In LGBTQ History Month it’s worth recognizing how difficult it is not to read modern prejudices or hopes back into the lives of famous characters. Before the 19th-century category of sexual orientation labelled “homosexuality” was invented there wasn’t a way to categorize those we’d today expect were, or we’d consider, lesbian, gay, transgender, or queer.
The creation and subsequent demonization of modern categories of sexual orientation and gender identity that aren’t straight enough by today’s definitions has raised complaints about what has been ignored about LGBTQ people in history.
But it’s also invoked negative responses to the reexamining of historical documents without modern homophobic reactions, responses that expend a lot of effort trying to prove that those examples weren’t really lovers but “friends, brothers, sisters” who expressed their love more intimately than siblings and friends would in today’s apparently more homophobic cultures.
LGBTQ History Month — interestingly and to the chagrin of many “traditional” Christianists — has four feast days for recognized “saints” in the pre-homophobic worship patterns of Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches who non-homophobic evaluation suggests we’d call LGBTQ saints today.
October 8 is the feast day of Saint Pelagia(os) the Penitent; October 9 is the feast day of Saint Athanasia (Athanasios) of Antioch; and October 29 is the feast day of Saint Anna the New (renamed Euphemianos) of Constantinople.
But first we come upon October 7, the traditional feast day of Sergius and Bacchus, two male saints depicted throughout the long history of their veneration as lovingly committed to each other in a depth unquestioned until the rise of that modern category of “homosexual” and the reactionary need to deny that they were lovers by those worried that the long-venerated duo might qualify.
This fourth-century same-sex couple was particularly popular throughout the Mediterranean area. For nearly a thousand years Sergius and Bacchus were the heavenly protectors and official patrons of the Byzantine army. References to their relationship were regularly invoked in rituals for same-sex partnerships.
As with so much purported “history” of saints and martyrs, we have little basis for authenticating the details of the historical claims made in the highly stylized and idealized devotional literature about these two. Like the other martyrs, so much is later, over-worked, and unverifiable.
What we can say is that this loving couple was taken seriously enough to be revered down through history as well as to have shrines built to them. The tomb of Sergius at Resafa became a famous shrine. In the year 431, Bishop Alexander of Hierapolis built a magnificent church in his honor.
In 434, the town of Resafa was raised to the rank of an episcopal see and was named Sergiopolis. Later, Emperor Justinian I enlarged and fortified it and it became one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the East.
The construction of a Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Istanbul in 527, was one of the first acts of the reign of Justinian I. In fact, another legend says that both saints appeared to Emperor Justin, Justinian’s uncle, to save Justinian by vouching for Justinian’s innocence in a plot against the throne.
Parts of Sergius’ relics were transferred to Venice where these saints were patrons of the ancient cathedral. And by the ninth century a church had been dedicated to them both in Rome.
Their “Acts” have been retold down through history and preserved in Latin, Greek, and Syriac. Though they’re said to have been martyred in the fourth century, the Greek text known as The Passion of Sergius and Bacchus is probably from a century later.
Sergius and Bacchus were military men of high rank according to the legend. Thus, they are not only examples of paired saints but of an ideal in the broader popular lore of the intimate male-male relationships between soldiers and warriors that has fascinated many cultures for ages. See, for just one example, the love of the Biblical warrior pair, David and Jonathan.
The received text is full of stylized and patterned material not unlike that found in the plethora of legends of Christian martyrs, but the details of the days of their torture and deaths emphasize not only their religious faith but the intimacy of their relationship.
Because they refused to worship Roman gods and extolled the Christ of Christianity, they were first humiliated by being paraded on the journey to their ultimate deaths in women’s clothing. Then they were separated and tortured with Bacchus murdered first.
That foundational text says that while Sergius waited in his cell the night following Bacchus’ death, Bacchus appeared to him, telling Sergius not to lose heart for not only were the joys of heaven greater than any suffering he would endure but that his reward would be to reunite with Bacchus in heaven.
Notice how the gist of the message Bacchus brings is framed in the text that’s been passed down through history in terms of the loss of each other:
Why do you grieve and mourn, brother? If I have been taken from you in body, I am still with you in the bond of union, chanting and reciting, “I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou has enlarged my heart.” Hurry then, yourself, brother, through beautiful and perfect confession to pursue and obtain me, when finishing the course. For the crown of justice for me is with you. (John Boswell’s translation)
No one worried about whether this was or was not a romantic sexual relationship between two warrior lovers — they apparently didn’t care — for 1,600 years. But then a distinguished Yale University medieval historian, John Boswell began looking at pre-modern documents without the modern institutional bias that dominated medieval Church historians, who were mostly Roman Catholic.
Boswell knew he was fighting the establishment’s entrenched homophobic traditions. Thus, all his writings are dominated by careful methodological historical discussions, extensive footnotes (almost half of each book), appendices, original documents, and translations as evidence for his upending of medieval studies.
The response to his work was both wide praise and expected and predictable conservative criticisms. But through it all, Sergius and Bacchus remained as icons of an intimate same-sex relationship that homophobia only tried to erase in this past quarter century.
We recognize that historians can’t know with certainty the real history of this couple, described in the oldest material we have about them as erastai (probably “lovers”). But what we do know is that their sainthood was celebrated down through history as a model of male-male love for each other without fear of what that meant about the intimate, romantic, or sexual nature of their relationship.
Only in the last decades with modern homophobia has anyone tried to argue that they weren’t as intimate as the documents we have say they likely were, though most of the criticism of Boswell’s work is meant to reject his suggestions that there were same-sex union ceremonies for romantic couples in the pre-modern church.
All in all, though, why not recognize the centuries-long idealization of Sergius’ and Bacchus’ deep, even romantic, love for each other? And why not celebrate such deep love wherever it is pictured?
Homophobia? Too subversive of anti-LGBTQ dogma? Too threatening to authorized anti-gay Church institutional historical claims?
Is the fear of such ideas too much that it means some have to reject even the possibility of such love? Or are the rejecters still products of a modern straight-acting macho culture where a male soldier can get a medal for killing another man but get killed for loving one?
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.