Friday, September 30, 2016

Rumi: Poet and Sufi mystic inspired by same-sex love

Rumi and Shams together in a detail from “Dervish Whirl” by Shahriar Shahriari (

Rumi is a 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic whose love for another man inspired some of the world’s best poems and led to the creation of a new religious order, the whirling dervishes. His birthday is today (Sept. 30).

With sensuous beauty and deep spiritual insight, Rumi writes about the sacred presence in ordinary experiences. His poetry is widely admired around the world and he is one of the most popular poets in America. One of his often-quoted poems begins:

If anyone asks you
how the perfect satisfaction
of all our sexual wanting
will look, lift your face
and say,
Like this.*

The homoeroticism of Rumi is hidden in plain sight. It is well known that his poems were inspired by his love for another man, but the queer implications are seldom discussed. There is no proof that Rumi and his beloved Shams of Tabriz had a sexual relationship, but the intensity of their same-sex love is undeniable.

“Rumi of Persia”
by Robert Lentz
Rumi was born Sept. 30, 1207 in Afghanistan, which was then part of the Persian Empire. His father, a Muslim scholar and mystic, moved the family to Roman Anatolia (present-day Turkey) to escape Mongol invaders when Rumi was a child. Rumi lived most of his life in this region and used it as the basis of his chosen name, which means “Roman.” His full name is Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi.

His father died when Rumi was 25 and he inherited a position as teacher at a madrassa (Islamic school). He continued studying Shariah (Islamic law), eventually issuing his own fatwas (legal opinions) and giving sermons in the local mosques. Rumi also practiced the basics of Sufi mysticism in a community of dervishes, who are Muslim ascetics similar to mendicant friars in Christianity.

On Nov. 15, 1244 Rumi met the man who would change his life: a wandering dervish named Shams of Tabriz (Shams-e-Tabrizi or Shams al-Din Muhammad). He came from the city of Tabriz in present-day Iranian Azerbaijan. It is said that Shams had traveled throughout the Middle East asking Allah to help him find a friend who could “endure” his companionship. A voice in a vision sent him to the place where Rumi lived.

Meeting of Rumi and Shams
16th-17th century folio
(Wikimedia Commons)
Rumi, a respected scholar in his thirties, was riding a donkey home from work when an elderly stranger in ragged clothes approached. It was Shams. He grasped the reins and started a theological debate. Some say that Rumi was so overwhelmed that he fainted and fell off the donkey.

Rumi and Shams soon became inseparable. They spent months together, lost in a kind of ecstatic mystical communion known as “sobhet” -- conversing and gazing at each other until a deeper conversation occurred without words. They forgot about human needs and ignored Rumi’s students, who became jealous. When conflict arose in the community, Shams disappeared as unexpectedly as he had arrived.

Rumi’s loneliness at their separation led him to begin the activities for which he is still remembered. He poured out his soul in poetry and mystical whirling dances of the spirit.

Eventually Rumi found out that Shams had gone to Damascus. He wrote letters begging Shams to return. Legends tell of a dramatic reunion. The two sages fell at each other’s feet. In the past they were like a disciple and teacher, but now they loved each other as equals. One account says, “No one knew who was lover and who the beloved.” Both men were married to women, but they resumed their intense relationship with each other, merged in mystic communion. Jealousies arose again and some men began plotting to get rid of Shams.

One winter night, when he was with Rumi, Shams answered a knock at the back door. He disappeared and was never seen again. Many believe that he was murdered.

Rumi grieved deeply. He searched in vain for his friend and lost himself in whirling dances of mourning. One of his poems hints at the his emotions:

Dance, when you’re broken open.
Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free.

Rumi danced, mourned and wrote poems until the pressure forged a new consciousness. “The wound is the place where the Light enters you,” he once wrote. His soul fused with his beloved. They became One: Rumi, Shams and God. He wrote:

Why should I seek? I am the same as he.
His essence speaks through me.
I have been looking for myself.

After this breakthrough, waves of profound poetry flowed out of Rumi. He attributed more and more of his writings to Shams. His literary classic is a vast collection of poems called “The Works of Shams of Tabriz.” The Turkish government refused to help with translation of the last volume, which was finally published in 2006 as The Forbidden Rumi: The Suppressed Poems of Rumi on Love, Heresy, and Intoxication. It was forbidden both because of its homoerotic content and because it promotes the “blasphemy” that one must go beyond religion in order to experience God.

Rumi went on to live and love again, dedicating poems to other beloved men. His second great love was the goldsmith Saladin Zarkub. After the goldsmith’s death, Rumi’s scribe Husan Chelebi became Rumi’s beloved companion for the rest of his life. Rumi died at age 66 after an illness on Dec. 17, 1273. Soon his followers founded the Mevlevi Order, known as the whirling dervishes because of the dances they do in devotion to God.

Related links:
Rumi and Shams: A Love of Another Kind (Wild Reed)

Ramesh Bjonnes on Rumi and Shams as Gay Lovers (Wild Reed)

Another Male's Love Inspired Persia's Mystic Muse (

Love Poems of Rumi at

Rumi quotes at

5 Queer Couples in Islamic History (

*“Like This” is quoted from The Essential Rumi, which has translations by Coleman Barks with John Moyne. For the whole poem, visit

This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

FannyAnn Eddy: Lesbian martyr in Africa

FannyAnn Eddy was a major activist for LGBT rights in her native Sierra Leone and the rest of Africa. She was murdered on this date (Sept. 29) in 2004. Nobody was ever convicted of the crime.

She founded the Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Association in 2002 and advocated for LGBT rights at the United Nations. Her organization documented harassment, beatings and arbitrary arrests of LGBT people in her country.

In her testimony at the U.N Commission on Human Rights in April 2004, she affirmed that there are LGBT throughout Africa, but they live in fear.

With tragically prophetic words, she told the U.N, “We live in fear within our communities, where we face constant harassment and violence from neighbors and others. Their homophobic attacks go unpunished by authorities, further encouraging their discriminatory and violent treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”

Eddy was working alone at night in the Freetown offices of the Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Association when one or more attackers broke in and killed her. She was survived by her 10-year-old son and her girlfriend, Esther Chikalipa.

Eddy’s final words to the United Nations still resound today: “Silence creates vulnerability. You, members of the Commission on Human Rights, can break the silence. You can acknowledge that we exist, throughout Africa and on every continent, and that human rights violations based on sexual orientation or gender identity are committed every day. You can help us combat those violations and achieve our full rights and freedoms, in every society, including my beloved Sierra Leone.”

Related links:

FannyAnn Eddy at the Legacy Project

Uganda Martyrs raise questions on homosexuality, religion and LGBT rights (Jesus in Love)

David Kato: Ugandan LGBT rights activist (1964-2011) (Jesus in Love)


This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Good (Gay?) King Wenceslas

There’s good reason to believe that Good King Wenceslas was gay. Yes, the king in the Christmas carol.  His feast day is today (Sept. 28).

Saint Wenceslaus I (907–935) was duke of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic). The carol "Good King Wenceslas" is based on a legend about Wenceslaus and his loyal page Podiven. According to the story, it was a bitterly cold night when they went out to give alms to the poor on the Feast of St. Stephen, Dec. 26. Podiven could not walk any farther on his bare, frozen feet, so Wenceslas urged him to follow in his footsteps. His footprints in the snow stayed miraculously warm, allowing the pair to continue safely together.

Many details in the Christmas carol are pious fiction, but the king and his page are both grounded in historical truth. The following is based partly on research from Dennis O’Neill, author of “Passionate Holiness.”

The earliest accounts of Wenceslaus’ life mention his page -- but not the woman who supposedly gave birth to his son in more recent versions. An account written in the late 10th or early 11th century describes the young man who was a “worthy page” and “chamber valet” to Wenceslaus.

It says that Wenceslaus used to wake his page in the middle of the night to join him in doing charitable works. The page is described as “a youth from among his valets who, of all his servants, was the most trustworthy in secret matters. The saint himself truly loved him during his lifetime.”

Wenceslaus was murdered in a coup by his brother at the door of a church on Sept. 28 in the year 935. The records say that Podiven “was often overcome by grief, sorrowing for days on end.” The brother also had Podiven killed to stop him from spreading stories of the saintly Wenceslaus. Both Wenceslaus and his beloved Podiven are buried at St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague.

The icon above was painted by Colorado artist Lewis Williams of the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO). He studied with master iconographer Robert Lentz and has made social justice a theme of his icons. It is dedicated to the memory of Father Larry Craig, a Chicago priest known for service to the Latino community and prison ministry. Before his death in 2006, Father Craig used to stand outside the Cook County Jail at night, giving sandwiches and bus passes to surprised inmates who had just been released. He served as the model for Podiven’s face in this icon.

May these facts warm your heart whenever you hear or sing the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.”

Related link:

Thoughts on a Queer Christmas: The Feast of Stephen (Impact Magazine)

To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
San Venceslao I de Bohemia y Podiven: Venceslao, el buen rey (gay?)

To read this post in French / en français, visit Pays de Zabulon Un blog qui parle d'amour:
Saint Wenceslas et son ami

Top image credit:
"St. Wenceslaus and Podiven" by Lewis Williams, SFO. ©

This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, humanitarians, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts

The Wenceslaus and Podiven icon and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at Trinity Stores

Thursday, September 22, 2016

John McNeill: Pioneering gay priest and patron saint of LGBT Catholics

John J. McNeill was a pioneering gay priest, psychotherapist, author, theologian and Jesuit scholar who inspired countless LGBTQ people of faith and their allies. He died one year ago today on Sept. 22, 2015 in a hospice in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with his partner of 49 years, Charles Chiarelli, at his bedside. He was 90.

The National Catholic Reporter called him a “patron saint of LGBT Catholics” in the headline for his obituary.

McNeill began ministering to lesbian and gay Catholics in the 1970s, helped give birth to the LGBT Catholic organization Dignity in 1974, and wrote the groundbreaking 1976 book “The Church and the Homosexual.” He was silenced by the Vatican and expelled from the Jesuit order for coming out and promoting LBGT rights in church and society.

I first met McNeill in 1987, soon after he ended his silence. He came to preach at Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco, where I was serving on the clergy staff. He filled the church with a large and adoring crowd, and yet when I had the chance to greet him personally he seemed grounded and ready to focus his warmth on each individual interaction. I was impressed by his powerful-yet-gentle presence and the intellectual force behind his liberating theology.

McNeill became a colleague, inspiration and friend who supported virtually all my book projects over the next 28 years. He spent hours on the phone providing me with background material for my coming-out guide “Hide and Speak,” and eagerly wrote endorsements for my other books.

He went on to write more books on LGBT spirituality, including “Taking A Chance on God,” “Sex as God Intended,” “Freedom, Glorious Freedom” and “Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair.”

Conflicts between McNeill and the Vatican spanned decades, including a 2011 trip to Rome where he delivered a letter addressed to Pope Benedict XVI asking the church to condemn violence against LGBT people.

So it seems like no coincidence that McNeill died on the same day that Pope Francis arrived on his first visit to the United States. The timing of his death spared McNeill the pain of seeing the US media glorify the Pope while he slighted the suffering and needs of LGBT people. In another sense, McNeill's timely death passed the baton for the Pope to carry the holy effort to bring love and justice for all.

His life story is told in 2012 film “Taking A Chance on God.” It was directed by Brendan Brendan Fay, who co-produced “Saint of 9/11” about Father Mychal Judge. A trailer is online at YouTube.

McNeill is survived by Chiarelli and nephew Timothy J. McNeill. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Memorial gifts can be made to the John J. McNeill Legacy Fund, established by his family to provide support for the preservation and dissemination of his writings, lectures, and teachings.

May Father John McNeill join Christ and all the saints in heaven who provide a continual source of inspiration and assistance for LGBTQ people of faith. Rest in power, Father John!
Related links

The Rev. John J. McNeill, Jesuit priest who became famed LGBT activist, dies at 90 (Miami Herald)

John McNeill, Priest Who Pushed Catholic Church to Welcome Gays, Dies at 90 (New York Times)

Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair by Chris Glaser (Huff Post)

John J. McNeill Memorial page on Facebook

For more info, see previous posts at Jesus in Love:

Gay priest McNeill shakes up Rome with new moves and new movie

Update: Gay priest McNeill’s premiere succeeds despite rain in Rome at EuroPride

LGBT Christians to Pope: Stop homophobia! (plus photos of EuroPride & John McNeill)

This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, humanitarians, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts

Tyler Clementi: Gay teen driven to suicide by bullies

Tyler Clementi (1992-2010) brought international attention to bullying-related suicide of LGBT youth by jumping to his death on this date (Sept. 22) in 2010.

Clementi’s highly publicized tragedy made him into a gay martyr whose untimely death put a public face on the problems of LGBT teenagers. His story sparked efforts to support LGBT youth, raise awareness of the harassment they face, and prevent suicide among queer young people. Another result is new legislation stiffening penalties for cyber harassment.

His parents once considered suing Rutgers over their son's death, but in February 2013 they announced that they were working with the university to form the Tyler Clementi Center at Rutgers. It sponsors conferences and academic research to help students make the transition to college. They also established the Tyler Clementi Foundation to promote acceptance of LGBT youth and  more inclusive society.

Clementi was an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey when he was driven to suicide by his room mate's anti-gay cyber-bullying.

A talented violinist, Clementi came out to his parents as gay before leaving home for college. Three days before the suicide, Clementi’s room mate used a webcam to secretly record Clementi kissing another man in their dorm room and streamed the video live over the Internet. In messages posted online before he took his own life, Clementi told how he complained to authorities about the cyber-bullying and asked for a new room assignment. Then he jumped off the George Washington Bridge. It took a week to find his body.

The room mate, Dharum Ravi, also 18 at the time, was convicted on 15 counts, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, in connection with Clementi’s suicide. Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in jail; 3 years of probation; 300 hours of community service; fined $10,000; and ordered to undergo counseling on cyberbullying and alternate lifestyles. His accomplice, Molly Wei, avoided jail time by agreeing to testify against Ravi.

Anti-LGBT statements by public figures are also partly responsible for Clementi’s death. They created the hostile environment that drove Clementi to suicide. Artist Louisa Bertman emphasizes this point in her powerful ink illustration, “Tyler Clementi, JUMP!” She makes visible the hateful voices that may have been in Clementi’s mind. In her drawing, his head overflows with people urging him to jump. They are politicians as well as the actual students who bullied him. Their names are listed in a stark statement at the bottom of the drawing:

“Message brought to you by Sally Kern, Kim Meltzer, Nathan Deal, Carl Paladino, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Tom Emmer, Jeremy Walters, Rick Perry, Bob Vander Plaats, Dharun Ravi, and Molly Wei.”

Bertman, an artist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is known for her non-traditional portraits.

Clementi helped inspire the founding of the It Gets Better Project and Spirit Day. The It Get Better Project aims to stop suicide among LGBT teens with videos of adults assuring them that “it gets better.” Spirit Day, first observed on Oct. 20, 2010, is a day when people wear purple to show support for young LGBT victims of bullying.

Unfortunately Clementi’s experience is far from rare. Openly lesbian talk show host Ellen Degeneres spoke for many in a video message that put his suicide into context shortly after he died:

“I am devastated by the death of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi….Something must be done. This month alone, there has been a shocking number of news stories about teens who have been teased and bullied and then committed suicide; like 13-year-old Seth Walsh in Tehachapi, California, Asher Brown, 13, of Cypress, Texas and 15-year-old Billy Lucas in Greensberg, Indiana. This needs to be a wake-up call to everyone: teenage bullying and teasing is an epidemic in this country, and the death rate is climbing.”

Help is available right now from the Trevor Project, a 24-hour national help line for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning teens. Contact them at 866 4U TREVOR or their website:

Related links:

Tyler Clementi Foundation

Tyler Clementi Center at Rutgers

Day of Silence Prayer: Stop bullying God’s LGBTQ youth

A Brother's Pledge: Standing Up For Love by James Clementi (Believe Out Loud)

Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America” by Mitchell Gold and Mindy Drucker

Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens” by Kathy Belge and Marke Bieschke

It Gets Better Project video by Kittredge Cherry

Image credits:

Top: “Tyler Clementi, JUMP!” by Louisa Bertman

Tyler Clementi’s webcam photo of himself (Wikimedia Commons)
This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts