Painting Perpetua & Felicity: Patron Saints Of Same-Sex Couples

by Rev . Dr. Angela Yarber

In the current political climate, many claim that LGBTQ folks have achieved full equality since same-sex marriage was dubbed legal in 2015.

I remember celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision as my wife, toddler, and I packed up our home and set off on a year-long journey volunteering throughout the country. We left the day after the court announced its decision, so we had already made copies of our marriage license (from Maryland before North Carolina recognized the legality of our love), two separate adoption decrees because our state did not recognize us as a family when my wife first adopted our child a brief 20 months prior, and all of the other legal paperwork that we could use to “prove” the legitimacy of our family in the case of an emergency (if medical staff wouldn’t permit us both to be in a hospital room with our child, for example).

With those files copied and stored neatly in a suitcase, everything changed for us.

Now, no matter what state we visit, our family is legally recognized. One year later, we returned to North Carolina and waiting for us in the mail was our child’s newly printed birth certificate, this time—finally—bearing both of our names as legal parents.

Our child will turn three next month. For almost three years I was not legally considered my child’s mother. Even after the court’s ruling, throughout our travels, before this final birth certificate was printed, I was merely the “second adult” in the home. Not mama. Not wife. Second adult. Now, it seems, all of this has changed.

Yet we know that the legality of the court’s decision doesn’t automatically change the hearts and minds of everyone in the country.

Heteronormativity still reigns supreme.

While we rejoiced at the ruling, we simultaneously acknowledged that marriage equality is only one small step in dismantling straight supremacy. Though countless couples can now marry, receiving all the legal rights and privileges therein, many may still live in states that allow LGBTQ people to be fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity, where housing may be denied, where hate crime protections do not include sexual orientation or gender identity, and the list could continue.

And that doesn’t even begin to address the blatant homophobia and discrimination preached from bully pulpits across the country who damn LGBTQs to hell, sermons fuming with violent rhetoric pointed directly at the lives of queer folk.

Last summer, before the ruling and before the move, I painted two saints, martyrs from the Christian tradition, two fearless black women often described as queer: Perpetua and Felicity. I first learned of Perpetua and Felicity on Kittredge Cherry’s blog, Jesus in Love. Now they join my other Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist.

Perpetua and Felicity were North African women arrested for being Christian in the third century.

Imprisoned together, there are stories that the two women—described as “dear friends”—held one another and kissed in their final moments before death on March 7, 203.

Perpetua kept a diary, which is acknowledged as one of the first written documents by a woman in church history. Though Perpetua was married, her husband is conspicuously absent in her journals. Instead, it is filled with thoughts of Felicity.

The famous historian who first bridged the seeming divide between the church and “homosexuality,” John Boswell, named Perpetua and Felicity as one of the three primary pairs of same-sex lovers in the early church. It is impossible to know whether these bold women were lovers, but we do know that a history of heteronormativity has codified thousands of years of details where lovers were remembered as “dear friends,” “companions,” “roommates,” their lives and loves unrecognized until, well, June 26, 2015 (in the United States, that is). Amidst this sullied history, Perpetua and Felicity have been lifted up as the Patron Saint of Same Sex Couples.

Because when images of your relationship are nowhere to be found, when your love and commitment to another is questioned, politicized, invalidated, and regulated, the importance of gazing at an icon that boldly and unapologetically reflects your life and love cannot be underestimated.

Not only is it your love real, it is also sacred.

As our hearts break and mend, only to break and mend again, the united heart of Perpetua and Felicity beats bold and true. Centered on the canvas, as the two women embrace one another, their heart cries out to us:

Comfort, love, and a holy kiss
Bound their hearts in
The moment of death,
Embracing so that all
May embrace

In the face of death, Perpetua and Felicity held true, reminding us that queer love has something important to teach the church. You may try to kill our love with words and actions of exclusion, discrimination, and violence. But our tradition teaches us that love will rise again. So, too, will we.

Artwork by Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber

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