Queer Saints and Martyrs

Aelred of Rievaulx, patron saint of friendship. Joan of Arc, patron saint of France. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of Italy and of animals. They’re just three of the best-known saints who are also revered for their queer characteristics.

They join the company of Sebastian, patron saint of homosexuality, Paul the Apostle, who may have struggled with homosexual desires, and John the Evangelist, who was possibly the “Beloved Disciple” of Jesus — who are also venerated by queer Christians for a variety of reasons.

This All Saints’ Day — and in honor of All Souls’ Day — here’s a look at the idea that there are saints and martyrs of Christianity who were either gender non-conforming, or who exhibited strong same-sex bonds or attractions — or who simply struggled with what may have been homosexual desire.

All Saints’ Day, or the Feast of All Saints, is the Christian celebration commonly observed on November 1st in honor of all the saints, known and unknown. All Souls’ Day, commonly observed on November 2nd, is also known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed and the Day of the Dead, a day of prayer and remembrance for those who have died.

There’s also the Day of the Dead holiday celebrated in Mexico and elsewhere that is associated with the Roman Catholic celebrations of both All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day; as such it bridges both days and is known for its emphasis on family and friends — both the departed and the ones that the holiday emphasizes spending time with.

While it’s empowering and revealing to contemplate the queerness of Christian figures from history or the Bible itself, it comes with a massive caveat that the notion of queer identity is a largely modern one that wouldn’t have resonated for pre-modern people the way it does for us today. Instead, what we’re left with is sacred scripture and a historical record that we view with a modern lens.

And when it comes to queer-revered saints such as Sebastian, it’s important to understand that when we say he is regarded as the patron saint of homosexuality, it’s not because of anything he did while alive, but merely because of his longstanding popularity with gay men. Much of this veneration is due to the “sheer sensuality of his portrayals,” as author Kittredge Cherry puts it in her essay about Sebastian on QSpirit.net, where she maintains an evergreen archive about LGBTQ saints and martyrs as well as other historical, spiritual, religious and artistic figures of interest to LGBTQA people.

In addition to her scholarship on the lives of queer saints and martyrs, Cherry’s website includes a Litany of Queer Saints, an All Saints Day LGBTQIA+ Community Prayer of Thanks, Reflection and Courage — and an LGBT-friendly memorial for All Saints, All Souls and Day of the Dead.

Among the “alternative” saints and martyrs on her list: Father Mychal Judge, Harvey Milk, Pauli Murray, Henri Nouwen, Bayard Rustin, Matthew Shepard and the “Saints of Stonewall”: Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson and Storme DeLarverie.

And finally, high on her list of paired martyr-saints venerated for having same-sex romantic ties are the three primary pairs named by Yale history professor John Boswell in his book Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe: Sergius and Bacchus, Polyuect and Nearchus, and Perpetua and Felicity.

Whether you approach the subject of queer saints and martyrs from a scholarly perspective or a purely fanciful one, there’s a treasure trove of resources to take you wherever your curiosity leads you — making for a lively and queer-centric exploration of Christian history.

On this All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, blessed be the memories of all saints, martyrs and departed souls, and may they pray for us.