Trans in Faith: Some Cross-Dressing Saints & Martyrs.

For Trans in Faith Awareness Week,  I want to look again at the memory of the trans saints and martyrs in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. By definition, those who die for their faith are known as “martyrs”, from the Greek for “to bear witness”.  In this extended sense, one can give witness, and thus be a “martyr” without undergoing actual death – but given the courage it must take to live publicly a trans identity, I suggest that all openly trans people, of whatever form, are constantly giving witness, and are in a sense living martyrs, so we should also recognise and honour the living, courageous trans people around us, and in the wider world.

Joan of Arc,

I start with Joan of Arc, visionary, cross-dressing military hero, burned as a heretic, and now a recognized martyr and canonized saint, who is remembered annually on My 30th. (Note that although burned as a “heretic”, the words for heresy and sodomy were often used interchangeably at that time. Some scholars believe that the specific heresy for which she was accused and sentenced was precisely her cross-dressing).

From the first time I wrote about her, I noted that Joan has a particularly important place in the pantheon of queer saints. Historically, her martyrdom coming at just about the point where medieval tolerance and even celebration of same-sex affection or homoerotic love turned to outright persecution. From a modern perspective, she is an inspiration as a reminder of how someone who was once persecuted by the Church for difference, can later be honoured. The Vatican approved theologians can be wrong, and the prophetic voices calling out their errors may in time be proved right.  Now, even Pope Benedict agrees with me: he made exactly the same point recently, when talking about St Joan.

SS Sergius & Bacchus, Roman Soldiers, Lovers – Saints & Martyrs (October 7th)

sergius-bacchus2The best known of the supposed gay saints, Sergius & Bacchus, were a pair of Roman soldiers and supposed lovers who were martyred in the 4th century, and later recognised as saints.

There are two problems with this.In the first place, the historical facts are not absolutely agreed.  While they are historical figures, it is not entirely certain that they were lovers, nor are the reasons for their execution entirely clear. Nor is their status as saints beyond dispute.  The modern criteria and process for canonisation are well-established, but this was not so in the early church, when the process was informal, by a process of popular acclaim.
The entry in the Advent Catholic Encyclopedia accepts their status as saints and martyrs, with a joint feast day of October 7th, but I have seen entries for Sergius & Bacchus in one modern reference book on Catholic saints,  another stated that they have been ‘purged’ from the list of recognised saints, together many others from the remoter past, as having insufficient foundation for that status. (Catholic Online states that their ‘cult’ was suppressed in 1969.)

see also here

Faithful Dissent, or Myopic Obedience?

It is surely obvious to anyone who has given more than a cursory look to the problems of abuse in the Church, that a major part of the causes of the cover-ups, secrecy and protection of offenders that we have seen in the past, comes the insitutional culture which demands unquestioning loyalty and obedience to the hierarchy of control. (This of course is in sharp contrast to the Church’s own teaching on secular law. Where a law or governing regime is unjust and brings harm to the innocent, we are clearly told to oppose it. ) The Church however, has never been much given to applying to itself the standards it expects of others.

Fortunately, we are starting to see some small glimmers of resistance and breaking of ranks within the clergy. Mostly, this has been mild, or expressed behind closed doors. Now we have one brave priest who has spoken out unequivocally, stating that he does not believe that Benedict XVI is speaking the truth about his own past record, and that he needs to resign to restore the confidence of Catholics in the Church. He has done so, moreover in the most appropriate, public manner possible: in a Sunday sermon during Mass.

The Rev. James J. Scahill greeted people after Sunday’s Mass. (Michele Mcdonald for The New York Times)

The Rev. James J. Scahill has been in trouble with the “hierarchy” before, over his public stance against official cover-ups and protection of offenders, but this is going a whole lot further. He  understands very clearly the obvious risk he is taking, but believes that in conscience, he has no choice.  This is clearly in accordance with the Church position that I was taught in apartheid South Africa on dissent in conscience from injustice,  but I don’t suppose that is how the men in control of the Church will see it.  How will they react?

Epaminondas: Military Hero, Democrat & Liberator, Cultured Statesman. Gay.

Epaminondas lived before the Christian era, outside the Jewish tradition, and has no claim whatsoever to be treated as a “saints in any literal sense. However, taking the term much more loosely, including those we might consider as role models, he clearly fits the bill. If that doesn’t suit you, think of him as included in the “others” of my title.

Together with his lover Pelopidas, Epaminondas was one of the celebrated “Sacred Band of Thebes”, a military company of 150 pairs of lovers. That’s right, an army band where it was compulsory to be gay – and partnered. We usually think of the Spartans as the most military of the Greek cities, and with good reason. While Athens (and some other cities following them) valued democracy, philosophy and intellectual life generally, young Spartans were educated for one thing only – war. After Sparta had convincingly beaten Athens and her allies in the Peloponnesian War, the victors extinguished democracy in the vanquished cities, and placed their allies in command as local despots.

In the case of Thebes, they met strong resistance from the defenders of democracy, in the form of the band of male lovers. Founded initially by Georgidas, on the principle that men never fight more bravely than when fighting to protect and support their loved ones alongside them, the founding proposition was soon confirmed. In their first engagement with the Spartan enemy, victors in the recent Peloponnesian war, the new company of Theban lovers overcame a Spartan army of two to three times their number, and were able to reinstate democracy in their city.

Epaminondaswas initially somewhat hidden in the shadow of his friend Pelopidas, who succeeded Georgidas as leader just a year after the band was founded. Together, they won many famous victories. Later, overshadowing his friend, he found the more enduring fame, and for many notable qualities beyond his illustrious military career.

After assisting in the re-establishment of democracy in Thebes, he developed a career as an orator and statesman as well as a soldier. Although he was instrumental in defeating Sparta in establishing Thebes as the dominant geek power, he refused to use this power to to subject other cities to Theban domination and pillage, so that he was known as a military liberator, not a conqueror. Many scholars have described him as Greece’s greatest warrior-statesman. Diodorus Siculus wrote that he excelled all the others in valour and military shrewdness – but also in “eloquence of speech, elevation of mind, contempt of lucre, and fairness…”.

The Romans also admired him, although less enthusiastic about his cultural achievements. Cornelius Nepos included him in his Book o Great Commanders, but found it necessary to excuse his reputation as a musician and dancer on the grounds that the Greeks had a fondness for these pursuits. He “praises without reservation Epaminondas’ intellectual and athletic prowess, and finds he meets roman standards of temperance, prudence and seriousness….. and was such a lover of truth that he never lied, even in jest.” .

He died in 362, in a battle which once again defeated the Spartans, but also ended Epaminondas’ own life.

This could be my kind of guy – accomplished, virtuous, a democrat and liberator – and good-looking. Except that he lived about two millennia too soon, he could easily be seen as a great Renaissance man. My only objection? Surely he’s just too good to be true. Yet this is the picture that comes down to us from the ancients.

And to think that men of this calibre are not permitted to serve openly in the US army.

(Source: The material above condenses a passage from “Homosexuality & Civilization” by Louis Crompton, which makes an excellent and stimulating introduction to the history of homosexuality.)

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What About the Women?

One of the few features of the Vatican responses to the abuse scandal that I can agree with, is that it is incorrect to speak of widespread “pedophilia”, or “child” abuse. They point out, quite correctly, that much of the abuse is not against young children, but against adolescents, and so is more correctly described as “ephebophilia”. Here, though, I part company with the Vatican apologists:  the higher age makes he allegations different, but still indefensible. Abuse remains abuse, whatever the age of the victim, and to take sexual advantage of another from a position of power remains abuse, even if there has been nominal consent.  But it doesn’t stop even there.  The victims of abuse are not just young and adolescent boys, or young boys and girls, but also include many adults, especially religious women and male seminarians. I have written on this before, but have been disappointed that in the present close attention to the worldwide problems of abuse, little has been written elsewhere about the widespread abuse of adults. We should remember that one the accusations against one of the of the most notorious alleged miscreants, Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado of the Legionnaries of Christ, was that he abused both women (with whom he fathered children), and male seminarians, as well as his own children. Before the current uproar led to the resignations of a handful of Irish bishops, the few other bishops to have resigned over abuse were some who had themselves been found to have had sexual affairs, invited or otherwise,  with adults. There have also been numerous reports that some leaders of female religious houses, especially in Africa, have pleadedd wiht their local bishops for protection from predatory priests, usually meeting with little success.

Marcial Maciel Degollado with his patron and protector, JPII

Now, a worthwhile piece by Angelina Bonavoglio at Huffington Post goes some way to correct that imbalance.  This deals only with the adult women, not the seminarians, but it’s a start.