Francis of Assisi (d. 1226)

At Jesus in Love, Kittredge Cherry has uncovered more ground-breaking work on opening up the previously hidden history of queer elements in the lives of the saints – in this case, Francis of Assisi, whose feast day was yesterday, October 4th. The evidence she has quoted, comes from an unpublished master’s thesis “Gender Liminality in the Franciscan Sources” by the Franciscan scholar, Kevin Elphick.

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220)

Reference to “queer” elements in the story and example of Francis are not intended as equivalent to the modern term “gay”, which would be completely anachronisitic, or to imply any specific sexual activity. We must always remember that although some writers use “queer” loosely as a synonym for gay and lesbian, or for the acronym LGBT, in fact it’s application in queer studies, and in queer theology, is much broader. Correctly used, the term does not refer to any specific sexual orientation or gender identity, but to a complete rejection of arbitrary definitions for sexuality or gender. In this sense, it is about breaking down boundaries – including boundaries outside of sex and gender, such as ethnicity, race or class.

So it is, that the Gospel message of radical inclusion and equality for all, is intrinsically a very queer one indeed. The theologian Robert Goss, who is identified by Elisabeth Stuart as initiating the transition from gay and lesbian theology to queer theology, rooted his thinking firmly in Christology, as indicated by the titles of two of his books, “Jesus Acted Up“, and “Queering Christ“.  St Francis of Assisi is renowned for his passionate commitment to embracing this Gospel message of breaking down boundaries, and an embrace of a materially simple life in imitation of Christ’s own. To see him as “queer” in this broadest sense, follows naturally.

The queer identity of both Francis and Christ, his model, is neatly illustrated in an image posted by Kittredge, of Francis embracing a Jesus with AIDS, on the cross. I quote here Kittredge’s description of Francis, and of the image:

Francis was born to a wealthy Italian family in 1181 or 1182. As a young man he renounced his wealth, even stripping off his clothes, and devoted himself to a life of poverty in the service of Christ. He connected with nature, calling all animals “brother” and “sister” and celebrating them in his famous Canticle of the Sun.

He saw the face of Christ in lepers, the most reviled outcasts of his time, and nursed them with compassion. William Hart McNichols puts Francis’ ministry into a contemporary context by showing him embracing a gay Jesus with AIDS in “St. Francis ‘Neath the Bitter Tree,” pictured here. Words on the cross proclaim that Christ is an “AIDS leper” as well as a “drug user” and “homosexual,” outcast groups at high risk for getting AIDS. The two men gaze intently at each other with unspeakable love as Francis hugs the wounded Christ. It was commissioned in 1991 by a New Jersey doctor who worked with AIDS patients, and is discussed in the book Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More by Kittredge Cherry.

“St. Francis ‘Neath the Bitter Tree”
By William Hart McNichols © fatherbill.org

Kittredge’s post goes further, noting that Elphick’s thesis shows how some aspects of Francis’ life were “queer” even in a narrower sense, breaking down gender boundaries in particular, applying female terms to men, and male terms to some women admitted as brothers in the male community (a reminder here, of the  earlier biologically female saints who lived as men, in male monasteries).

Other Franciscan friars referred to Francis as “Mother” during his lifetime. He also liked to be greeted as “Lady Poverty.” He encouraged his friars to live as mothers with children when in hermitage together, and used other gender-bending metaphors to describe the spiritual life.

Francis allowed a widow to enter the male-only cloister, naming her “Brother Jacoba.” (Details about Jacoba are at the end of this article.) His partner in ministry was a woman, Clare of Assisi, and he cut her hair in a man’s tonsured style when she joined his male-only religious order.

Jesus in Love

There is also evidence of an emotionally intense relationship with another man, described in the earliest known biography of Francis, by one of the saints own followers, who knew him personally:Francis allowed a widow to enter the male-only cloister, naming her “Brother Jacoba.” (Details about Jacoba are at the end of this article.) His partner in ministry was a woman, Clare of Assisi, and he cut her hair in a man’s tonsured style when she joined his male-only religious order.

 “Now there was a man in the city of Assisi whom Francis loved more than any other, and since they were of the same age and their constant association and ties of affection emboldened Francis to share his secret with him, he would often take this friend off to secluded spots where they could discuss private matters and tell him that he had chanced upon a great and precious treasure. His friend was delighted and, intrigued by what he had heard, he gladly accompanied Francis wherever he asked. There was a cave near Assisi where the two friends often went to talk about this treasure.”

Thomas of Celano, quoted at Jesus in Love

Elphick is careful to describe this relationship  as “homoaffectional”, and not as “gay”:

“The relationship is inescapably homoaffectional, describing a shared intimacy between two Medieval men. That this first companion disappears from the later tradition is cause for suspicion and further inquiry…. The tone in Celano’s earliest account captures the flavor and intimacy of this relationship, perhaps too much so for an increasingly homophobic church and society.”

Kevin Elphick, quoted at Jesus in Love

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