The Secret History of LGB Saints the Catholic Church Doesn’t Want You to Read

The secret history of gay saints the Catholic Church doesn’t want you to read
Lillies (1996)
St Sebastian depicted in the 1996 film Lillies.

Some people think you can’t be gay and Christian. What better way to prove them wrong than with a list of LGBTI saints?

The Catholic Church doesn’t want you to read this. They’ve deliberately erased many gay saints from official lists.

And we have to admit it is difficult to find hard historical evidence about most saints. Many of the stories about them are little more than legends.

But if you start looking, there are lots of LGBTI saints and martyrs. Here are just a few of the most famous:

St Joan of Arc

The 1999 movie The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.

The 1999 movie The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.

Jeanne d’Arc is not just the most famous LGBTI saint but the most famous saint full-stop.

Joan was just a French peasant. But an angel appeared to her in a vision and told her God wanted her to lead the French fight against the English in the Hundred Years War.

She persuaded the French Prince Charles to let her lead his army, even though she had no military training. And, dressed as a male soldier, she achieved a momentous victory over the English at the city of Orléans in 1429.

Thanks to her, the prince was crowned King Charles VII. But Joan was then captured by the English.

They decided she was a heretic and a witch and burnt her at the stake. She was just 19.

Some refuse to accept Joan was LGBTI.

Was she a trans warrior or did she only cross-dress in male armor through necessity? Either way, she would be part of our gay, trans and gender-fluid family today.

Likewise, the same people who claim she was a virgin admit she liked to share her bed with other young women. And that sounds pretty lesbian to us.

St Sebastian

Gerrit van Honthorst's depiction of Saint Sebastian.

Gerrit van Honthorst’s depiction of Saint Sebastian.

St Sebastian is the original gay icon. This near-naked, young, muscled man – tied to a post and pierced with arrows – is one of the most famous images in fine art.

He was the commander of a company of archers in the imperial Roman bodyguard. And he was known to be ‘close’ to his male superiors. But he had a secret.

To rescue two other Christian soldiers, he ‘outed’ himself as Christian too. The Emperor Diocletian ordered that he should be shot to death by his fellow archers.

Strangely, that didn’t kill him. The pious St Irene saved him and treated his wounds. But Diocletian caught up with him. He ordered a second execution and Sebastian’s fellow soldiers beat him to death.

There’s no single reason why he became the unofficial gay patron saint. It’s a mix of his rumored sexuality, his ‘coming out’ story and his iconic homoerotic image penetrated with arrows. And homosexuality was once considered an illness while St Sebastian was known to save plague victims.

St Wilgefortis

Conchita (right) brought fresh attention to St Wilgefortis.

Conchita (right) brought fresh attention to St Wilgefortis.

Legend says Wilgefortis was the daughter of a king in Portugal who took a vow of chastity.

When her father tried to force her into marriage with the king of Sicily she prayed for help. God saved her by giving her a beard and the Sicilian king refused to marry a bearded wife.

So she is a trans male saint.

Sadly, there is no happy ending. Her father got so angry he crucified her.

Her only reward is to become the patron saint of difficult marriages. After all, it’s a particularly difficult marriage that ends in crucifixion. In Spain she is called Librada because she helps women who want to be ‘liberated’ from difficult husbands.

The Catholic Church plays down St Wilgefortis. But after Conchita – another bearded lady – won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2014 for Austria, depictions of the saint gained short-lived cult status.

St Perpetua and St Felicity

George Hare's 1890 painting Victory of Faith depicted Perpetua and Felicity in prison.

George Hare’s 1890 painting Victory of Faith depicted Perpetua and Felicity in prison.

This North African lesbian couple are the patron saints of same-sex relationships.

Perpetua was 22-year-old noblewoman with a newborn baby. Felicity, who was pregnant, was her slave.

Roman soldiers arrested them in around 203AD because they were Christians. They comforted each other in prison and Perpetua wrote a jail diary, describing the visions she had while inside.

Felicity worried that she wouldn’t be martyred because Roman law forbade the execution of pregnant women. But she gave birth to her daughter in time.

The day came for games to celebrate the birthday of the Emperor Septimus Severus. As part of the entertainment, the pair were taken into the amphitheater in Carthage, North Africa, along with a group of male Christians.

Gladiators whipped them. Then boar, a bear, and a leopard were set on the men, and a wild cow on the women. That still wasn’t enough to kill them and they gave each other the kiss of peace before a swordsman finished them off.

Perpetua’s diary became the ‘Passion of St Perpetua, St Felicitas, and their Companions’. The story was so popular in North Africa that St Augustine ordered people not to treat it like it was part of the Bible.

St Paulinus

St Paulinus processed through the streets of Nola, near Naples, Italy.

St Paulinus processed through the streets of Nola, near Naples, Italy.

If you’ve ever heard a bell ringing to call you to church, you’ve got the bisexual St Paulinus to thank. He invented that tradition.

He had previously been a married Roman senator. But after his wife died, he became bishop of Nola in Italy from 395AD to 431AD.

When the Vandals raided the region, a poor widow came to Paulinus asking him to help her son who the Vandals had carried off.

He had spent all his money paying ransoms for other captives. So he went to Africa to offer himself to the Vandals in return for the widow’s son. They agreed and made Paulinus a gardener. But when the Vandal king realized his son-in-law’s slave was the Bishop of Nola, he set him free.

What’s not well known is Paulinus also wrote love poems to his boyfriend, Ausonius. In one, he promised there love would last even after his death. And he added:

Thee shall I hold, in every fiber woven,
Not with dumb lips, nor with averted face
Shall I behold thee, in my mind embrace thee,
Instant and present, thou, in every place.

He is still honored every year in Nola when his statue is paraded through the streets. American descendants of Italians from Nola also honor him in the same way in Brooklyn.

St Francis of Assisi

Mickey Rourke as St Francis of Assisi in the movie Francesco.

Mickey Rourke as St Francis of Assisi in the movie Francesco.

St Francis is one of the best-loved religious figures in history, famous for hugging lepers and showing compassion to animals.

What you probably don’t know is he encouraged the other Franciscan friars in his 13th century cloister to call him ‘mother’.

Even more surprisingly, he allowed a widow to enter the all-male friary, renaming her ‘Brother Jacoba’.

And it is likely he had at least one same-sex relationship while in his 20s. His partner’s identity is hidden by history but is thought to be Brother Elias of Cortona.

Thomas of Celano, who knew Francis personally and wrote a biography of him in 1230 just four years after his death, wrote:

‘Now there was a man in the city of Assisi whom Francis loved more than any other…

‘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. There was a cave near Assisi where the two friends often went to talk about this treasure.’

St Sergius and St Bacchus

The Passion of Saints Sergius and Bacchus by Elastic Theatre.

The Passion of Saints Sergius and Bacchus by Elastic Theatre.

Homophobic Christians tell us that same-sex marriage is against their faith. Trouble is they don’t know their own history. Step forward Saints Sergius and Bacchus.

Sergius was a commander in the Roman army in the third century and Bacchus was his second in command.

They were referred to in the earliest records of their story as ‘erastai’, the Greek word for ‘lovers’. And it’s believed they committed themselves to each other in a Christian ceremony called ‘adelphopoiesis’ or ‘brother-making’ which was a kind of same-sex marriage.

But their faith got them in trouble while they were stationed in Syria in 303AD. As Christians, they refused to sacrifice to Jupiter, the Roman’s chief god.

Officials arrested them, dressed them in women’s clothing and paraded them through the street to humiliate them into submission. But they resisted, chanting they were dressed as brides of Christ.

So the Romans turned to torture. They separated them and beat them so severely that Bacchus died.

That wasn’t the end of the story. That night Sergius had a vision.

Bacchus appeared to him in his soldier’s armor and with the face of an angel. He urged Sergius not to give in, saying they would live together as lovers forever in heaven. It’s a unique martyrdom story, because martyrs are always promised they will be with God in heaven, not with their lover.

Over the coming days, Sergius was tortured and finally beheaded.

Christians honored them as saints right up until 1969, the same year as the Stonewall Riots. The Catholic Church stripped them from the official list of saints, perhaps to starve the emerging gay rights movement of their power.

St Aelred

The Name of The Rose movie depicted medieval monastic life.

The Name of The Rose movie depicted medieval monastic life.

The patron saint of friendship was erotically attracted to men, and celebrated male relationships, throughout his life.

Aelred was the abbot of a Cistercian abbey in North Yorkshire, England for 20 years until his death in 1167. He wrote about the link between friendship and spirituality, saying ‘God is friendship’.

And he encouraged friendship between his monks comparing it to the love between Jesus and his beloved disciple, and between Jonathan and David. (You can read more about those two gay stories here).

Aelred advocated chastity. But his passion for male relationships is clear when he wrote: ‘It is no small consolation in this life to have someone who can unite with you in an intimate affection and the embrace of a holy love…’

In the same passage he describes this relationship with another man as one where ‘the sweetness of the Spirit flows between you, where you so join yourself and cleave to him that soul mingles with soul and two become one.’

St Galla and St Benedicta

The Last Kingdom TV series, which depicts the Dark Ages

Women in the Dark Ages faced few choices, as depicted in The Last Kingdom.

Galla had been married but was widowed after just one year. Not wanting another relationship with a man, she grew a beard to ward them off.

And she went even further. St Galla founded a convent in Rome in the sixth century and fellow nun Benedicta moved in with her there.

Then Galla fell seriously ill and St Peter appeared to her in a vision, telling her to prepare for death. She was devoted to God so liked the idea of going to heaven. But she was also devoted to Benedicta and didn’t want to leave her behind.

So she prayed to Peter that Benedicta would swiftly follow her to the afterlife.

Admittedly, by modern standards, praying for your partner’s death seems a bit wrong. But Peter agreed.

Galla died in 550AD of breast cancer and Benedicta’s death came 30 days later, just as St Peter had promised.

Historical note on gay saints

To historians, we would point out there are around 10,000 Catholic saints (though there is no definitive figure). By any impartial standard, some of them are bound to have been LGBTI.

To Catholics, we would say that you accept a saint’s sanctity on the basis of faith, not scientific proof. So why would you not accept their sexuality on the same basis?