The cultural context of the early Christians was one of stark contrasts with more recent times. Then, it was Christians who were political and even social outcasts, more recently Christian values underpin much of the laws and customs of Western societies. Then, there were 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. By the early twentieth century, heterosexual monogamy had become entrenched as orthodoxy, and it was sexual not religious non-compliance with majority attitudes and customs that had become rejected and persecuted. Modern queer Christians, suffering rejection and persecution by the churches, have a lot in common with all the early Christians – but particularly with some who can reasonably be regarded as “queer” (but not necessarily as gay or lesbian, in modern terminology).
The stories of queer saints that come down to us include those of pairs of martyred Roman soldiers and lovers, martyred Roman women, bishops who wrote skilled erotic poems, and (especially in the Eastern regions) a number of cross-dressing monks who were biologically female, but lived as men in male monasteries. .
Felicity and Perpetua (d. 203), a Roman woman and her devoted slave, who were martyred together, and whose names used to feature amongst the saints listed in the Eucharistic Prayer of the Catholic Mass.
Polyeuct and Nearchos (d. circa 250), two Roman soldiers and lovers, martyred together for their Christian faith.
Sergius and Bacchus (d. 303), like Polyeuct and Nearchos, these were also two Roman soldiers and lovers, martyred together for their Christian faith – and by far the best known of all the gay saints.
Paulinus of Nola (d. 431), a Bishop and missionary who is still honoured by the Church for the quality of his devotional verse, but whose output also included frankly homoerotic verse addressed to his friend, Ausonius.
Galla and Benedicta (d. 550), two Roman nuns.
Symeon of Emessa and John (d. 588), desert hermits, saints and lovers (but not necessarily in a sexual sense)
Venantius Fortunatus (d. circa 600/609). Like Paulinus of Nola, a bishop who wrote good quality poetry, including verse in homoerotic language.
Then there were the cross-dressing monks. It’s debatable whether these can reasonably be thought of as in any way similar to modern transwomen, but what we can say is that they chose to live as men, in male monasteries, and not in female equivalents.
Also from this period, are some saints whose names are familiar and much loved, but for whom the historical evidence is shaky on detail, with some popular beliefs certainly unfounded. Associated with their names, is at least some evidence for same – sex loving relationships.
The sexual connections may be historically uncertain, but they are at least as reliable as the best known “facts” about St Patrick, that he chased the snakes out of Ireland, and used the shamrock to explain the nature of the Trinity.
So these may not be reliably thought of as “queer” saints – or they may. We don’t really know, but in either case, there are useful lessons in their stories for modern gay and lesbian Christians to reflect on.
St George the dragon slayer (d. 303)
Patrick of Ireland (d. 493 ), who after escaping from early slavery, returned to Ireland as a young missionary – and may have paid for his crossing by offering sexual services to the sailors.
Brigid of Ireland (d. 525) had a beloved female soul – mate. Read about her at Jesus in Love blog.
- Boisvert, Donald: Sanctity And Male Desire: A Gay Reading Of Saints
- Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the 14th Century
- Boswell, John: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe
- O’Neill, Denis: Passionate Holiness: Marginalized Christian Devotions for Distinctive People