Travel and History

A Queer History

File:Cranach the Elder Adam and Eve.jpg

So yet another older white dude family member recently complained to me that “in his day” folks who didn’t fit the gender binary didn’t exist. “People were men or women. That’s it,” he said. Lots to unpack there, but I want to start with the “back in the day” idea that “men” and “women” are ideas that have been around since God started doodling genitals in the Garden of Eden

So, I’m writing a historical novel about a trans priest—a man assigned female at birth and called by God to enter the priesthood—in 14th century France. Not that fourteenth century France would’ve had the word “trans”, of course. So, on that count, I’m writing fiction. Except if you take out the word “trans” and just say “male priest who was assigned as a woman at birth,” you’re being 100% historically accurate. Don’t believe me? Ask the ACTUAL JESUITS.

You ready? Buckle up.

St. Ignatius
St Iggy, being rad

We begin with St. Ignatius of Loyola, a strange, scrawny aristocrat with an eating disorder whose heart burned with love for Our Lady. Let’s call him Iggy. He founded a religious order called the Society of Jesus—we call them Jesuits.

A woman named Isabella Roser wrote a letter to St. Iggy; she was being victimized by some malicious gossip. How should she take the high road with these absolute bitches? Encouraging her to stay strong in her faith, Ignatius launches into a story about some Franciscan monks who dined at a local house regularly. A daughter of that house grew up “extremely fond of that monastery and the house of St. Francis”—so much so that the “daughter of the house” dresses as a boy and makes application to join the monastery. The monastery admits him (and let’s note that Ignatius refers to the “daughter” as “boy” and “him” throughout this entire narrative as soon as he’s admitted to orders). So this friar becomes well-known and travels around preaching the gospel, and on one journey, a girl at a way house falls in love with the friar (“or rather,” Ignatius writes, “the devil entered into this girl”) and she attempts to seduce the friar. [Note that Iggy is NOT progressive in his views celibacy in the priesthood.] The friar sends the girl away, and bish gets steamed and goes for revenge by claiming that this friar made her pregnant. The Guardian of the town grabs the friar and puts him in stocks in the town center to be publicly shamed, but—and here’s Iggy’s moral of the story—the friar “did not justify himself to anyone, but discoursed with his Creator and Lord within his soul.” After his punishment, he returns to the monastery, where he lives out his life in piety and only after he dies do they “discover. . . that he was a woman and not a man, and consequently that calumny was lifted from him. Thus all the friars marveled and praised his innocence and holiness more than they had blamed his supposed guilt.”

So, here’s the deal with this weird story. The point of the story isn’t that a woman can be a monk but that this particular friar’s unconventional path to becoming a brother, combined with his humility and trust in God, meant that he did not need to fear gossip. So, yeah, not…ah, not exactly the expected moral of the story from the FOUNDER OF THE FREAKING JESUITS.

But was Iggy weirdly progressive regarding gender vs. sex? That would be a no. The thing is, medieval Europeans had a firm grasp of the difference between sex and gender—even if they expressed it in ways that seem ultra weird to us now.

BUCKLE UP AGAIN. We’re talking penises and saints. For early Christian Europeans, a body’s sex was a condition that affected the body’s social role, but social role (i.e. gender) can be malleable. And gender trumps assigned sex. So, if I’m born in a body assigned “woman” at birth, but fulfill a male gender role, I can traverse the spectrum from female to male “sex.”

Wha-huhImage result for st perpetua becomes a man

Let’s talk St. Perpetua. She’s a young Christian mother who is arrested and about to be tortured to death for her faith. So Christ sends her a vision to strengthen and encourage her. In that vision, she is transformed into a (male) martyr. Based on her vision, Perpetua knows that she can become man enough be martyred…and so she is. AND she’s the patron saint for expectant mothers, because she’s a young mother. So her vision where she gets a dick as a gift from God to encourage her is a really fascinating insight into how sex and gender work in the early church. Only men can access the holiest of places, because the male body is most like God’s. But never fear! With enough faith, even a female body might achieve penis-hood.

So the tl;dr version is this: gender and sex are not, and never have been, simple and easy binary categories. And even ultra weird patriarchal religious fanatics in early Christian history understood this. Because, I guess, the short-short version is this: human sexes and genders are ultra weird and sex and gender are very unstable ideas. Let’s all hoist some freak flags and be sex-amazing and gender-awesome.

For further reading:

For St. Ignatius’s letter to Isabella Roser, see Fr. Hugo Rahner, S.J. Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Letters to Women. pp. 266-68.

For more on St. Perpetua, here’s a fun place to start:


Uncategorized, Writing romance

On Pride and Writing

Related imagePride month is drawing to a close. Here in the States, we memorialize the fight for equality, and that fierce riot led by trans women, lesbians, and gay men—Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Storme DeLarverie among so many others.

We celebrate Pride because we have to–because there are so many policies and places and people that still deny us, erase us, stamp us down.

I wanted to take a moment here to talk about the two reasons I write queer romance. My current work in progress is historical fiction with a trans protagonist, for example, and I’m writing it for two reasons. First, because historical fiction too rarely tells the stories that we know happened—the lives of non-gender-conforming or trans people. (Okay, some cultures have better track records than others when it comes to recognizing different genders and sexualities, but not my traditions–I’m European and Jewish ethnically, Christian by faith). But queer people have always been, well, queering things up in the church, the state, and the home.

And second, I want stories that don’t just pathologize who we are or were but tell our stories in ways that embed our lives into the vibrant fabric of human history. I want to write stories about queer and trans people loving and living.

That’s all; that’s what I wanted to say. Let’s all celebrate who we are, that we love, and that our love and our lives matter.

Just for fun, a scene from my work in progress, a historical novel about a trans inquisitor and the young lord who falls for him:

“You believe in it, don’t you, my lord?” The inquisitor looked at him. “A higher love, the beauty of the rose, the test of the true knight’s heart.”

Adhemar tried to make his face as stern as the inquisitor’s when he wasn’t bloody laughing. “You say you don’t? But you know the songs. So you must’ve heard or read them too.”

The inquisitor clapped a hand to Adhemar’s shoulder. His pale face was flushed pink with hilarity and his eyes were a thousand diamonds. “You are an innocent,” the inquisitor said. “And the church is sworn to protect innocents. So I cannot answer you.”

Adhemar swatted at him and the man slipped away like a vapor, laughing again. Adhemar found himself, against his will, grinning. His breath frosted in the air as he laughed at the absurdity of it all. And the most beautiful man he had ever seen laughed back at him, shaved head turned to gilt in the fresh sun, a creature of light and dark, a warrior’s heart in a monk’s robes and humble, mud-stained feet.