Friday, July 29, 2016

Martha and Mary of Bethany: Sisters or lesbian couple?

Mary and Martha by Bernardino Luini (Wikimedia Commons)

Mary and Martha of Bethany were two of Jesus’ closest friends. The Bible calls them “sisters” who lived together, but reading the Bible with queer eyes raises another possibility. Maybe Mary and Martha were a lesbian couple. Their feast day is today (July 29).

Mary and Martha formed a nontraditional family at a time when there was huge pressure for heterosexual marriage.

As Nancy Wilson, moderator of Metropolitan Community Churches, wrote in the brochure “Our Story Too: Reading the Bible with ‘New’ Eyes”:

“Jesus loved Lazarus, Mary and Martha. What drew Jesus to this very non-traditional family group of a bachelor brother living with two spinster sisters? Two barren women and a eunuch are Jesus’ adult family of choice. Are we to assume they were all celibate heterosexuals? What if Mary and Martha were not sisters but called each other ‘sister’ as did most lesbian couples throughout recorded history?”

Wilson expands on this theory in her book Outing the Bible: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Christian Scriptures.

Biblical patriarchs have also hidden their marriages by claiming their wives were their sisters. In the book of Genesis, Abraham claimed his wife Sarah was his sister on two different occasions (Genesis 12:10-20; 20:1-18) and once Isaac passed off his wife Rebekah as his sister (Genesis 26:1-16).

Mary and Martha are best known for the conflict they had when they hosted Jesus and his disciples. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet to listen, but Martha wanted her to help her serve. Jesus’ famous answer: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42).

In another major Bible story, Jesus talks with Mary and Martha in turn before raising their brother Lazarus from the dead. During the conversation, Martha speaks what is considered the first profession of faith in Jesus: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world” (John 11:27).

Like with most Biblical figures, the truth about Mary and Martha is a mystery. The gospels references are brief and sometimes contradictory. As a result, Mary of Bethany is identified as Mary Magdalene in the Roman Catholic church, while in Protestant and Eastern Orthodox traditions they are considered separate persons.

The Orthodox Church also includes Mary and Martha among the “myrrh bearing women” who were faithfully present at his crucifixion and brought myrrh to his tomb, where they became the first to witness his resurrection. Christian feminists also honor the couple and say that they probably were leaders of a “house church.”

Artists provide some beautiful paintings of the “sisters,” including the one above by Italian Renaissance artist Bernardino Luini (1480 -1532). Magic realist painter Eileen Kennedy has done a new painting of them as contemporary women. Kennedy’s “In the House of Martha and Mary” is on view at the Episcopal Cafe Art Blog. Martha stands angrily with vacuum cleaner in hand as her sister listens to Jesus.
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.

Icons of Martha and Mary of Bethany and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at

Outing the Bible: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Christian Scriptures by Nancy Wilson

Thursday, July 28, 2016

LGBT saints featured by LGBT Religious Archives Network

Jesus in Love’s “Stories of LGBT Saints” are featured in the LGBT Religious Archives Newsletter for July.

From newsletter of
LGBT Religious Archives
“The Jesus in Love website, created by Kittredge Cherry, contains the stories of dozens of LGBT Saints, ancient and modern, from around the globe,” it says.

LGBT-RAN preserves LGBT religious history with profiles of contemporary leaders, online exhibits, oral histories and more. Thanks to Mark Bowman, coordinator of LGBT-RAN!

LGBT Religious Archives is a resource center and information clearinghouse for the history of LGBT religious movements. LGBT-RAN is a project of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Boris and George: Russian saints united in love and death

Boris, a popular medieval saint in Russia and Ukraine, loved his servant George the Hungarian so much that he gave him a magnificent gold necklace. The feast day of Saint Boris is July 24 -- the same day that same-sex marriage became legal in New York in 2011.

The love between Boris, one of the oldest and most popular saints in Russia, and George the Hungarian ended in tragedy in medieval Russia in 1015, when both saints were murdered.

For a new version of this article, click this link to
Boris and George: Russian saints united in love and death

Boris and his younger brother Gleb are well known saints in Russia. They are often pictured together and many churches are named after them. Meanwhile the beloved George the Hungarian was never canonized and has mostly been ignored -- until recently.

Boris was a prince and gifted military commander who was popular with the Russian people. He was married, but he had enormous love for his servant George the Hungarian.

Slavic professor Simon Karlinsky has highlighted their gay love story in his analysis of the medieval classic, “The Legend of Boris and Gleb” compiled from 1040 to 1118. Karlinsky writes:
Boris had a magnificent gold necklace made for George because he “was loved by Boris beyond reckoning.” When the four assailants stabbed Boris with their swords, George flung himself on the body of his prince, exclaiming: “I will not be left behind, my precious lord! Ere the beauty of thy body begins to wilt, let it be granted that my life may end.” The assailants tore Boris out of George’s embrace, stabbed George and flung him out of the tent, bleeding and dying. After Boris died, first having forgiven his assassins, his retinue was massacred… Not only was the author of this story clearly sympathetic to the mutual love of Boris and George but he also seemed to realize that “the gratuitous murder of George resulted from his open admission of the nature of this love.”

Karlinsky’s text above is quoted from “Passionate Holiness: Marginalized Christian Devotions for Distinctive People” and “Gay Roots: Twenty Years of Gay Sunshine.”

The man behind the murders was Boris’ half-brother Sviatopolk, who wanted to consolidate his power. He also had their brother Gleb killed at the same time.

In 1071 Boris and his brother Gleb became the first saints canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. They were named “Passion Bearers” because, while they were not killed for their faith, they faced death in a Christlike manner, forgiving their murderers. Their father, St. Vladimir of Kiev, was the first Christian prince in Russia and their mother Anne was also Christian. Boris and Gleb are buried at the Church of St. Basil near Kiev in Ukraine.

The icon above was painted in 2000 by Brother Robert Lentz, a Franciscan friar and world-class iconographer known for his innovative icons. It is one of 10 Lentz icons that sparked a major controversy in 2005. Critics accused Lentz of glorifying sin and creating propaganda for a progressive sociopolitical agenda, and he temporarily gave away the copyright for the controversial images to his distributor, Trinity Stores.

Here George is restored to his rightful place beside Boris, properly honoring this extraordinary couple and the way they loved each other.

LGBTQ people in both Russia and the Ukraine still face legalized discrimination. May remembering Boris and George help bring equality for people of every sexual orientation and gender identity.

Related links:
Spiritual art supports Russia’s LGBT rights struggle (Jesus in Love)

Russia’s Anti-Gay Crackdown (New York Times)

To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
Borís y Jorge: unidos en el amor y en la muerte
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.

Top image credit: Saints Boris and George the Hungarian By Brother Robert Lentz, OFM.

Icons of Boris and George and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at

Friday, July 22, 2016

Kuan Yin: A queer Buddhist Christ figure

Kuan Yin, the androgynous spirit of compassion in Buddhism, is sometimes thought of as a queer Christ figure or LGBTQ role model. Buddhists celebrate the enlightenment of Kuan Yin today (July 22) this year.

For a new version of this article, click this link to
Kuan Yin: A queer Buddhist Christ figure

Christians honor Christ as savior, and Kuan Yin is a type of Buddhist savior figure called a bodhisattva -- an enlightened person who is able to reach nirvana (heaven) but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save others from suffering.

Artists often show Kuan Yin with eyes in her/his hands and feed. They are like the wounds of Christ, but Kuan Yin can see with them.

Kuan Yin is also known as the goddess of mercy and goes by different names in different places, including Avalokiteshvara in India, Tara (female) or Chenrezig (male) in Tibet, and Kannon in Japan.

Writers and scholars who have explored the queer side of Kuan Yin include Patrick S. Cheng, an Episcopal priest who teaches at Chicago Theolgical Seminary; Hsiao-Lan Hu, religious studies professor at the University of Detroit Mercy; and Toby Johnson, a former Catholic monk turned author and comparative religion scholar.

In the introduction to his 2003 essay “Kuan Yin: Mirror of the Queer Asian Christ,” Cheng explains:

"Kuan Yin, the Asian goddess of compassion, can serve as a mirror of the queer experience. Specifically, Kuan Yin affirms three aspects in the life of queer people that are often missing from traditional images of the divine: (1) queer compassion; (2) queer sexuality; and (3) gender fluidity. In other words, Kuan Yin can be an important means by which gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people can see ourselves as being made in the image of God."

Cheng writes clearly about the connection between Kuan Yin and Christ in the section where he describes his personal search for queer Asian Christ figures:

Olga’s Kuan Yin
By William Hart McNichols ©
"I have been intrigued by the possibility of Kuan Yin serving as a christological figure for queer Asian people. For me, it has been difficult to envision the Jesus Christ of the gospels and the Western Christian tradition as being both queer and Asian (although I do recognize that queer theologians and Asian theologians have tried to do so in their respective areas). It is my thesis that Kuan Yin might serve as a symbol of salvation and wholeness for queer Asian people of faith...."

Click for the whole essay “Kuan Yin: Mirror of the Queer Asian Christ” in English or in Spanish.

Cheng's latest book Rainbow Theology: Bridging Race, Sexuality, and Spirit was published in 2013. He is also the author of “From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ”, “Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology.” His series on “Rethinking Sin and Grace for LGBT People Today” was one of the most popular stories of 2010 at the Jesus in Love Blog.

Hsiao-Lan Hu presented a paper on “Queering Avalokiteśvara” at the 2012 American Academy of Religion annual meeting. She noted that the Lotus Sutra says that Avalokitesvara will appear to teach different beings in different forms, based on what they can accept.

In the summary of her paper, Hu writes, “Of the 33 forms listed in the Lotus Sutra, 7 are explicitly female, indicating that the Bodhisattva of Compassion transcends gender identity…. What is the theoretical ground in the Buddhadharma (Buddha’s teaching) that justify or even propel such conceptualization? How does that theoretical ground compare to modern-day queer theory?”

She summed up her paper in the 2013 Women’s and Gender Studies Newsletter from the University of Detroit Mercy: “Avalokiteśvara's multi-morphic manifestation affirms different beings in their specific identities, while his/her transformability points to the possibility of moving beyond the confinement of any particular identity. For people of minority identities, the Bodhisattva thus can be both a source of comfort and a model for coping with reality in which they often need to perform different roles.”

Hu is the author of This-Worldly Nibbana: A Buddhist-Feminist Social Ethic for Peacemaking in the Global Community.

Another LGBTQ perspective on Kuan Yin is provided by Toby Johnson in Kuan Yin: Androgynous spirit of compassion, which he wrote for the Jesus in Love Blog. Johnson begins by retelling the traditional story of Kuan Yin. Then he explains that it is “a nice myth for gay people” because:

"It says we’re really all One, all reflections of one another, that the distinction between male and female is illusory and needs to be transcended and that transcending gender is part and parcel with experiencing heaven now."

A student of Joseph Campbell, Johnson has written 10 books, including the classic Gay Spirituality and Two Spirits. He is former production manager of Lethe Press and former editor of White Crane Journal. Johnson discusses Kuan Yin as an androgynous figure who embodies compassion in his articles “Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara” and “Avalokiteshvara at the Baths.”

Queer theologian Robert Shore-Goss applies the bodhisattva concept to queer Christian life in “Bodhisattva Christianity: A Case of Multiple Religious Belonging” in the 2013 book “Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians.” Goss pastored Metropolitan Community Church in the Valley (North Hollywood, CA) after serving as chair of the religious studies department at Webster University in St. Louis.

Images of Kuan Yin posted here were created by Tony O’Connell, Stephen Mead, Ralfka Gonzalez and William Hart McNichols. Mead is a gay artist and poet based in New York whose work has appeared internationally in cyberspace, books, and galleries. McNichols is a New Mexico artist and Catholic priest who has been criticized by church leaders for making LGBTQ-friendly icons of saints not approved by the church. His icons have been commissioned by churches, celebrities and national publications.

“Avalokitishvara” by Tony O’Connell

O’Connell is a gay artist based in Liverpool. Raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, he has been a practicing Buddhist since 1995. He creates an artwork celebrating Avalokitishvara / Kuan Yin every year on his/her birthday. Viewers who look closely at his painting here will see an eye in the palm of the Compassionate One's hand.

“There is an amazing statue of Avalokiteshvara in a Liverpool museum with a text that explains how the mustache was painted over to alter his gender as the people who met the monks on the spice routes from India struggled with the idea of a manifestation of compassion being male and wanted to see him as female. It occurs to me that there are subtle ranges of the same personality between Avalokitishvara, Kuan Yin and Tara as one gender ambiguous enlightened mind,” O’Connell said.

He explains that Tara came into being in compassionate response to samsara, the cycle of birth and death: “There is a beautiful scripture that talks about how even with all his enlightened abilities to benefit living beings, Avalokiteshvara saw the suffering of samsara was almost beyond measure. His heart broke for living beings and he wept tears of compassion. When the first tear hit the ground a lotus flower grew up and blossomed to reveal Tara. Her first words as a Buddha were, 'Do not weep- I will help you.'”

For more about Tony O’Connell and his art, see my previous posts Reclaiming sainthood: Gay artist Tony O’Connell finds holiness in LGBT people and places and Olympics: Spiritual art supports Russia’s LGBT rights struggle.

Guadalupe as Chenrezig by Ralfka Gonzalez

Outsider artist Ralfka Gonzalez links Kuan Yin not with Christ, but with his mother by painting Chenrezig as Our Lady of Guadalupe. In the Gonzalez image, he/she is wrapped in Juan Diego's cloak.

His interpretation fits with the practices of Japan’s “hidden Christians,” who created statues of Mary disguised as Kuan Yin (Maria Kannon) when Christianity was outlawed from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Pictured here is the first of many “Buddha Lupe” images painted by Gonzalez. He is a self-taught Chicano artist and gay Latino activist who divides his time between Oaxaca, Mexico and San Francisco. He often paints Mexican and/or gay themes in a colorful folk-art style.

An in-depth discussion of this post happened on my Facebook page with various people adding valuable background info on Kuan Yin and his/her many incarnations:

Related links:

Korean Christ” icon by Robert Lentz

Christ Sophia” by Br. Michael Reyes, OFM (Christ with Chinese characters and lotus blossom)

Art by He Qi

Kuan Yin: Espejo del Cristo queer asiático by Patrick Cheng

Top image credit: “Kwan Yin is Coming” by Stephen Mead

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.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Symeon of Emesa and John: Holy fool and hermit who loved each other

“Symeon and John” by Jim Ru

Sixth-century Syrian monks Symeon and John were joined in a same-sex union and lived together as desert-dwelling hermits for 29 years. After a tearful split-up, Symeon went on to become known as the Holy Fool of Emesa, the patron saint of all holy fools (and puppeteers.) Their feast day is today (July 21).

These Byzantine saints are important for LGBTQ people because of their loving same-sex bond and Symeon’s role as holy fool. In the tradition of “fools for Christ,” believers deliberately challenge social norms for spiritual purposes. LGBTQ Christians, who face insults from both sides for being queer AND Christian, may be able to relate to the motivations and experiences of the holy fools.

For a new version of this article, click this link to
Symeon of Emesa and John: Holy fool and hermit who loved each other

Symeon the Holy Fool (or Simeon Salus) of Emesa (c. 522 - c.588) and John of Edessa were close friends starting in childhood, although Symeon was six years older. Both came from wealthy families. When Symeon was 30, they made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On the journey home they were both filled with an irresistible desire to leave their families and join a monastery together.

They took vows in the monastery of Abba Gerasimus in Syria. The two men were tonsured by the abbot who blessed them together in an early monastic version of the adelphopoiia ceremony -- the “brother-making” ritual that historian John Boswell calls a “same-sex union.” They were referred to as the “pure bridegrooms (nymphoi) of Christ.”

Soon the two men went together to live as hermits in the desert near the Dead Sea, where they could practice spiritual exercises in solitude. There is no suggestion that their relationship was sexual, but they shared a life together in the wilderness with all the emotional intensity of a same-sex couple for 29 years.

At that point Symeon decided to leave his longtime companion and move to the city of Emesa in modern Lebanon.  He wanted to do charity work while mocking social norms as a “fool for Christ.” John begged him not to go. John’s passionate plea is recorded in “Symeon the Holy Fool” by Derek Krueger:

“Please, for the Lord’s sake, do not leave wretched me. For I have not yet reached this level, so that I can mock the world. Rather for the sake of Him who joined us, do not wish to be parted from your brother. You know that, after God, I have no one except you, my brother, but I renounced all and was bound to you, and now you wish to leave me in the desert, as in an open sea. Remember that day when we drew lots and went down to lord Nikon, that we agreed not to be separated from one another. Remember that fearful hour when we were clothed in the holy habit, and we two were as one soul, so that all were astonished at our love. Don't forget the words of the great monk….Please don’t lest I die and God demands an account of my soul from you.”

Even this heartfelt appeal did not change Symeon’s mind. Instead he invited John into a long, intimate prayer session as described by Krueger:

“After they had prayed for many hours and had kissed each other on the breast and drenched them with their tears, John let go of Symeon and traveled together with him a long distance, for his soul would not let him be separated from him, but whenever Abba Symeon said to him ‘Turn back, brother,’ he heard the word as if a knife separated him from his body, and again he asked if he could accompany him a little further. Therefore, when Abba Symeon forced him, he turned back to his cell drenching the earth with tears.”

Symeon went on to help the poor, heal the sick and do other good works in Emesa. In order to avoid public praise, he shocked people by deliberately acting crazy, making himself a “holy fool.”

Not long before his death, Symeon had a vision in which he saw his beloved John wearing a crown with the inscription, “For endurance in the desert.” 

Symeon and John were honored together as saints on July 21 in many ancient calendars. In the 16th century Caesar Baronius separated them and moved Symeon to July 1, but some traditions still celebrate them both on July 21.

Artist Jim Ru was inspired to paint the Symeon and John as a couple, with John’s fervent words to his beloved, “Please don’t leave lest I die and God demands an account of my soul from you.” The painting was displayed in his show “Transcendent Faith: Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered Saints” in Bisbee, Arizona in the 1990s.

More resources:
Symeon the Holy Fool: Leontius’s Life and the Late Antique City” by Derek Krueger (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996).

Simeon the Holy Fool (Wikipedia)

To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
Simeón de Emesa y Juan: un “santo loco” y un ermitaño que amaban el uno al otro
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.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Saint Wilgefortis: Holy bearded woman fascinates for centuries

Saint Wilgefortis statue in the Church of Saint Nicholas in Pas-de-Calais, near Wissant, France (Wikimedia Commons)

Santa Wilgefortis” from “Queer Santas” series by Alma Lopez

Saint Wilgefortis prayed to avoid marriage to a pagan king -- and her prayers were answered when she grew a beard! This gender-bending virgin martyr has natural appeal for LGBT people. Her feast day was July 20 (tomorrow) until she was removed from the Vatican calendar in 1969.

For a new version of this article, click this link to
Saint Wilgefortis: Holy bearded woman fascinates for centuries

Wilgefortis remains in standard Catholic reference works, and images of her as a bearded woman on a cross are plentiful across Europe and in Latin American folk retablos.

She probably originates more in popular imagination than in history, but Wilgefortis continues to be an object of devotion in folk religion, a favorite character in pop culture and an inspiration in queer art.

Contemporary readers have come up with many theories about Wilgefortis. She has been interpreted as the patron saint of intersex people, an asexual person, a transgender person, a person with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome or a lesbian virgin.

Legend says that Wilgefortis was the teenage Christian daughter of a king in medieval Portugal. She had taken a vow of chastity, but her father ordered her to marry a pagan king. She resisted the unwelcome marriage by praying to be made repulsive to her fiancé. God answered her prayers when she grew a beard.

Unfortunately her father got so angry that he had her crucified and Wilgefortis joined the ranks of virgin martyrs. The church has promoted “virgin martyrs” as examples of chastity and faith, but lesbians and other queer people recognize them as kindred spirits who do not engage in heterosexual activity.

Saint Wilgefortis in the Museum of the Diocese Graz-Seckau in Graz, Austria, 18th century (Wikimedia Commons)

Her veneration began in 14th century Europe and grew until the 16th century, when her story was debunked as fiction. People continued to worship her despite frequent opposition by church officials. She was honored all across Europe, and in some places her popularity rivaled the Virgin Mary. Wilgefortis stayed on the official Vatican calendar until 1969. Scholars suggest that her legend arose to explain the Volto Santo of Lucca, a famous Italian sculpture of the crucified Christ in a long tunic that medieval viewers thought was a woman’s dress.

The history is explored in the book “The Female Crucifix: Images of St. Wilgefortis Since the Middle Ages” by Ilse E. Friesen., professor of art history at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada. She traces the emergences of increasingly female crucifixes over the centuries, focusing on the he German-speaking regions of Bavaria and Tyrol, where the veneration of Wilgefortis reached its peak.

The name Wilgefortis may come from the Latin “virgo fortis” (strong virgin). In Spanish she is Librada -- meaning “liberated” -- from hardship and/or husbands. She also goes by a bewildering variety of other names. Her alternate English name Uncumber means escaper. In addition, she is known as Liberata, Livrade, Kummernis, Komina, Comera, Cumerana, Ulfe, Ontcommen, Dignefortis, Europia, and Reginfledis. In Barcelona (Spain), local people honor Múnia de Barcelona, a legendary saint who is similar to Wilgefortis. Her feast day day is Feb. 28.

The saint speaks for herself in singer-songwriter-pianist Rebecca Clamp's song, “St. Wilgefortis.” Clamp is originally from Cambridge, England, and moved to Helsinki, Finland. She engages in a sweetly quirky dialogue with the saint in a song and concludes:
I won’t marry a heathen
And I won’t marry a saint
I won’t marry at all
Just grow me a beard
And find me a cave
I’ll be a happy little hermit
And I’ll build a little shrine
To my dear St. Wilgefortis
Oh ridiculous
To my dear St. Wilgefortis
The patron saint of bearded ladies
To my dear St. Wilgefortis
So sublime, so sublime

The saint is presented in two incarnations -- as Wilgefortis and as Liberata -- in the “Queer Santas” series by Chicana artist Alma Lopez. The series grew out of the artist’s insight that female martyrs may have protected their virginity to the death not so much out of faith, but because they were lesbians. Lopez paints Wilgefortis/Liberata as masculine women in crucifixion poses. They look like butch lesbians, liberating themselves by rejecting feminine appearance and traditional gender roles.

Saint Liberata” from “Queer Santas” series by Alma Lopez

Wilgefortis also makes various appearances in modern literature. The critically acclaimed 1970 novel “Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies concerns a scholar researching Wilgefortis. Castle Waiting, a graphic novel by Linda Medley, features a nun from the order of St. Wilgefortis, an entire convent full of bearded women!

St. Wilgefortis in the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows at the Loreta Sanctuary in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo by Curious Expeditions.

Related links:

Uncumber or Wilgefortis (Queering the Church)

To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
Santa Librada (Wilgefortis): Una santa Barbuda

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.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall: Four women reformers honored as saints

A vision of equality that inspired people “through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” is celebrated as a holy feast day on July 20. Four 19th-century American women reformers -- Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer. Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman -- are honored on this date in the Episcopal calendar of saints.

All advocated abolition of slavery as well as women’s rights. The first Women’s Rights Convention ended on July 20, in 1848 in Seneca Falls, NY.

President Obama made connections between women’s liberation, LGBT equality and African American civil rights in a famous line from his 2013 inaugural speech: “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths, that all of us are created equal, is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall,” he said.

Stanton used similar language based on the Declaration of Independence when she wrote the American Declaration of Rights and Sentiments signed by attendees at Seneca Falls, including this line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”

“Elizabeth Cady Stanton” by Robert Lentz

A portrait of Elizabeth Cady Stanton is one of 40 icons featured in “Christ in the Margins” by Robert Lentz, is a Franciscan friar known for his innovative and LGBT-positive icons, and Edwina Gateley.

Stanton (1815–1902) was a leader of the early women’s rights movement and one of the organizers of the Seneca Falls conference. Her faith led her to critique the church itself for degrading and discriminating against women.

Raised in the Presbyterian Church, she was outraged by the exclusion of women Bible scholars in the 1870 revision of the King James Bible by an all-male committee, so she founded a committee of women to write the landmark 1895 commentary “The Woman’s Bible.” The controversial work uses book-by-book Bible commentary to challenge prevailing religious beliefs with a liberating theology of equality between the sexes. (A similar work for the LGBT community is “The Queer Bible Commentary,” although it uses many authors to do what Stanton did singlehandedly.) Her vision of equality between the sexes led her to ask genderbending questions such as, “If a heavenly father, why not a heavenly mother?”

Stanton is often remembered with Susan B. Anthony because the two women were close friends who collaborated for more than 50 years on women's rights and other reforms. They shared “one of the most productive working partnerships in U.S. history,” according to the documentary “Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony,” directed by Emmy Award-winning film maker Ken Burns.

Anthony has been called the “third person” in Stanton’s marriage to her husband. Stanton was a married mother of seven, but she and Anthony traveled together giving speeches over the course of three decades.

Anthony remained unmarried and her deepest relationships were with other women. Some historians, including Lillian Faderman, believe that Anthony was what today would be called a lesbian. In her book To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done For America - A History, Faderman suggests that Anthony had long-term romantic relationships with other women.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-1894) was an advocate for temperance and women’s rights. Her name became associated with the loose trousers known as “bloomers” because of her advocacy of women’s dress reform in an era of tight-waisted corsets.  She is the one who first introduced Stanton and Anthony to each other. Bloomer was raised Presbyterian and her activism was based on her faith. “The same Power that brought the slave out of bondage will, in His own good time and way, bring about the emancipation of women, and make her the equal in power and dominion that she was in the beginning,” she said.

Sojourner Truth (1797–8 to 1883) was an escaped slave who became a traveling preacher. She is best known for her speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” She delivered it at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851 after listening for hours while clergy use Biblical justifications to attack women’s rights and abolition. For her prophetic witness, she was known as “the Miriam of the Latter Exodus,” after the biblical prophet Miriam.

Harriet Ross Tubman (1820–1913) escaped slavery to lead more than 300 others to freedom through the Underground Railroad and later served as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War. She was deeply influenced by the Bible story of Moses following God's command to deliver the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Tubman believed that God called upon her to oppose slavery and help deliver American slaves out of bondage. She became known as "the Moses of her People," which is the subtitle of her 1869 biography written by her friend Sarah Bradford.

All four women for freedom are pictured together with rainbow colors in an icon by Tobias Haller, iconographer, author, composer, and vicar of Saint James Episcopal Church in the Bronx.

“It came to me in a flash that this would be an appropriate symbol for this early Rainbow Coalition for Freedom. I also like to think of it as a Feminist Rushmore!” he said.

He is the author of “Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality.” Haller enjoys expanding the diversity of icons available by creating icons of LGBTQ people and other progressive holy figures as well as traditional saints. He and his spouse were united in a church wedding more than 30 years ago and a civil ceremony after same-sex marriage became legal in New York.

Both Stanton and Bloomer attended Trinity Episcopal Church in Seneca Falls. Truth and Tubman were both involved in African Methodist Episcopal churches. Today the Episcopal Church honors these four female freedom fighters with the following prayer:

O God, whose Spirit guides us into all truth and makes us
free: Strengthen and sustain us as you did your servants
Elizabeth, Amelia, Sojourner, and Harriet. Give us vision
and courage to stand against oppression and injustice and
all that works against the glorious liberty to which you
call all your children;
through Jesus Christ our Savior, who
lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for
ever and ever. Amen.

Top image:
“Four Women for Freedom” by Tobias Haller

Related links:

July 20: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1902; Amelia Bloomer, 1894; Sojourner Truth, 1883; and Harriet Ross Tubman, 1913, Liberators and Prophets (Holy Women, Holy Men blog)

Friday, July 15, 2016

LGBTQ Christian life revealed in novel "Speak Its Name"

Speak Its Name
by Kathleen Jowitt
Reviewed by Audrey Lockwood

Speak Its Name” by Kathleen Jowitt is the coming-of-age story of a lesbian who leads the Christian group at a British university.

During the many challenges of her freshman year, Lydia holds on to her faith even as she falls in love with an out-and-proud Methodist bisexual woman. It was her Great Awakening.

The novel is especially engagin for lesbian Christians to read. It’s uncommon in all of literature to have a lesbian character in a Christian context. Rarely since Radclyffe Hall has it been attempted. The connection between lesbians and gay men in the novel adds to its richness.

The author captures the excitement of being a new leader and the atmosphere of a university in an English town. I like the way it focuses on the human relationships of students working together. The Oxford atmosphere and British English are charming. It is fun reading terms like “freshers” instead of “freshmen.”

The writing quality is superior and literate. One flaw is that there are too many characters and not enough character development of each one.

The opposition faced by LGBTQ people in “Speak Its Name” shows that the religious right is not just an American phenomenon.

The LGBTQ group in the novel is saner than the LGBTQ religious communities I have known. During my own college years in the 1970s, I went to a Catholic guitar mass at a funky student center at a public Big-Ten university. Our liberal views were influenced by Vatican II and the anti-war movement. This book shows the backlash against liberalism, presenting the new generation whose college experience is more conventional and conservative with right-wing fanatics.


Audrey Lockwood is a lesbian poet based in Los Angeles. Her poetry has been published in Lesbian News and was Poem of the Month at Writers at Work. Her previous articles for the Jesus in Love Blog include LGBT authors laugh, cry and get honored at Lambda Literary Awards and Meeting Alma Lopez: Painter of queer saints, mermaids, revolutionaries and goddesses.

Speak Its Name
by Kathleen Jowitt
Paperback, $11.64, 278 pages
ISBN: 978-0993533907
Jan. 22, 2016
Book website:

Friday, July 08, 2016

Artemisia Gentileschi paints strong Biblical women

“Judith and Her Maidservant” by Artemisia Gentileschi

Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi inspires many with her paintings of strong Biblical women -- created despite the discrimination and sexual violence that she faced as a woman in 17th-century Italy. She was born more than 400 years ago today (July 8, 1593).

For a new version of this article, click this link to
Artemisia Gentileschi paints strong Biblical women

Gentileschi was apparently heterosexual, but lesbians have drawn energy from her life and art. Many queer people can relate to her battles against prejudice and sexual violence, documented in her rape trial in 1612. She can be considered the patron saint of lesbian artists, women artists, and everyone who breaks gender rules.

Gentileschi (1593–1652) was successful in her own day, but was mostly written out of art history until the 1970s, when feminist scholars rediscovered her work. Now she is celebrated in many books, films and plays, and her work is widely reproduced. Her greatest paintings include “Judith Beheading Holofernes” and “Susanna and the Elders.”

Lesbians who have created tributes to Gentileschi include painter Becki Jayne Harrelson and playwright Carolyn Gage. In the play “Artemisia and Hildegard,” Gage has two of history’s great women artists debate their contrasting survival strategies: Gentileschi battled to achieve in the male-dominated art world while Hildegard of Bingen found support for her art in the women-only community of a medieval German nunnery.

The daughter of a painter, Gentileschi was born in Rome and trained as a painter in her father’s workshop there. She was refused admission to the art academy because she was a woman, so her father arranged for her to have a private painting teacher -- who raped her when she was about 19. Gentileschi herself was tortured by thumbscrews during the seven-month rape trial, but she stuck to her testimony. The teacher was convicted, but received a suspended sentence.

“Judith Beheading Holofernes”
by Artemisia Gentileschi
Gentileschi used art to express her outrage. During the trial Artemisia began painting the Biblical scene of “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (left). Judith, a daring and beautiful Hebrew widow, saves Israel by cutting off the head of the invading general Holofernes. Judith and Holofernes became one of Gentileschi’s favorite subjects, and she painted several variations during her lifetime.

Her realistic style, influenced by the artist Caravaggio, shows dramatic contrasts between light and dark. But Gentileschi usually created her own unique interpretation expressing a strong female viewpoint. The violence of Judith beheading the male general Holofernes speaks for itself. Another example is her painting (below left) of the Biblical story of the Hebrew wife Susanna and the lustful elders who spied on her while she was bathing. Although her male contemporaries painted the scene as a voyeuristic fantasy, Gentileschi presents it as a violation of the vulnerable Susanna by the predatory elders.

“Susanna and the Elders”
by Artemisia Gentileschi
Soon after the rape trial Gentileschi married and moved to Florence, where she became the first woman accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing). She had a full career, producing many paintings of powerful women from Christianity, history and mythology. She worked in various Italian cities and even spent a few years painting in London, England. It is believed that she died when she was about 60 years old in a plague that swept Naples in 1656.

Today Gentileschi’s life and work are admired by many, including artist Becki Jayne Harrelson. She is best known for her LGBT-affirming version of “The Crucifixion of the Christ” with the word “faggot” above Jesus on the cross, but Harrelson has also honored Gentileschi in her art and blog.

Harrelson offers this tribute in celebration of Gentileschi’s birthday: “Artemisia Gentileschi’s talent and mastery was equal to her male counterparts, yet because of sexism and misogyny, she was denied the recognition she deserved as a master painter until many centuries later. She also suffered sexual violence and was treated unjustly for standing up against it. Her art and life inspires me to persevere despite adversity and prejudice.”

“Tribute to Artemisia’s Judith” by Becki Jayne Harrelson,
Oil on canvas | 36”w X 48”h

Gentileschi's story is told in a variety of movies and novels, including "The Passion of Artemisia" by Susan Vreeland.

Theologian Susan Thistlethwaite writes about Gentileschi in her 2015 book “A Theology of Women's Bodies as Battlefield: Just War, Just Peace, and the Global War on Women” (publication date: July 15, 2015). Gentileschi concludes the section on Renaissance painting and establishing the visiblity/invisiblity of rape culture.

Artemisia Gentileschi is included in the LGBT saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog because she has inspired so many lesbians with her paintings of women and her success despite gender barriers and sexual violence.

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.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Pioneering lesbian minister Nancy Wilson honored as she retires

Pioneering lesbian minister Nancy Wilson is being honored today (July 6) as she retires as global moderator of Metropolitan Community Churches.

I worked closely with Nancy from 1991-94 as MCC’s ecumenical field director. Here are some photos of our efforts to advocate for LGBTQ rights at the World Council of Churches, National Council of Churches and other church events. Thanks, Nancy, for your passion and prophetic vision!

Nancy is the second person, and the first woman, to lead MCC since it was founded in 1968 by Troy Perry. When MCC was founded, homosexuality was still considered a sin, a sickness and a crime, but MCC gave religious affirmation to queer people. Nancy joined the new denomination as associate pastor of MCC Boston in 1972 when she was 22 years old.

After serving in numerous positions in MCC, Nancy Wilson was elected as moderator in 2005 following Perry’s retirement. President Barack Obama appointed Nancy to the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2011. When Obama was re-elected, she became the first openly LGBT clergy to participate at the Inaugural Prayer Service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Her 44 years of ministry are being celebrated today with a “Tapestry of Thanks” event at MCC’s international General Conference in Victoria, BC, Canada.

In 2016 she wrote a new book: “I Love to Tell the Story: 100+ Stories of Justice, Inclusion, and Hope.” Her collection of true stories from the LGBTQ faith community will bring laughter, tears, insight and hope. Sections cover love and marriage equality, pastoring, death and funerals, hate and violence, laughter, portraits, kids and angels, MCC’s first decade, earthquakes and MCC buildings, sexuality and ecumenical adventures, and White House encounters. She draws on four decades of ministry and activism and ministry in MCC for motivational stories of pastors and porn stars, presidents and persons with AIDS, and many more.

Her other books include “Outing the Bible: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Christian Scriptures” (LifeJourney Press); “Outing the Church: 40 Years in the Queer Christian Movement” (LifeJourney Press); and “Amazing Grace: Stories of Lesbian and Gay Faith,” which she co-edited with Malcolm Boyd. The two "Outing" books were previously published as "Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible (HarperCollins).

Her prayers and poems are included in “Race and Prayer: Collected Voices, Many Dreams,” edited by Malcolm Boyd and Chester Talton (Morehouse Press) and “Equal Rites: Lesbian and Gay Worship, Ceremonies and Celebrations,” edited by Kittredge Cherry and Zalmon Sherwood (Westminster John Knox Press).

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, right, meets MCC National Ecumenical Officer Kittredge Cherry and MCC Chief Ecumenical Officer Nancy Wilson, and an unknown woman. The MCC delegation was in Johannesburg, South Africa in January 1994, to advocate LGBT religious rights at a meeting of the World Council of Churches.

Protestors carried a sign saying, “Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual: We are Already in the Church. Let us be Open, Free” when the National Council of Churches denied observer status to Metropolitan Community Churches in November 1992 in Cleveland, Ohio. Pictured in the middle is Nancy Wilson of MCC. Photo by Kittredge Cherry.

We held protest signs and took over the microphones when the National Council of Churches denied observer status to MCC in Cleveland, Ohio, on Nov. 12, 1992. Nancy, pictured in the middle, seized the podium and said, “It’s easier to get into heaven than into the NCC!” She banged her fist on the podium so hard that it cracked. Protest signs in this photo say, “Stonewall Rises Again!!!” and “Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual: We are Already in the Church. Let us be Open, Free.” Pictured are, from left, John Taktikos of Axios (Orthodox gay and lesbian group), Nancy Wilson of MCC, and Lorna Cramer of Unitarian Universalists for Lesbian/Gay Concerns. Photo by Kittredge Cherry. RIP John Taktikos, who died of AIDS in October 1993.

MCC clergywomen met Christian feminist authors at the “Re-Imagining” conference. Left to right: Lori Dick, Virginia Mollenkott, Susan Thistlewaite, Nancy Wilson and Kittredge Cherry.

MCC clergy at “Re-Imagining: A Global Theological Conference By Women” conference Nov. 4-7, 1993 in Minneapolis included, from left, Revs. Coni Staff, Kittredge Cherry, Nancy Wilson and Lori Dick. More than 2,000 attended the conference, which was controversial for presenting female images of God, accepting LGBT people and other “heresies.”

Pictured left to right are Laurie Fox of Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns, Kittredge Cherry and Nancy Wilson at a demonstration for LGBT rights at the Christian feminist “Re-Imagining” conference Nov. 4-7, 1993 in Minneapolis.

Nancy and I sang and held a banner at a demonstration for LGBT rights at the Christian feminist “Re-Imagining” conference Nov. 4-7, 1993 in Minneapolis. Our banner says, “A Christian fellowship reaching out to gays and lesbians around the world” with the logo for Metropolitan Community Churches.

The NCC-MCC Dialogue Committee gave an official report in November 1992 in Cleveland, Ohio. We sure look miserable. Our committee tried and failed to find common ground on homosexuality. Left to right: Bishop Clinton Hoggard (African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church), Jean Marshall, Kittredge Cherry (MCC), Nancy Wilson (MCC), Laura Bailey (Disciples of Christ) and NCC staffer Eileen Lindner. Some other committee members are not pictured. RIP Bishop Hoggard, died 2002.

MCC’s delegation to the World Council of Churches 1994 meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, consisted of, from left, Kittredge Cherry, MCC ecumenical director; Sylvanus Maduka, head of MCC in Nigeria; and Nancy Wilson, MCC ecumenical officer (before she was moderator). We shocked many WCC leaders by urging them to stand up against homophobia in the church, and got a warm welcome from South African LGBT Christians.

Happy times with Kittredge Cherry, Nancy Wilson, and my spouse Audrey Lockwood in July 1993 after my ordination at MCC General Conference, Phoenix.

Nancy Wilson, left, and Kittredge Cherry advocated for LGBT rights at the World Council of Churches Assembly in Canberra, Australia in 1991. I’m wearing headphones to listen to the translation at the multilingual event. This was the first conference that I attended after being hired as Field Director of Ecumenical Witness and Ministry for MCC.

MCC’s delegation to the World Council of Churches Assembly in Canberra, Australia in 1991 included, from left, Revs. Steve Pieters, Sandi Robinson, Nancy Wilson and Kittredge Cherry.

See more of my MCC photos at these links:

Happy birthday, MCC and Desmond Tutu!  (2011)

See LGBT history in photos (2010)

Happy 40th birthday, MCC! (2008)