"Going Our Own Way"
by Jesse Monteagudo
In "A Separate People Whose Time Has Come," the late Harry Hay —
founder of the Mattachine Society and the Radical Fairies — wrote
about the special roles that Lesbians and Gay men, bisexuals and
transgendered people, play in society: We are "messengers and
interceders, shamans of both genders, priestesses and priests,
imagemakers and prophets, mimes and rhapsodies, poets and
playwrights, healers and nurturers, teachers and preachers, tinkers
and tinkerers, searchers and researches." Since Hay wrote those words
other queer authors, mystics and philosophers have echoed his words
and his belief that homosexuality is more than just sexual
Gay, Lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people are special people,
and not just because our affectional or sexual orientation or our
gender identity is different from the majority's. We are special
because we play special roles in society. Since we are not limited by
strict categories of gender or sex, we often lead the way, leaving
others to follow. According to Judy Grahn, author of Another Mother
Tongue, "Society uses all Gay people who participate in Gay culture,
for special purposes. We are closely watched to see what constitutes
the limit of a thing — too far out, too much, too low, too bad, too
outrageous, too soft, too dangerous, too rough, too cultured, too
aggressive, too sexual." If we could go back in time and examine the
first woman or the first man who ever tried to do something new -
from world-shaking philosophies to styles of fashion — It's very
likely that she or he was Lesbian or Gay, even if that person never
expressed his or her sexuality.
One of the ways GLBT people lead the way is in the field of religion
and spirituality. This we do in spite of, and sometimes because of,
opposition in the part of the religious establishments. In many
cultures, sex and gender-variant people serve as priests, witches,
shamans and sages. And while traditional Judaism, Christianity and
Islam condemn homosexual acts, and often restrict the roles of women
to those of wife, mother, nurse, teacher or servant, they could not
keep many of our ancestors from expressing themselves in their own
unique ways. Many of our ancestors, in the days before GLBT-affirming
churches, synagogues and temples, became mystics, both as a way to
express their own unique talents and because mysticism involves a
personal relationship with God that does not require an intermediary.
Judaism, Islam and Christianity offer many examples of gender-variant
mystics, women and men, who by expressing their own spiritual
yearnings paved the way for others.
In Medieval Iran, the mystics of the Muslim Sufi tradition were often
Gay or bisexual men. For many Sufi masters, the path to the love of
God often went through the love of a beloved disciple, the
shahid. "God is Beauty," said the Qur'an; and for many Sufis that
beauty was most exquisitely expressed in the beauty of a young man.
In the case of Rumi, the greatest of the Sufi poets, his love for
another man was literally earth-shaking. For many years, Rufi shared
his life with his Beloved Friend, Shams al-Din. When Shams
mysteriously disappeared — probably murdered — Rumi mourned his
Friend in his own unique way. He put on mourning robes, a white shirt
open at the chest, a honey-colored fez, and sandals, and for forty
days danced a dance of lamentation and love in the garden where Shams
was apparently killed. From Rumi's experience came a new and lasting
religious order, the "whirling dervishes."
Our Jewish ancestors, who lived for most of the last two millennia as
minorities in Christian or Muslim lands, were not as free as the
Sufis to express themselves so freely. Yet gender and sexual variance
managed to come through at certain points of Jewish history. For
example, the authors of the Cabala, the great book of Jewish
mysticism, wrote at great length about the Adam Kadmon, the
androgynous primordial human, and about the Shekinah, the female
aspect of the Divine. And in Medieval Spain, at a time when Jews,
Christians and Muslims lived in harmony under the Moors, Gay or
bisexual Jewish poets like Moses Ibn Ezra, Solomon Ibn Gabirol and
Jehudah ha-Levi wrote poems that bridged the secular and the sacred.
Within European Christianity, the mystic tradition was often
expressed by members of various monastic orders. The Christian
monastic tradition attracted many men and women who had no intention
of getting married but who welcomed the opportunity to live in same-
sex communities where they were able to express or sublimate their
sexual or affectional orientation through prayer, song, religious
work and community service. Saint Aelred, abbot of the Cistercian
convent of Rievaulx in northern England in the middle of the twelfth
century, was obviously Gay, though probably celibate. To St. Aelred,
spiritual friendship, which Aelred called "true friendship," is "a
gift of God's grace." Though we don't know anything about St.
Aelred's sex life, if any, we are told that he cultivated "spiritual
friendships" with many of the young monks under his rule.
Many of the Christian mystics were nuns who, because of their gender,
were kept out of leadership positions in the Church. One of the great
nun mystics was Hildegard of Bingen, a 11th century abbess who was
also a poet, a prophet, a playwright, a composer and a scientist
whose writings indicate her love for other women. In 17th century
Mexico, another talented nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, wrote
volumes of mystic poetry from her cell in the convent of San Jerònimo
while at the same time conducting a series of passionate friendships
with other women, including the wife of the Viceroy.
Today's Lesbians and Gay men, bisexuals and transgendered people,
follow in the footsteps of these and other great mystics and poets
and saints. Many of us left the religious institutions that we grew
up in and gone our way, finding our own paths and expressing our own
gifts. And, by doing so, we inspire others to do the same. We are,
indeed, "a separate people whose time has come."
Jesse Monteagudo is a writer and activist who lives in South Florida.
Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.