When I was growing up, the idea of a Christian who was anything other than straight was an oxymoron. There certainly weren’t “role models” if you were . . . different. Setting out on my own study of the Bible and Christian history, I realized they were there all along.
Let’s go cruising through a few favorites of LGBT Christendom!
The Beloved Disciple (a.k.a. John of Ephesus)
Growing up Christian, the men around Jesus seem to be one big blob of maleness. You’re never told the gospel story reduce, ultimately, to a romance between a divine being, Jesus, and a young man.
It’s nervously dealt with by the Christian tradition, which pretended that the ‘John’ who is the “one that Jesus loved” and seems to have gone on to write Revelation, the 4th gospel and three New Testament letters, was the prideful young apostle named John.
Modern Bible scholars have pulled the case apart (i.e. Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses), and established the ‘Beloved Disciple’ as a figure who is distinct, mysterious, and often unnamed.
That leaves the problem of who he is, and the oddness of the scenes where he and Jesus appear together—especially John 13:23, which the CEV translation, the ‘Bible for Today’s Family’, translates as: “Jesus’ favorite disciple was sitting next to him at the meal…”
Elizabeth E. Platt offers a literal translation: “There was reclining, one, from among his disciples, in the bosom of Jesus, whom Jesus loved.”
In the Bible, the ‘bosom’ is a term for a woman’s womb. The two men are connected physically, and spiritually, at the deepest level of being.
By the second century, a fictional work called Acts of John was generated to deal with the problem of John’s sexuality, imagining a disciple who wanted to marry, but Jesus appeared to him and said, “John I have need of thee . . .”
There’s stories about John that seem historically credible. In Clement of Alexandria’s The Rich Man Who is Saved, he tells one about an elderly John who, when travelling, notices “a spirited youth of superior physique and handsome appearance,” and asks that his spiritual education is tended to.
That unnecessary mention of a ‘handsome appearance’ tells me they knew John was homoerotically inclined. But even in the canonical writings, John offers a vision of the Jesus-follower as beyond gender (cf. Gal 3:28).
Pius-Ramón Traján tracks the references just in 1 John:
Expressions such as ‘my children’ (1 John 2:1, 12, 18; 3:7, 18, 4:4), “brothers,” “you fathers” (1 John 2:13–14), “you young men” (1 John 2:12, 13, 14), and “beloved” refer, with no gender distinction, to all members of the church, since the inclusive masculine refers to the distinguishing condition of all Christians with no exception.
James I (1566–1625)
America is such a funny place? The reigning sacred text of the homophobic country, until quite recently, was the ‘King James Bible’—a translation created and overseen by a homosexual king.
It’s a fact that is totally public, yet tucked away. In September 1617, he made a speech about it—noted in histories, if passed over silently.
I, James, am neither a god nor an angel, but a man like any other. Therefore I act like a man, and confess to loving those dear to me more than other men. You may be sure that I love the Earl of Buckingham more than anyone else, and more than you who are here assembled. I wish to speak in my own behalf, and not to have it thought to be a defect, for Jesus Christ did the same, and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had his John, and I have my George.
Now and again conservative Christians address the ‘problem’, as in a 2007 paper, “The Homosexual Tendencies of King James: Should this Matter to Bible Readers Today?” Though anti-gay, the authors undermine themselves, noting the frequent Christian talk that James had been “prepared by God” for his task. Clearly he was!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945)
The German theologian that John Piper had called the “patron saint” of Evangelical Christianity is also praised in Feminist Theology (“His final perspective on gender and representation might be more advanced than expected”). But not until recent years did Bible scholars disclose a fact that had been long discussed in private: the Bonhoeffer was gay.
Executed by Nazis, he was famous for Letters and Papers from Prison (1951), the letters he wrote in prison to the love of his life, Eberhard Bethge. The first edition hadn’t noted personal names, Bethge would recall, and when promoting them in America, he was told the letters “must have been between homosexuals. Otherwise such an intensive correspondence was hardly imaginable.”
Back then, men weren’t close! To be a ‘man’ was a detached and scripted existence, rigorously surveilled by the world. Then suddenly, Bonhoeffer—about whom little was known, and who was an “approved” Christian—was showing them what feeling looked like.
It was shocking when his sexuality was disclosed. Reviewing a 2014 biography by Charles Marsh, a writer for The Gospel Coalition called it “reprehensible,” “unnerving,” and hoped people wouldn’t read it.
The faithful were quick to reassure themselves. Yes, Bonhoeffer and Bethge shared a bedroom, bank account, went on vacations, fought and signed their Christmas cards, “Dietrich and Eberhard.” But there was no evidence they’d had sex! Amid the anxiety over whether the two men had made physical contact, a fact was overlooked: that Bonhoeffer had begun to dream of a spirituality devoted to . . . love?
And a sexuality, as he notes, that “never revolves around being a means to an end, but is fulfilled only by its intrinsic claim to joy.”
John Henry Newman (1801–1890)
Oscar Wilde recalls the man who was just canonised as a saint by the Catholic church: “A sparrow of a man is Newman but sharp and saintly. I’d heard talk he was a devotee of Greek Love but now I know.”
Newman was many wonderful things. A pastor to the ‘lowly’, the factory workers, immigrants and tradespeople. He was as he was a powerful writer — a favorite of Joyce, Wilde, and many modern writers. He brought a humanity to religion, and religion to humanity.
And he lived with and was inseparable from Ambrose St. John — “my earthly light,” as he calls him. Newman writes: “From the first he loved me with an intensity of love, which was unaccountable. At Rome 28 years ago he was always so working for and relieving me of all trouble, that being young and Saxon-looking, the Romans called him my Angel Guardian.”
When St. John died, Newman was devastated. When he died, he had himself buried in the same grave. Their epitaph reads: “Out of the shadows and phantasms into Truth.”
The Catholic church later dug him up and put him in a grave by himself.
By the 1930s, scholars got wind of what Newman didn’t seem particularly eager to hide. He was often called “effeminate,” “maidenly,” etc. He fell in love with boys since he was young, and was attacked for “perversion” in 1864 by the Anglican cleric Charles Kingsley.
Perhaps, now, Newman will be the patron saint of the victims of hate crimes, sexualized gossip, and stalking?
Christine Jorgensen (1926–1989)
Despite Christianity being sexually repressive, every movement toward sexual freedom has Christian origins. That difficult paradox is on view in the life of the first famous transsexual. It’s no accident her name is Christine. Baptized Lutheran, Christine attended Presbyterian churches all her life.
In her 1967 autobiography, her transformation is phrased as a search for “salvation,” as a “miracle” unfolding when she starts popping hormone tablets. Her surgery, as David Harley Serlin notes, emerges as “a type of religious conversion,” her new name, Christine, implying “a kind of resurrection” — a female Christ.
Agnes Moorehead (1900–1974)
The great Hollywood actress was from a long line of Christian ministers, and would often speak of her Christian faith, as in a 1965 testimony, where she sees a loving God for whom humor is “one of the surest signs of His presence.”
Her great-uncle, W.G. Moorehead, was a contributor to the Scofield Reference Bible. But she became, especially with her role as Endora in the T.V. show Bewitched (1964–1972), a one-woman Pride parade, a torrent of color and outrageousness shot directly into the American heartland.
When young, Moorehead had been told she was too ugly to work in Hollywood. “You just stand there and take it,” she says in a 1967 interview. “Then I got mad and decided to work all the harder.” She conjured an outrageous performance that kept the world entranced for decades. In 1962 a reporter notes her “fog-husky voice” and eccentric clothes. “Lime green is another color favorite and she ‘adores’ mauve.” A 1968 profile has her wrapping up an interview: “She flung her arm wide and picked up her trenchcoat, which was lined with fur, tied her bright orange-red hair in a net headscarf and left the room with a flair.”
RuPaul has often recalled Bewitched as an influence, especially the daughter, Samantha (“a supernatural being having a human experience, dumbing down to fit in — which is the story with most of the kids on Drag Race.”). Was it a show without Endora, though? Moorehead recalls studying the script when it’s sent her. “I looked it over and it was charming and had no violence in it. It was clean and had a smile in it, and a little fantasy and a little romance, so I said, ‘This won’t sell.’”
She was an enormously intelligent woman, with a doctorate in literate! She knew that to substitute for the absence of violence she had to crank the kooky theatricality up to DEFCON 1, and created, as the film critic Patricia White says, “a flippant, vividly costumed, outrageously madeup, impeccably coiffed, castrating witch with a mortal hatred for her daughter’s husband, whose name she somehow could not recall.”
Moorehead was lesbian, as her co-star, Paul Lynde, said: “I mean classy as hell, but one of the all-time Hollywood dykes.” I think of her as utterly embodying the “gay agenda” that conservative Christians often bemoaned, but that is the true, beating heart of the Jesus teachings. The gay agenda is trying to make this world livable!
Jim Elliot (1927–1956)
A Christian world that ruthlessly suppressed gay personality was bound to run into some strange storylines. Consider Jim Elliot, the charismatic young man who died in 1956 in the jungles of Ecuador. His story was tightly framed and guarded by his widow, the famous Elisabeth Elliot, but after her death, a more complex story began to emerge.
Her publication of his letters in the classic missionary account, Shadow of the Almighty, had been edited carefully. The regular center of affection, nestled in talk of the biblical figures David and Jonathan, was his college friend Billy, for whom he feels the “love of David and Jonathan” and longs to spend “our fellowship in heaven!”
Then . . . there’s Elisabeth, his sort-of girfriend, whom he seems rarely to wish to see. He quotes Nietzsche to her, “woman is not capable of friendship: she knoweth only love,” saying: “This is what I found in Billy, neither a worshipper (though he loved me) nor an overlord (though he was most esteemed).”
She’d tell a story of their romance in the classic Passion and Purity, praising his sexlessness for God’s sake. It may actually be a story of a gay man stringing a woman along, telling her he couldn’t be sexual because God. In his late 20s, when social pressure was mounting, they married, as Jim—telling her he’d often be away, and considering himself single.
The romance Jim seemed most in favor of was with Jesus, “my Eternal Lover,” he writes, as “if only I may see Him, smell His garments, and smile into my Lover’s eyes, ah, then, not stars, nor children, shall matter — only Himself.”
Rachel Held Evans (1981–2019)
In her brief life, she changed the world?—suggesting a pathway to simply loving people as the mark of faith. It was called “radically inclusive” in obituaries after her untimely death. But perhaps it’s just Christianity.
In 2008, she’s just starting to frame the difficult situation: “If we’ve got this wrong, the implications are absolutely staggering.” But everyone was getting to know gay people, and it was clearly not a ‘choice’ or an ‘act’. She imagines a dialogue with Jesus. “I imagine him responding by saying, “Who are you to ask me about gay marriage, when you can’t even keep your heterosexual marriages together?’”
Her blog records her progress of listening to people, thinking through the issues from a very conservative perspective. Just that activity, listening and respecting people, must’ve seemed new? Theology as a Christian practice is usually staring at old pieces of paper. She writes, in 2016, of her spiritual journey: “I thought God wanted to use me to show gay people how to be straight. Instead God used gay people to show me how to be Christian.”
Jarrid Wilson (1988–2019)
He was a rare creature: the likable Christian celebrity. It wasn’t just that he was young, smiling, handsome and had ascended to amazing heights, in the ladder of Protestant clerics, in thirty years of life. It’s that he seemed to really care about people.
It is not clear why he killed himself earlier this year. But among his many projects, may he be remembered for his challenging Evangelicals on their treatment of gays. In a 2013 blog post he took Christianity to task for its poor treatment of gays. “We’ve done such a bad job of showing grace and love to that community,” he reiterates in 2015.
He would try and push back, in general, against any prompts or theology of hatred. “I can’t ever recall a person who came to faith because of hate,” he writes. “Learn to love like Jesus, serve like Jesus, and forgive like Jesus.”
I love listening to the actress who made a splash in the role of ‘Elektra Abundance’ in the T.V. show Pose. “My grandmother’s proud of me, my family’s proud because here I am, I’m closer to God now.” In a 2015 interview, she thinks back on the Anglican altar boy in Trinidad, and being raped by the priest. “We live in this realm,” she sighs, “where things exist but we pretend they don’t exist, so that makes them, you know, nonexistent.”
It led to a long investigation into what ‘exists’ . . . finding God, and herself. Her 2014 memoir, The Transsexual From Tobago, tells of the cycle of sexual abuse that began with a priest. “He was grinding against me and his swim trunks were gone.” She recalls people’s reactions, when his rampant predation became known. “They believed the claims to be blasphemous, an attempt to tarnish the man and the church.”
The idea of being divinely protected keeps coming back to her, and as a young man, she has a mystical experience. “Strangely in between sleep and wake I heard a voice saying ‘the only person that will destroy you is you’. It could have been my subconscious but I awoke with a determination to survive and succeed reborn.” Dying had obsessed her; now she wants to live. She carries forward a new idea of divine protection and love.
It is never other than a religious story, of finding God in a world that was ‘religious’, yet focusing on outward gestures of gender conformity.
My mother would always tell me that God could not hear my prayers. Every time we spoke she would come up with some new rule why my identification and preference were un-Godly. They attempted to strip me of my faith for many years. I blame myself for believing them. I should have believed in the signs that God had been showing me.
Since 2000, Evangelical Christianity had a regular celebrity presence in the singer and song-writer Shannon Bonne, famous as a placeholder for a good wife in the life of Joshua Harris, the bestselling author and standard-bearer of highly restrictive sexual ethics.
In his many books telling of their lives, there were so many weird scenes. Months before they marry, he debates with God over whether he can lay next to her in a hammock. Joshua is for it. God is against it.
Well, she is going to be my wife in four months.
“Well, she’s not your wife today.”
News of their divorce, earlier this year, made international news—though she’d been telling a story of their marriage ending since a 2018 album. Her voice, as usual, not heard.
Try and understand but could you let me go
It’s just that I need something a little more free
She has thoughts, it turns out: “Healthy churches don’t use fear, bullying or shaming. They don’t need to manipulate behavior or manage image.” Now, in photos and videos, she’s drifted into a very androgynous style, as she sets out to write narratives of freedom. In her new music video for “Invisible,” shot in San Francisco, there’s gay couples all around.
It’s already a powerful story of a girl who’d been made to play the “pure” wife, who decides to be herself instead. As she sets out to write narratives of freedom, Evangelicalism may get the ride of its life—or death?
And can Evangelicals ever forget the year that their standard-bearer of “purity” said he was taking a break from the faith, “deconstructing” and listening to people—like at the Vancouver Pride parade.
He updates on Instagram (where all the hottest theology seems to be happening), that he considers his life so far to be a journey.
How do I explain that in spite of the messiness of my life and even my mistakes, I am so grateful for the journey that led me here, to this moment? I want to be here and so the events, the mistakes, even the hurts that delivered me here aren’t things I would reverse even if I could.
What a profound thing for a Christian too say: ‘I want to be here’.
This is a faith that generated an intense, anxious belief in ‘going to Heaven’ and appeasing an angry God to get there.
Let’s say it today: I want to be here.