, which is still in operation as a bar for the LGBT community.

Artists who recreate the past include Doug Blanchard, a gay New York artist who teaches art at City University of New York and is active in the Episcopal Church. “It was Beautiful” and other Stonewall paintings by Blanchard were shown at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center of New York in 1999. His series “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” has been featured here at the Jesus in Love Blog and in a 2014 book with text by Kittredge Cherry.

“The Battle of Stonewall - 1969” by Sandow Birk

California artist Sandow Birk put Stonewall history into heroic context in a big way. The oil paintings in his Stonewall series measure up to 10 feet wide. The crown jewel of the series is “The Battle of Stonewall - 1969.” It updates the classic painting “The Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle - 1304” by 19th-century French artist Charles Philippe Lariviere. In both cases, the physically superior side attacked those who were considered weaker, but the underdogs won and gained their freedom. Birk replaces swords with police batons and turns national flags into “Gay Power” banners. The knight in shining armor is replaced by a drag queen in mascara and high heels. For more about Birk’s Stonewall series, see my previous post: Sandow Birk: Stonewall's LGBT history painted.

The actual Stonewall riots weren’t as white as Birk's paintings make it appear: “On the first night of the Stonewall riots, African Americans and Latinos likely were the largest percentage of the protestors, because we heavily frequented the bar,” scholar-activist Irene Monroe writes in  Dis-membering Stonewall, her chapter in the book Love, Christopher Street. “For homeless black and Latino LGBTQ youth and young adults who slept in nearby Christopher Park, the Stonewall Inn was their stable domicile.”

“Stonewall Inn” by Trudie Barreras (Collection of Kittredge Cherry)

The location where history happened is emphasized in the colorful painting of the Stonewall Inn by Trudie Barreras, a long-time member of Metropolitan Community Churches. Her art and writing on queer religious themes have appeared frequently here at the Jesus in Love Blog. She also does personalized pet portraits as “donation incentives” for Jesus in Love.

“Prostrations at the Holy Places and Veneration to Our Martyrs (Stonewall Pilgrimage)” by Tony O’Connell

British artist Tony O’Connell paid homage to the power of Stonewall by photographing his own personal pilgrimage to the historic bar in New York City in 2013. He prayed with incense at the Stonewall Inn as part of his series on LGBT pilgrimages, which he does as performances recorded in photos. He travels to places of importance in LGBT history, treating the trip as a pilgrimage to the shrine of a saint. For more about O’Connell’s pilgrimages and other art, see my previous post Tony O’Connell reclaims sainthood: Gay artist finds holiness in LGBT people and places.

Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem and the Stonewall Riots happen in Station 8 from “Stations of the Cross: The Struggle For LGBT Equality” by Mary Button

Tennessee artist Mary Button weaves together the LGBT uprising at Stonewall with Christ’s journey to Calvary in Station 8 of her LGBT Stations of the Cross. She shows that a chain of oppression that stretches from the crucifixion of Christ to police harassment of LGBT people today, offering hope for resurrection. For more about Button’s Stations, see my previous post LGBT Stations of the Cross shows struggle for equality.

The history of the Rainbow Lounge raid and reaction is told in the 2012 film “Raid of the Rainbow Lounge,” directed by Robert Camina. He says it has “haunting parallels” to Stonewall. Emmy-nominated actress Meredith Baxter narrates the documentary. A video trailer is posted online.

May the saints of Stonewall continue to inspire all who seek justice and equality!

Related links:

2015 book for teens: “Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights” by Ann Bausum

Book: “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution” by David Carter

Book: “Stonewall” by Martin Bauml Duberman

Video: “American Experience: Stonewall Uprising

Stonewall (Qualia Encyclopedia of Gay Folklife)

Stonewall Inn and Christopher Park (Qualia Encyclopedia of Gay Folklife)

George Segal’s "Gay Liberation" (

This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, heroes and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) 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

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Author discusses “Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-Sex Love”: Will Roscoe interview

Gay anthropologist Will Roscoe gives new insights into the connections between Jesus and same-sex love in an interview today at the Jesus in Love Blog.

He discusses recent archeological discoveries related to the queer Christ and his own beliefs about Jesus. His groundbreaking book “Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-Sex Love” is back in print with a new edition from Lethe Press. [Update in July 2020: It is back in print AGAIN with a new edition that is independently published.]

Drawing on recently discovered ancient sources, the book makes a persuasive argument that gay love and mysticism form a hidden tradition in Christianity. It won a Lambda Literary Award in 2005 and the new edition includes updated material.

In the following interview with lesbian Christian author Kittredge Cherry, Roscoe offers his detailed response to the latest controversies over the Secret Gospel of Mark and his analysis of newly discovered archeological evidence related to the queer Christ, such as the Gospel of Judas and a bowl with an inscription about “Christ the magician.”

The interview below also includes his thoughts on the role of Jesus in his own life. He tells how he identifies with “the love of equals and sames that Jesus refers to again and again.” He even reveals a recent spiritual experience that he had while viewing the Infant Jesus of Prague statue on a trip to the Czech Republic.

Will Roscoe 2012
(photo by Cass Brayton)
Roscoe is one of the most important scholars in the areas of queer history, anthropology and spirituality, especially Native American two-spirit traditions. Based in California, he has been active in the gay movement since 1975, working with such pioneering leaders as Harvey Milk and Harry Hay.

Roscoe’s first book, “The Zuni Man-Woman,” received the Margaret Mead Award from the American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology. His other books include “Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature” and “Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities.” Roscoe holds a Ph.D. in history of consciousness from the University of California in Santa Cruz and has taught anthropology and American Studies at various colleges and universities.

Lethe Press is an independent publisher specializing in titles of gay and lesbian interest, literary fiction, poetry, speculative fiction and science fiction.

Kittredge Cherry: Based on all your research, what do you believe about the sexual orientation of Jesus? What role did same-sex love play in the Jesus movement during his lifetime?

Will Roscoe: I don’t think I believe anything about the sexual orientation of Jesus. There just isn’t evidence. We have no idea what a gay Jewish peasant man of that era would even look like. Anyway, I don’t think it’s worth the effort trying to argue that Jesus was gay—or had a sexual orientation all. The resistance to that will always be enormous.

But everywhere in the gospels Jesus extols a special, new idea about “love,” using an uncommon term for love in a new and special way—“agape.” This is the love that occurs between individuals who are equal, who are not sharply differentiated by social status or age or gender. It is God’s gift of loving and being loved unconditionally. And it is the love of equals and sames that Jesus refers to again and again when he seeks to explain agape, which he sharply counters to the prevailing social relationships of his time: the highly stratified Greco-Roman world and the patriarchal relationships between men, women, and children in Jewish tradition.

My sexual orientation is that of a gay man. Pursuing my desire for bonding sexually and emotionally with a man who is my equal has led to me to provide experiences of love, and made me witness to what Jesus holds up as the most important teaching he has given his disciples when he says, “No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Had he said “one’s family,” “one’s kin,” “one’s priest,” or “one’s king,” I wouldn’t have known what he was talking about. But this I understand. My life—my gay life—attests the truth of it.

Kittredge Cherry: Important new scholarship on the Secret Gospel of Mark has been published since your book “Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-Sex Love” was first published almost 10 years ago. How has this changed your understanding of Jesus and the shamanic same-sex tradition?

Will Roscoe: In my book, I described the storm of controversy that greeted publication of Morton Smith’s study of the letter he discovered at a desert monastery in Palestine in the late 1950s. But once the controversy subsided, I noted that a “strange silence” followed. At that time, in the early 2000s, there was still a dearth of research concerning this revolutionary text, even as a growing consensus among mainstream scholars had accepted its authenticity. Indeed, many scholars now go further than Smith did in Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark: not only is the letter genuinely Clement’s, the passage from an unknown Gospel of Mark that Clement quotes is likely written by the same author who wrote the canonical gospel as we know it.

It’s taken a generation, but now the silence is ending. A growing number of books and articles are undertaking the task of assessing the implications of this remarkable discovery—a fragment of gospel text older than, but missing from, the canonical version. The value of this simply can’t be overstated. It is a loose thread in the tightly woven narrative by which the churches cloak themselves in authority. If we tug on it hard enough, the emperor will soon be revealed to have no clothes. Here is definitive evidence that the gospels are the product of human handiwork and human agendas. Our sacred texts have been edited.

Growing numbers of New Testament scholars now challenge the distinction between canonical and noncanonical early Christian writings as arbitrary and ideologically motivated. I think the Secret Gospel tips the scales. And as this distinction crumbles, the body of evidence available for our inquiries into the history of early Christianity expands exponentially.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Because what is the picture of early Christianity that the Secret Gospel gives us a glimpse of? In fact, all of its elements and characters and imagery and story lines are familiar to us. It’s a version of the Lazarus story; it hints at esoteric teachings—and similar hints are peppered throughout the gospels, especially in Mark. But here all these tropes are brought together in a single short passage. And now what the hints are hinting at is undeniable—Jesus taught secretly things he only alluded to in public.

The Secret Gospel answers a longstanding, although seemingly minor mystery—the reference to the naked youth fleeing from Gethsemane. Now we know who he is (a youthful follower of Jesus) and what is going on (a nocturnal session in which Jesus taught “the mystery of the kingdom of heaven.”)

But the Secret Gospel also solves a larger mystery. How and when did the Christian rite of baptism originate? The gospels don’t provide an origin story for this distinctive practice of emergent Christianity. John even seems to deny that Jesus practiced baptism at all. Yet, it is a well-established practice, the source of important theological speculations and vivid allusions, in the writings of Paul. Where did it come from?

To me, the Secret Gospel is immediately relevant to this inquiry about the origins of baptism. But this remains controversial, and few have seriously pursued it. The most important new work on Smith’s discovery is substantially devoted to arguing against seeing anything in the Secret Gospel of Mark or Clement’s letter having to do with ritual, whether baptism or other.

I’m referring to Scott Brown’s Mark’s Other Gospel, published the same year as Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-Sex Love (2005). Brown starts with an impressive argument for the authenticity of the Clement’s letter and the Markan authorship of the Secret Gospel. (“Secret Gospel” is Smith’s translation of Clement’s term mustikou euaggeliou, which Brown better translates as “mystical Gospel.” Brown, however, for reasons devolving from his agenda, prefers to call the text the “Longer Gospel of Mark.”) Brown thoroughly debunks two recent books which claimed that Smith forged these texts—and that the motivation for doing so was tied to the fact that he was homosexual. (Speculations that Smith was gay remain unconfirmed, but have been the subtext of thinly veiled homophobic criticisms of Smith throughout his career.)

Having laid these controversies to rest, Brown goes on to develop new evidence that the Secret Gospel was written by Mark, based on recent insights into Mark’s literary techniques. However, Brown devotes the bulk of his effort to debunking Smith’s interpretation of the “Longer Mark”: namely, that it provides evidence of a baptismal practice by Jesus. Brown is at great pains to deny that any such ritual interpretation of the text can be made. To do so, he must argue that Clement’s description of the origin, purpose, and meaning of the Secret Gospel, while seemingly permeated with allusions to mystical experience and esoteric beliefs, is purely metaphorical. He sums up his position this way: “This figurative use of mystery-religion language was standard in the writings of Alexandrian Jewish and Christian authors of this period and should not be taken to imply a cultic setting for readings of the longer text.”

I am not convinced. Of course, I was trained in graduate school in postmodern discourse theory, and one doesn’t need to make a special argument that any given text refers, not to a putative reality, but to…other texts. From the point of view of discourse theory all language is always metaphorical and figurative.

But I am also a student of anthropology and religious studies. I know that in all traditions myth and ritual are intimately connected, that rituals are enacted myths, and myths are instruction manuals—liturgies—for ritual. It would be an exception to these patterns to find myths, such as those told by Clement, Origen, and the Secret Gospel, employing ritual structures and weighted with symbols of ritual, to not to have had, at some point in their history, a relationship to ceremony—that is, to the performance and enactment, using gestures and symbols, of what myths tell. It seems to me that Clement and Origen are saying just this: these words ARE metaphoric and allegorical, allusive language for representing something that ultimately cannot be represented: experience. But these words are true and you should believe them because what they describe is something that can be and has been experienced.

So when I read the Secret Gospel, I see the undeniable outlines of a ritual structure: the rite of passage. It follows precisely the stages Arnold van Gennep identified in his famous work, The Rites of Passage. And we see this kind of structure and language in references to baptism throughout the early Christian period, in canonical and non-canonical texts. For me, there’s just too much evidence to ignore the conclusion that actual ritual practices and religious writings had a long and symbiotic relationship with each other: rituals enacting, preserving and transmitting myth; myth providing narratives that give ritual deeper meaning and resonance for those who undergo them.

And…in any case…even without evidence of a “cultic setting,” I’m mindful of a comment by Claude Levi-Strauss—where did I read it?—that myths are “thought rituals.” That is, the mental “performance” of a myth by reading it—that is, “thinking” it—or as Jung put it, “dreaming the myth onwards”—produces the psychological effects of performed ritual—which, as in all rites of passage, is nothing less than an experience of death, rebirth, and return, a passage from an old self to a new, higher state of being.

Aside from this recent scholarship, two new findings of primary evidence have occurred in the years since Jesus was first published. The painstakingly restored Gospel of Judas, released with much fanfare in 2006, provides a unique glimpse into the worldview of a marginal Christian community in the mid-second century C.E. The text mounts a withering critique of what is presumably the orthodox branch of the Christian movement at the time. And in the eyes of the Gospel of Judas, these Christians look remarkably like Paul’s opponents as I described in my book. They engage in mystical practices involving interactions with angels and stars, they are interested in astrology—and they are arsenokoitēs; queer if you will, using Paul’s idiosyncratic word which seems to refer to male prostitution or, perhaps, homosexuals generally. In fact, the Gospel of Judas is a distinctly Pauline text in its themes and language. All this is fully consistent with my argument in Jesus.

Paul’s opponents, it should be remembered, represented the church in Jerusalem and knew Jesus personally—claims Paul could not make.

A second fascinating discovery comes from the waters off Alexandria in Egypt. It is a bowl, roughly dated to the era during and after Jesus’ lifetime, inscribed with the phrase “by Christ the magician.” It appears to be an example of precisely the sort of bowl used in the magical procedures that Smith argues many early Christians engaged in—procedures which produced, among other things, an hallucinatory experience of ascending through the heavens.

I have articles on both these discoveries posted on my website at

Kittredge Cherry: Are you Christian, Will?

Will Roscoe: Funny you should ask that. Officially, of course, no—as in HELL no. I am a feminist gay man who rejects patriarchal religions of the book, and I practice an alternative spirituality that derives its values from nature and from the life-creating and sustaining powers that women, especially embody. I am one of those fanatical ex-Catholics who can’t say enough bad things about the Church. You know, “whore of Babylon,” “legions of Pharisees,” and such.

I initially approached my work on Jesus as a student of religion, interested in diverse religious beliefs and practices, respectful of all heart-felt spiritual experience but viewing none as especially better than any other. But the more I engaged with the New Testament texts the more I thought, “This isn’t what they told me Jesus was about at all.” I kept having this uncanny sensation that I get this, I get this guy, I get what he’s saying about love. Not only does it resonate with my experience as a gay man; he tells me that my experiences are central to what this mission of love is about.

Infant Jesus of Prague
(Wikimedia Commons)
In April of this year I was in Prague. I visited the Church of Our Lady Victorious where the Infant Jesus of Prague “doll” is installed. Maybe I was tired after a long day of sightseeing. Maybe it was jet lag. I knelt and I prayed. The kneeling only lasted about a minute before the pain was too much. But I prayed for longer, and I asked for help for myself and friends I’m concerned about. I haven’t done that since I was a child. For years, I’ve practice a form of meditation, and I always assumed that if there was anything to praying, it was because it involved similar techniques to meditation. But I found that the experience involved something different than meditation, something I needed to do. That is, to invoke in my mind deity as I envision it, and then to talk to it like it was a friend who loved me unconditionally. Mind you, I was praying to a wax doll wearing a dress—the Infant Jesus, protector of women and children—not Jehovah. But it was a powerful experience.

So, no. I’m not Christian. But I guess I’m still a Catholic!

This post is part of the Queer Christ 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.

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