Saint Apollinaria, Cross-Dressing Monk and Saint

According to the LGBT Catholic Handbook, this week sees the feast day of St.  Apollinaria /Dorotheos of Egypt (5th, 6th January). She is said to have been one of a group of transvestite saints – women who took on men’s clothing  in order to live as monks.

For the specific story of Apollinaria, we turn to the Orthodox church, who take these female monks rather more serioulsy than the western church.  From the Orthodox website, “God is Wonderful in His Saints”

She was a maiden of high rank, the daughter of a magistrate named Anthimus in the city of Rome. Filled with love for Christ, she prevailed on her parents to allow her to travel on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In Jerusalem she dismissed most of her attendants, gave her jewels, fine clothes and money to the poor, and went on to Egypt accompanied only by two trusted servants. Near Alexandria she slipped away from them and fled to a forest, where she lived in ascesis for many years. She then made her way to Sketis, the famous desert monastic colony, and presented herself as a eunuch named Dorotheos. In this guise she was accepted as a monk.

Anthimus, having lost his elder daughter, was visited with another grief: his younger daughter was afflicted by a demon. He sent this daughter to Sketis, asking the holy fathers there to aid her by their prayers. They put her under the care of “Dorotheos”, who after days of constant prayer effected the complete cure of her (unknowing) sister. When the girl got back home it was discovered that she was pregnant, and Anthimus angrily ordered that the monk who had cared for her be sent to him. He was astonished to find that “Dorotheos” was his own daughter Apollinaria, whom he had abandoned hope of seeing again. After some days the holy woman returned to Sketis, still keeping her identity secret from her fellow-monks. Only at her death was her true story discovered.

The Handbook lists some scholarly references in support, while a look at some orthodox websites corroborates the story and confirms her feast on 5th January.  The Advent Catholic Encyclopedia. however,  dismisses the tale as ‘hagiographic fiction.’

Apollinaria’s story and motives are remote from our time, and ‘transvestite’ is not to be confused with ‘transgendered’. (UPDATE: After I first described this group of women as “transvestite”, I was taken to task by a reader, who pointed out that these days, “cross-dressing” is more appropriate terminology). Still, whatever the full historic truth of Apollinaria/ Dorotheos specifically, it seems to me this is a useful story to hold on to as a reminder of the important place of the transgendered, and differently gendered,  in our midst.

Many of us will remember how difficult and challenging was the process of recognising, and then confronting, our identities as lesbian or gay, particularly in the context of a hostile church. However difficult and challenging we may have found the process of honestly confronting  our sexual identities,  consider how much more challenging must  be the process of confronting and negotiating honestly a full gender identity crisis.

Let us acknowledge the courage of those who have done it, and pray for those who are preparing to do so.

Related articles

Trans Pride at International Mr Leather!

File this under “curiosity” if you will, but I think of it as a breathtaking personal achievement, and a magnificent demonstration of confounding stereotypes and bursting through boundaries. The new winner of IML 2010, Tyler McCormack, uses a wheelchair and was once a female.

For those not familiar with it, Chicago’s International Mr Leather competition is a mega event which fully lives up to its title, drawing competitors and thousands of visitors from all around the world every Memorial Day weekend. These would usually expect to see competitors displaying rippling muscles, impressive pecs and nipples, naked skin, and plenty of “stage presence” – and as usual for all manner of beauty pageants, speeches. Read the rest of this entry »

The Power of Film

I seem to be seeing an awful lot of stories of new documentaries on queer faith. This is great- film is a powerful medium, and lends itself well for use in getting discussion going in parish or other faith groups. (Just this morning, I saw a notice on the web publicizing a screening of “Through my eyes” by a church:

Blessed Family of God Church, 829 Gillespie St., will host a movie night on Jan. 16 at 5:30 p.m. The movie is “Through My Eyes” and is about gay Christians.

When moderate Christians start to listen, think and discuss the issues with an open mind, we see attitudes changing. The use of film in parishes or smaller faith groups is an excellent way to get those discussions going. For queer group, seeing how others have dealt with their struggles in the churches can be a valuable learning experience too.

This is a run down of just some of the films that I have read about recently – and one that I have seen twice, and loved.

Preacher’s Sons

I have just come across this review of “Preacher’s Sons”, which tells the story of the “untraditional” Stewart family: Rev. Greg Stewart, senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, his husband Stillman Stewart, a former social worker and now at-home parent, and their five adopted boys:

In one of the opening scenes of the documentary film Preacher’s Sons, Stillman Stewart sits by a Los Angeles pool with his husband, Greg Stewart. The two white men watch their sons, splashing in the water, five boys of color who call out “Papa” and “Daddy” to Stillman and Greg. Stillman laughs, and recounts a conversation he’s just overheard between two older women at the pool who were observing their family. “Uh-oh,” one woman said. “There must be something wrong here.”
Preacher’s Sons follows the untraditional Stewart family for five years, through four cities. Despite what the women by the pool thought, the film depicts the Stewarts as doing something very right—giving permanent, loving homes to at-risk, hard-to-place children lost in the foster care system.

Between 2000 and 2002, the Rev. Greg Stewart, senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, and Stillman Stewart, a former social worker and now at-home parent, adopted five sons through the California foster care system. Their story attracted the attention of several television networks, which approached them about filming their family. The Stewarts always refused these requests. Things changed, however, when they were approached by two members of the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, Calif., where Greg was serving as minister of religious education. The Stewarts didn’t believe the networks shared their mission of promoting the adoption of at-risk children. However they trusted fellow church members and husband-and-wife filmmakers Mark Nealey and C Roebuck Reed.

-More from UU World

For Such A Time As This

According to Candace Chellew -Hodge at Religion Dispatches, a filmmaker who has spent three years working on a film to build bridges between evangelical faith leaders and the LGBT community is responsible for Rick Warren’s about turn in making a statement condemning the Uganda hate bill – and her film is not even completed yet.

When Rachel Maddow started talking about Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, or what Maddow called the “Kill the Gays Bill,” on her nightly MSNBC show late last month, Lisa Darden knew she needed to make a phone call.

Darden, a filmmaker and talent agent, had been interviewing conservative evangelical Christian leaders and getting a behind-the-scenes look at the religious right for the past several years, for her soon to be released movie, For Such a Time as This. The documentary seeks to bridge the gap between anti-gay Christians and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. In her travels, she had become fast friends with A. Larry Ross, who serves as Rick Warren’s publicist.

“I knew this was going to break before it did, so I called Larry and told him what was going on and encouraged him to have Rick Warren make a statement against this law, because the silence from evangelical leaders was deafening. I told him somebody needs to stand up and this was an opportunity for Warren to be in front of the story or get run over by it,” she told Religion Dispatches.


The Bible Tells Me So

Directed by Daniel G. Karslake, this film has been around since 2007. It very cleverly uses the stories of five lesbians and gay men, from a range of denominations and social backgrounds, to explore the impact of standard Christian teaching on the lives of individuals and their families. In all five cases, the families were deeply religious and committed to their churches. by the end of the film, all five families described have been moved by their offsprings’ lives to moderate their earlier hostile views: in some cases, dramatically so. Along the way, it introduces cartoons, live footage from church meetings and news events together with commentary to gently unpack the appropriate understanding of Scripture on sexuality from the bigoted and hypocritical abuse by those who prefer to use it as a weapon.

I have seen this film twice. the first time was at a screening by the London Gay Humanist Society, where the largely gay atheist audience were visibly moved by seeing that there are sincere Christians who are willing to speak and act intelligently and sensitively on the Bible and homosexuality. The second was a screening after our LGBT Mass in Soho, where most of those I spoke to were deeply moved. (The few exceptions felt it was either too “American” or too “Protestant”).

(Watch a trailer on Youtube)



Prodigal Sons

I wrote about this a short while ago, (“Transgendered in Church, Again“) noting a news report on the strong positive reception it had at a screening in a church hall. This is how describes it in The Guardian:

The other week, I saw a film I can’t get out of my head. I’m not sure that it’s especially “good” in the sense of being flawlessly made. But it’s a film about inescapable flaws. Sometimes a movie does the simplest thing film has to offer: it shows us something we have never quite seen or felt before; it shows us something that shocks and alarms us – and that doesn’t have to be an ingredient from a horror picture, or something capable of fictional redemption. Horror can live in the mind of the beholder, and it can be an everyday thing. Let me try to describe Prodigal Sons to you.

It’s a family documentary, made by Kimberley Reed. She’s about 40 now, a tall, striking woman who lives in New York and went to film school. But she was a boy once, the star quarterback on her high-school football team in Montana. So it seems to be a documentary about sexual change – except that Kimberley doesn’t dwell on that experience. With her lover, another woman, she goes home to Montana to work out her family history.

Watch a trailer here:


Through my Eyes

This documentary, by the Gay Christian Network, focuses particularly on younger gay Christians. Two Amazon user reviews give something of its importance:

5.0 out of 5 stars Fruit for Dialog, March 10, 2009

“Through My Eyes” is a must-see for all Christians who are serious about living out the Gospel as it paves the way for reflective dialog among those who are seeking to put into practice Christ’s message to “love one another as I have loved you.” In this DVD, over two dozen Christians in their teens and twenties share their stories of what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God, who happen to have been born gay, and who long above all else to worship God with their entire being and desire that His holy and perfect will be done in their lives.

5.0 out of 5 stars A revealing truth…, March 10, 2009
By (Seattle, WA USA) – See all my review

Through My Eyes is the first documentary I’ve seen that’s only agenda is to ask people to listen. There are no “this is what you should think” or “these people are wrong/right because…” statements. It’s just young Christians, who happen to be glbt, sharing their stories. A must see for any Christian!

However, a dissenting view points out that the perspective is specifically that of a fairly conservative, evangelical branch of “Christian”, and so not necessarily relevant to all.

2.0 out of 5 stars Not so satisfied
I am a gay Christian and I just finished watching this film. I think the reason I was so underwhelmed with it is because, while it involves interviews with multiple people, it only gives one perspective: that of people who are gay and were raised in a very conservative, fundamentalist tradition. And it doesn’t describe itself in that context!

(Watch the trailer on Youtube)



8: The Mormon Proposition

This film, telling the story of the Mormon involvement in California’s battle over gay marriage in Proposition 8, has been widely acclaimed (Huffington Post says it will “knock your socks off“) , and is to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. This mainstream exposure, coupled with the topical subject matter, will bring it the widest and most mainstream audiences of all those discussed here.

(Watch the trailer on Youtube)


“Third Gender” to Get Legal Recognition in Pakistan

Last month Indian authorities agreed to list eunuchs and transgender people by using the term “others”, on official documents. I would have liked to draw attention to it then, but did not. Now, having missed the opportunity once, I get a second chance to take note of a major legal breakthrough for trans and other gendered people in Asia, as Pakistan is now headed in a similar direction, this time by court decision. In both India and Pakistan, the “Hijras” represent a distinct social group, but this will have significance and run-on effects beyond just these two countries.



Hijra Protest, Islamabad

From BBC News:

Pakistani eunuchs to have distinct gender

Pakistan’s Supreme Court says eunuchs must be allowed to identify themselves as a distinct gender in order to ensure their rights.

The eunuchs, known as “hijras” in Pakistan, are men castrated at an early age for medical or social reasons. The court said they should be issued with national identity cards showing their distinct gender. The government has also been ordered to take steps to ensure they are entitled to inherit property.

‘Respect and identity’

There are estimated to be about 300,000 hijras in Pakistan and they are generally shunned by the largely Muslim conservative society. They tend to live together in slum communities, surviving through begging and by dancing at weddings and carnivals. A hijra association has welcomed the order, saying it is “a major step giving respect and identity in society”. Indian authorities last month agreed to list eunuchs and transgender people by using the term “others”, distinct from males and females, on electoral rolls and voter identity cards, after a long-running campaign by the members of the community.

Transsexual Marriage – in Catholic Church

In Italy, a Catholic priest has blessed in church a transsexual marriage. From the Independent Online:

A priest in Italy on Sunday blessed the marriage of a 64-year-old transsexual to her 58-year-old male partner, in defiance of Vatican guidelines, the ANSA news agency reported. Sandra Alvino – who underwent a sex change more than 30 years ago – and Fortunato Talotta had been in a civil partnership for 25 years before tying the knot in a religious ceremony in Piagge, an industrial suburb of Florence. Father Alessandro Santoro gave his blessing to the marriage, which was attended by some 200 people

Does this mean that gay marriage is out, but transsexual in? Not exactly. It will be no surprise that the Vatican has objected. What may well come as a surprise, is that the official objections came before the ceremony :

Former Florence archbishop Cardinal Ennio Antonelli had blocked an attempt by Alvino and Talotta to marry two years ago, and his successor Giuseppe Betori later also asked Santoro not to bless their union, ANSA reported.

But the priest went ahead anyway:

Read the rest of this entry »

Transgender Virgin Calendars

A new calendar featuring pictures of the Madonna and child for each month has been prepared for next year.  This is hardly new – religious themed calendars have always been freely available, in many variations. This Spanish interpretation though, is a new variation likely to to enrage many traditionalists – and also disturb others. The Madonnas are represented as transgendered women.



From  Blabbeando :

A calendar released by an LGBT rights organization in Spain is raising some eyebrows for its use of religious imagery in what is a predominately Catholic country.
The 2010 calendar, which had an initial pressing of 10,000 copies, shows settings that mimic religious paintings and features transgender models dressed like the Virgin Mary.

Read the rest of this entry »

Transgendered in Church

Last SupperWhile helping out at our Catholic stall after this year’s Pride parade through London, I was approached by a woman who put a question that left me totally at a loss on how to respond:  What is the Church’s position on transgendered issues? She told me that her own local parish priest was very understanding and supportive, but she wanted to know more. I was embarrassed and ashamed that I clearly knew less than she did – she at least had been discussing the issue with a priest, but I in effect knew virtually nothing, beyond the harsh words of Benedict XVI in his Curial address last Christmas. Read the rest of this entry »