LGBT saints are important because people are searching for alternative ways to lead loving lives. Churches have tried to control people by burying queer history. The LGBT saints show us not only their place in history, but also our place—because we are all saints who are meant to embody love. We can tap into the energy of our ancestors in faith.
For some, LGBT saints become friends and helpers, working miracles as simple as a reminding us that “you are not alone.”
On All Saints Day, I offer reflections on what I have learned by writing more than 40 profiles in the LGBT Saints Series over the past two years. This is my queer theology of sainthood.
At first I thought that LGBT saints were rare. Gradually I came to see that they are everywhere throughout all time and they are among us now. We have all met saints in our lives. They are ordinary people who are also extraordinary.
Most mainstream churches would not canonize any saints who were openly LGBT, so we must claim our own saints. It’s important to re-evaluate familiar figures as well as to recover those who have been lost and recognize the saints of our own time.
Traditional stories of the saints tend to be overly pious, presenting idealized super-heroes who seem distant and irrelevant. Saints have been used to get people to passively accept oppressive situations. Too often the saints have been put on a pedestal to glorify virginity and masochistic suffering. The emphasis on miracles disrespects nature, the ongoing miracle of life.
Feminists have criticized saints as tools of the dominant morality, but for me the opposite is true: LGBT saints can shake up the status quo. We can restore the complex reality of saints whose lives are being hijacked by the hierarchy to enforce the status quo.
Queer saints can help reclaim the wholeness, connecting sexuality and spirituality for the good of all.
I began writing about LGBT saints after finishing a series of books on the queer Christ (Jesus in Love novels and Art That Dares). Many people told me that they couldn’t relate to a gay Jesus, but they liked the idea that his followers were LGBT.
Church leaders have used saints to impose control from the top down, but the desire for saints springs naturally from the grassroots. People are drawn to the presence of spiritual power in the lives of the saints, and their willingness to use that power for others, even at great cost to themselves. Saints attract others with the quality of their love, even though their personal lives may not be “saintly.”
I was aware of new research and art about LGBT saints, so I was shocked to discover that it was not easily available online. Largely due to church’s crackdown on LGBT spirituality, much of it was buried under obscure code names like “images that challenge”—if it was available on the Internet at all.
As an independent blogger, I am free to put LGBT saints out there where more people can find and benefit from them. I decided to uncover and highlight holy heroes and role models to inspire LGBT people of faith and our allies.
The positive response quickly affirmed that people are hungry to connect with queer people of faith who have gone before.
My definition of who qualifies as a “LGBT saint” continues to expand. First I included saints officially canonized by the church, but I soon discovered that many have achieved “sainthood” by popular acclaim. The church didn’t even have a formal canonization process for its first 1,000 years. Ultimately all believers, living and dead, can be called “saints,” a practice that began in the early church. Yes, we are all saints!
Dictionaries define a saint as “a holy person” or “an extremely virtuous person.” I rather like the concept of sainthood that emerged in comments on this blog during a discussion of the post “Artist shows sensuous gay saints.”
Atlanta artist Trudie Barreras wrote: “My definition of saint has absolutely nothing to do with what the hierarchical church defines, and everything to do with the quality of love displayed.” Or, as gay author Toby Johnson commented, “Being a saint means creating more love in the world.”
Sainthood comes in many different forms. Some become saints by leading an exemplary life, but the surest path to sainthood is to risk or lose one’s for the good of others. As Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13). Martyrs, from the Greek word for “to bear witness,” are a common type of saint.
Whether or not they died as martyrs, the lives of the saints were indeed difficult.
Our lives are difficult too—and that can become a point of connection. Like today’s LGBT Christians, the saints sometimes faced opposition from within the church. Some martyrs, including cross-dresser Joan of Arc, were killed not for the church, but by the church!
If the boundaries of sainthood are slippery, then the definition LGBT is even more fluid. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer did not exist as categories throughout most of the history in which the saints lived. A convenient way around this dilemma is to say that LGBT saints are those of special interest to LGBT people and our allies.
Some deny the existence of historical LGBT saints because it’s almost impossible to prove their sexual activity. However, same-sex love does not have to be sexually consummated for someone to be honored as an LGBT saint. Deep love between two people of the same gender is enough.
Homosexuality is more than sexual conduct. The American Psychological Association defines sexual orientation as “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions.”
The dominant Christian culture tried to suppress overt homosexuality, so any hint of homosexuality that survives in the historical record should be given extra significance. Many official saints were nuns or monks living in same-gender convents or monasteries. Naturally their primary emotional attachments were to people of the same gender.
Soon almost all saints seem LGBT!
Let us be inspired by the LGBT saints who surround us as a “great cloud of witnesses” and commit ourselves to our own queer paths toward sainthood.
Image: “Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven” by Fra Angelico (1428-30), via Wikimedia Commons
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints