Category Archives: Modern Heroes

Jimmy Creech, Methodist Pioneer for LGBT Equality

On November 17, 1999 Methodist minister Jimmy Creech was stripped of his clerical status for presiding over a same-sex holy union.

In April of 1999, Creech celebrated the holy union of two men in Chapel Hill. Charges were brought against him and a church trial was held in Grand Island, Nebraska, on November 17, 1999. In August of 1998, the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church ruled that the statement prohibiting “homosexual unions” was church law in spite of its location in the Social Principles. Consequently, the jury in this second trial declared Creech guilty of “disobedience to the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church” and withdrew his credentials of ordination.
Since the summer of 1998, Creech has been travelling around the country to preach in churches and to speak on college and university campuses, as well as to various community and national Gay Rights organizations. Currently, he is writing a book about his experiences of the Church’s struggle to welcome and accept lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. He is the Chairperson of the Board of Directors of Soulforce, Inc., an interreligious movement using the principles of nonviolent resistance, taught and practiced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., to confront the spiritual violence perpetrated against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons by religious institutions.
(Read the full bio at LGBT Religious Archives)

 

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The Story of the Queer Saints and Martyrs: Synopsis

Synopsis

Prequel: Before Christianity

Studies of the animal kingdom, and of non-Western and pre-industrial societies show clearly that there is no single “natural” form for either human or animal sexuality. Homosexual activity  has been described by science for all divisions of the animal kingdom, in all periods of history, and in all regions of the world. Most religions recognise this. The monotheistic Christian religion teaches that God made us in His own image and likeness – but other religions, when they attempted to picture their many gods and goddesses, created their gods in human image and likeness, and so incorporated into their pantheon many gods who had sex with males – either divine or human.

The Hebrews’ concept of a single all-powerful God did not incorporate any concept of divine sexuality, but they did include into their Scriptures numerous passages that describe same sex loving relationships  as well as the books of the prophets who were eunuchs.

The Christian Gospels offer tantalizing hints at Jesus’ own sexuality which may have included some male love interest. However, more directly relevant to us are His teaching and example , which clearly show that His message is an inclusive one, that quite explicitly does include sexual minorities of all kinds.

After the Gospels, the most important Christian writings are the letters of Paul, who has a reputation as strongly condemning same sex behaviour – but a more careful consideration of his life as well as his letters, in their own context, can offer a different perspective.

The Early Christians.

The cultural context of the early was one where  they were political and even social outcasts, in a society of a bewildering range of attitudes to sexuality, ranging from substantial sexual licence for Roman citizens, to negligible freedom of sexual choice for slaves, to sexual abstemiousness for those influenced by Greek stoicism. The stories of queer saints that come down to us include those of martyred Roman soldiers, martyred Roman women, bishops who wrote skilled erotic poems, and (especially in the Eastern regions), cross-dressing monks.

In addition to the examples of individuals who were honoured as saints, there are also important examples from Church practice. Evidence from archaeology and written records shows clearly that from the late Roman period onwards, the Church made liturgical provision for the recognition of same sex couples. From Macedonia, there is extensive evidence of Christian same sex couples who were buried in shared graves. More telling evidence for church recognition of same sex couples comes from the existence of formal liturgical rites for blessing their unions. In the Eastern Church, these rites (known as “adelphopoeisis”)  date from the late Roman period. In the Western Church, where the evidence begins a little later, they were known as making of “sworn brothers”.

Medieval Homoeroticism

The early Middle Ages were once known as the “Dark Ages”, a disparaging term, which nevertheless is descriptive of the murky information we have about the saints: some of what is commonly believed about these saints is clearly mythical. Nevertheless, knowledge of the queer associations of saints like Patrick and Brigid of Ireland, George the dragon slayer and “Good King Wenceslas” is simple fun – and literal, historical truth or not, can provide useful material for reflection.

This period is also notable for the widespread use of specific liturgies for blessing same sex unions in Church. Even if these unions are not directly comparable with modern marriage, understanding of this recognition by the church deserves careful consideration, for the guidance it can offer the modern church on dealing with recognition for same sex relationships.

By the time of the High Middle Ages, influenced by increasing urbanization and greater familiarity with more homoerotic Muslim civilization, the earlier moderate opposition and grudging toleration of same sex love softened to a more open tolerance, with some remarkable monastic love letters with homoerotic imagery, more erotic poetry, and acceptance of open sexual relationships even for prominent bishops  and abbots – especially if they had suitable royal collections.

It was also a time of powerful women in the church, as abbesses who sometimes even had authority over their local bishops.

However, the increase in open sexual relationships among some monastic groups also led to a reaction, with some theologians starting to agitate for much harsher penalties against “sodomites”, especially among the clergy. Initially, these pleas for a harsher, anti-homosexual regime met with limited support – but bore fruit a couple of centuries later, with disastrous effects which were felt right through to the present day – and especially the twentieth century.

The Great Persecution

Symbolically, the great change can be seen as the martyrdom of Joan of Arc – martyred not for the Church, but by the Church, for reasons that combined charges of heresy with her cross-dressing. A combination of charges of heresy and “sodomy” were also the pretext for the persecution and trials of the Knights Templar – masking the naked greed of the secular and clerical powers which profited thereby. The same confusion of “sodomy” and heresy led to an expansion of the persecution from the Templars to wider group, and  also the expansion of the methods and geographic extent, culminating in the executions of thousands of alleged “sodomites” across many regions of Europe. This persecution was initially encouraged or conducted by the Inquisition, later by secular authorities alone – but conducted according to what the church had taught them was a religious justification. Even today, the belief that religion justifies homophobic violence is often given as a motivation by the perpetrators – and the fires that burned the sodomites of the fifteenth century had a tragic echo in the gay holocaust of the second world war.

Yet even at the height of the persecution, there was the paradox of a succession of  popes, who either had well-documented relationships with boys or men,  or commissioned frankly homoerotic art from renowned Renaissance artists, which continues to decorate Vatican architecture. This period exemplifies the continuing hypocrisy of an outwardly homophobic, internally.

Modern Martyrs, Modern Revival

The active persecution of sodomites by the Inquisition gradually gave way to secular prosecutions under civil law, with declining ferocity as the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment and more modern times (although executions continued until the nineteenth century). From this time on, theoretical condemnation of “sodomites” co-existed with increasing public recognition of some men who had sex with men, and records relating to queers in the church are less prominent than either earlier or later periods.  In the nineteenth century, Cardinal Newman’s request to be buried alongside Ambrose St John does not appear to have aroused any opposition.

In the twentieth century, the increasing visibility of homosexual men produced the horrifying backlash in Germany in the gay holocaust, with its echos of the medieval bonfires of heretics and sodomites – the modern gay martyrs.

Only after WWII did the Vatican begin to seriously address the question of homosexuality, with increasingly harsh judgements and attempts to silence theologians and pastors who questioned their doctrines and practice. Other denominations drove out existing gay or lesbian pastors, and refused ordination, or even church membership, to other openly gay or lesbian church members. However, these victims of church exclusion, who can be seen metaphorically as modern martyrs, martyred by the church for being true to their sexual identity,  refused to be silenced. Like St Sebastian before Emperor Maximilian, they found new ways to minister to the truth of homosexuality and Christianity.

Today, these early pioneers for queer inclusion in church have been joined by countless others, who work constantly at tasks large and small, to witness to the truth of our sexuality and gender identity, and to its compatibility with authentic Christianity. In effect, that includes all of who identify as both Christian, and simultaneously as lesbian, gay trans, or other  – and the women who refuse to accept the narrow confines of the gender roles church authorities attempt to place on us.

November 1st is the day the Church has set aside to celebrate All Saints – the recognition that sainthood is not only a matter of formally recognized and canonized saints, but is a calling to which we must all aspire. For queers in Church, it is especially a day for us to remember our modern heroes, who in facing and overcoming their attempted silencing are martyrs of the modern church – and that we, too, are called to martyrdom, in its literal sense: to bear witness, in our lives, to our truth.

Epilogue: All Saints

About “Queer Saints and Martyrs”

At my primary blog, “Queering the Church”, and at my blogger site, “Queer Saints and Martyrs (and Others)“. one of the strands I have been exploring for some years now has been the place of LGBT/queer people in Christian history.

However, I have been dissatisfied with the blogger technology(and the way I set it up originally), and am in the process of transferring the entire site here, to the WordPress platform. Continue reading About “Queer Saints and Martyrs”

Feb 22: Robert Carter, Priest and Gay Activist

Fr Robert Carter SJ died a year ago today, making Feb 22, in Catholic tradition, his “dies natale”, or day of (new) birth. He deserves to be remembered as one of the earliest activist, openly gay Catholic priests:

“Since Jesus had table fellowship with social outcasts and sinners, those rejected by the religious establishment of his time, I consider myself to have been most fully a Jesuit, a ‘companion of Jesus,’ when I came out publicly as a gay man, one of the social rejects of my time. It was only by our coming out that society’s negative stereotypes would be overcome and we would gain social acceptance.”
-Fr Robert Carter
There is no contradiction between being Catholic and gay or lesbian. Indeed, just as Robert Carter says he was most fully a Jesuit when he cane out publicly, so for many of us, we are most fully Catholic when we too come out in Church.  (I say deliberately “for many of us”, as coming out is always a deeply personal decision, which may not always be feasible for all.)

Robert Carter, Priest and Gay Activist, Dies at 82

The Rev. Robert Carter, who in the early 1970s was one of the first Roman Catholic priests in the country to declare publicly that he was gay and who helped found the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, died on Feb. 22 in the Bronx. He was 82.
Robert Carter, right, with Dan McCarthy, left, Bernard Lynch and John McNeill at a gay pride march in the early 1980s

 

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Nov 1st : All (Gay) Saints

Are there gay saints? Some sources say clearly yes, listing numerous examples. Others dispute the idea, saying either that the examples quoted are not officially recognised, or denying that they were gay because we do not know that they were sexually active. Before discussing specifically LGBT or queer saints, consider a more general question. Who are the “Saints”, and why do we recognise them?

All Saints Albrecht  Dürer

Richard McBrien gives one response, at NCR on-line:

There are many more saints in heaven than the relatively few who have been officially recognized by the church. “For every St. Francis of Assisi or St. Rose of Lima there are thousands of unknown and long forgotten mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, co-workers, nurses, teachers, manual laborers, and other individuals in various kinds of occupations who lived holy lives that were consistent with the values of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “Although each is in eternal glory, none of their names is attached to a liturgical feast, a parish church, a pious society, or any other ecclesiastical institution. The catch-all feast that we celebrate next week is all the recognition they’re ever going to receive from the church.” “The church makes saints in order to provide a steady, ever renewable stream of exemplars, or sacraments, of Christ, lest our following of Christ be reduced to some kind of abstract, intellectual exercise.

Two things are important here: the category of saints is far larger than just those who have been recognised by a formal process; and the reason for giving them honour is to provide role models. It is not inherent to the tradition of honouring the saints that they should be miracle workers, or that we should be praying to them for special favours – although three officially attested miracles will help the formal canonization process. This formal process did not even exist in the early church: it was only in the 11th or 12th centuries that saint making became the exclusive preserve of the Pope. It now becomes easier to make sense of the gay, lesbian and transvestite saints in Church history, and their importance.

For some, their official recognition is not important – all that counts is their value as role models. If they are widely seen as such, we are entitled to call them so, even without clear canonized status.

The LGBT Saints are also not limited to the distant past. The American Episcopal church recognizes two twentieth century lesbians as saints: Vida Dutton Scudder has a feast day in October, and just recently, Rev Pauli Murray was added to its book of “Holy Men, Holy Women”. In the Catholic Church, there is a strong popular move to initiate a cause for sainthood for Fr Mychal Judge, “The Saint of 9/11”. Earlier, there was a formal cause for another American, Dr Tom Dooley. That failed, apparently because of his sexuality – but when the church revises its thinking on sexuality, that cause could well be revised.

The formal canonization process, or Anglican equivalents however, are really not the point.   They are merely the public confirmation and recognition of sainthood, not its criterion. There are countless more men and women who qualify by the virtue of their lives – but whose qualities have not been publicly noted. Among LGBT Christians, there are still others who deserve attention for the opposition and persecution they have received from the institutional church – and the courage they have displayed in standing up to this modern martyrdom.

In fact, we are called to sainthood, and to witness – witness as Christians, and in honesty in our lives as lesbian, gay or trans. This is not a conflict. Numerous writers on spirituality have noted that embracing our sexuality can bring us closer to the divine, not drive us away. We can, indeed, take a rainbow bridge to God  (and sainthood) – but the the gay closet is a place of sin.

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Ramon Navarro ( 1899 – 1968), Victim of the Catholic Closet.

Ramon Navarro was once the leading Latin actor in movies after the death of Rudolph Valentino, starring in several major silent films and early talkies, in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. He was killed on October 30th by two sex-workers he had hired from an agency,  in attempt to extort from him some of his perceived, but non-existent wealth. I see this tragic death as a sad symbol of the dangers of life in the closet, which had been forced on him by the twin pressures of his conflicts over sexuality and this Catholicism, and the constraints of the Hollywood publicists.
Those of us who are able to live out and proud in spite of the Vatican’s disordered sexual teaching, are able to form sound, healthy and adult relationships. Those who live in the closet are forced to live alone in solitude, or in sham marriages – such as the system of lavender marriages imposed by Hollywood on its sex-symbol gay and lesbian stars.
Some Catholics living alone will attempt to live a strictly celibate life in accordance with Catholic teaching – some may even succeed. Many others straddle an uneasy divide, between attempted celibacy, and sexual encounters in the closet. Especially for older men, sometimes the only feasible outlets are the seedier ones, in public toilets, or with commercial trade.  Both can be dangerous.
Ramon Navarro resisted the Hollywood pressure to enter a Hollywood marriage, and for a time was able to sustain a meaningful, but closeted relationship with his publicist, Herbert Howe, until the latter’s death in 1959.

Some years later, in October 1969, he hired two brothers, Paul and Tom Ferguson (aged 22 and 17, respectively), to come to his home for sex.  Mistakenly believing that there was a large sum of money in the house, the two then assaulted and tortured Navarro for some hours, hoping to force him to reveal the whereabouts of the cash. They eventually left with just $20. Navarro died of asphyxiation, having choked on his own blood.

It is probable that what most offends opponents of the “gay lifestyle” is its association in their minds with the kind of anonymous, impersonal sexual activities that take place in public toilets, backroom bars and in commercial transactions. What they fail to observe, is that these are less typical of gay men in open and publicly affirmed partnerships, than of those who remain closeted. 
 
The best way to reduce the seedier, and more dangerous, elements in gay lives, is to support marriage equality.




Raymond Navarro. Wikipedia
Film Actors, Gay Male, glbtq encyclopedia