Category Archives: Transgender

Queer Francis of Assisi: Breaking Boundaries

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 The evidence she has quoted, comes from an unpublished master’s thesis “Gender Liminality in the Franciscan Sources” by the Franciscan scholar, Kevin Elphick.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 ©

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

St. Joan of Arc

Among all the multitude of queer saints,  Joan of Arc is one of the most important. In her notorious martyrdom for heresy (a charge which in historical context included reference to her cross-dressing and defiance of socially approved gender roles), she is a reminder of the great persecution of sexual and gender minorities by the Inquisition, directly or at their instigation. In LGBT Christian history, “martyrs” applies not only to those martyred by the church, but also to those martyred by the church. In her rehabilitation and canonization, she is a reminder that the leaders and theologians of the church, those who were responsible for her prosecution and conviction, can be wrong, can be pronounced to be wrong, and can in time have their judgements overturned.(This is not just a personal view. Pope Benedict has made some very pointed remarks of his own to this effect, while speaking about Joan of Arc).  In the same way, it is entirely possible (I believe likely) that the current dogmatic verdict of Vatican orthodoxy which condemns our relationships will also in time be rejected.  We may even come to see some of the pioneers of gay theology, who have in effect endured a kind of professional martyrdom for their honesty and courage, rehabilitated and honoured by the Church, just as St Joan has been.

Joan of Arc Iinterrogation by the Bishop  of Winchester (Paul Delaroche, 1797 -1856)
Joan of Arc:  Interrogation by the Bishop  of Winchester (Paul Delaroche, 1797 -1856)

Joan of Arc is the best known cross-dresser in history, defying gender expectations to lead an army, and lead it to victory in the service of her country.  This much is well known, and immediately qualifies her as a trans hero (or heroine.  Take  your pick.) What of the ret of us? Well, remember her story in the church as well as the battlefield:  she was burned as a heretic, before her later rehabilitation and eventual canonization. Now recall the association of heresy and “sodomy”.

John Boswell has clearly shown that the religious opposition to homoerotic relationships was not based in scripture, nor was it deeply entrenched in the early church. Instead, the opposition of the church followed, not led, popular intolerance that grew with the decline in urbanisation after the sack of Rome.  This growth in intolerance was not only directed at homosexuals, but also at other social outsiders – jews, gypsies and “heretics”. Writers such as Mark D Jordan and Allan Bray have since shown how the very word “sodomite”, now widely used  as a pejorative epithet against gay males, was a late medieval coinage which was originally used far more loosely and indiscriminately, often including ay other form of sexual non-conformism – or heresy.

So what was the crime of “heresy” of which she was accused? Well, nominally it was based on her claim to have seen “visions” which inspired her to follow her path of resistance to the foreign invaders.  But note the nationality of her accusers:  it was not the French Church which tried and judged her, but the English Bishops:  countrymen of the army she had opposed and defeated. Was her crime to have experienced visions, or was it to have opposed the English?

Joan of Arc

Consider that which has made her most famous, iconic as an historic figure:  the cross-dressing.  This was a clear violation of her expected gender role, and may have been described by some as “sodomy” – which was closely related to heresy.  I have recently seen a claim (sadly, I have no link) that the real reason for her trial and execution was this cross-dressing.  If so, she is the first Christian martyr we know of who was executed not just executed and was gay, but executed because of her gender expression. However, there is of course a happy ending: she was later rehabilitated, and canonized. Now consider the obvious moral for us as GLBT Christians today.

Joan had a “vision”, an apparition of Mary. There are also other kinds of vision, some more mundane, more political, of the Martin Luther King “I have a dream”.  In this sense, many of us too have a vision, a dream, of proper inclusion and acceptance in the Christian churches, where we belong with everybody else, on the strength of the promises of Christ.

Joan was persecuted by the church authorities, condemned and executed.  We are not (directly) executed by the church today, but we are certainly condemned and persecuted, labelled as “fundamentally disordered”, and told that if we simply live truthfully in our god-given sexuality,we are committing “grave sin”.  Worse, by the clear failure to take a strong stand against civil laws and proscriptions, as for example the failure to sign the UN resolution on the decriminalisation of homosexuality early this year, the Church is indirectly giving support to some forces that do actively seek our death.

But in the end, she was vindicated.  We have not yet seen that development, but I am certain it will come. It is required by the Gospel of inclusion and social justice, it is also required by the internal logic of theology. James Alison has recently noted that theology will in time be forced to face up to the plain finings of science that  same sex relationships are not unnatural, just uncommon.  They have occurred throughout history, in many societies, and across the animal kingdom. Theologians will be slow to catch up, but they will, and we too will be vindicated.

St Joan of Arc and the queer community: we have a lot in common.

Further reading;

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