Tomorrow I will be going to a friend’s 7th grade classroom presentation of “famous people in history.” She has 120 students who will be dressing up as someone in history and doing a presentation board about this person—as well as dressing in costume. She asked me to come in costume as Frida Kahlo. As many of you know, I admire/adore Frida Kahlo and wrote a blog last year extolling her praises; actually it was a “valentine towards an ethics of loving women and art.” (And every year I dress as Frida and help a friend do a lively lotería game at an LGBT celebration of Cinco de Mayo at our Church.)
My friend told me that while there would not be a Diego Rivera in her crowd of costumed living historians—there would be Frida’s lover Josephine Baker (someone saw the movie Frida and knew Josephine and Frida were “friends”), and there would be several Guadalupes.
This got me thinking that for children/teens – especially children brought up in religious households (and especially Catholic households, of which I was such a child) – saints and real people are often conflated. And famous real people one admires often are given “sainthood” in one’s imaginary church.
So, then, for me since I will be conversing tomorrow with the Virgin of Guadalupe as well as other Fridas – I imagine us all part of the same “heaven”—Frida, the Virgin of Guadalupe, Josephine Baker and more. I canonize Frida Kahlo in my own church.
Last year Comunidad, the support group for the Ministry of Gay and Lesbian Catholics at St. Mathew’s Church in Long Beach, Ca where I serve as a board member, conducted one of our monthly gatherings as an honoring of “Gay Saints.” Among them we named Harvey Milk as a “gay saint.” Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay officials in the United States in 1977 and was tragically gunned down the following year. Has he been canonized? Not by “the Church” but by the gay Church of many folks—yes, he has been canonized.
Speaking of religious language and its usage—let us look briefly at other religious terms and our ability to use them outside the context of the traditional Church. I was recently guest lecturing on my book Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars and Theology Before Stonewall, in which I argue that for gay folk pre-Stonewall (pre-1975), the gay bar was an alternate “church space” because for one thing, gay folk were exiled from all major and minor religions until the 1970s—exiled as sinners and outcasts. I speak of gay people being “baptized” in the affirming gaze of each other at the gay bar when the rest of the world was against them. As I was speaking I could see the small cadre of gay and gay affirming students nodding vigorously. This was a fairly conservative school and it was indeed revelatory for me to affirm gay and lesbian history pre-Gay Pride of the 1970s as something sacred.
However, within the last two minutes of the class a young very earnest man raised his hand and asked me to “please stop profaning the word ‘baptism’.” I replied that I was not “profaning” baptism. After all “baptism” simply means born anew; and the actual Webster’s Dictionary definition means, yes, the Christian sacrament “using water for ritual purification,” but also “an act, experience, or ordeal by which one is purified, sanctified, initiated or named.” Certainly then the gay folk pre-Stonewall were initiated and named in their coming into a consciousness of friendship and love within the illicit yet accepting, dangerous yet loving, atmosphere of the pre-Stonewall bar.
As I spoke with this young man, I tried to explain some of this, but he insisted that I was indeed “profaning baptism” by suggesting that gay folk pre-Stonewall could experience “baptism” by going to a gay bar and experiencing for the first time the transformative nature of the gaze—the gaze of friendship.
And then – it hit me. I didn’t need to change his mind. In fact, this was a teachable moment for the class I was lecturing to. So I simply thanked the young man and said that I had spent the past hour and fifteen minutes trying to help them understand the world of homophobia that gay folks existed in pre-Stonewall and that this young man had illustrated it quite clearly. I asked them to imagine that every person a gay person pre-Stonewall met outside of the gay bar had this attitude—that they were sinners and were “profaning” not just baptism but any of the sacraments and any church attendance and were sinners/ i.e. evil simply by existing. I said this was the entire world attitude for pre-Stonewall gays and I thanked god it was not the world that gay folks live in today.
Was I profaning baptism?
No, I don’t believe so. I am not asking to be baptized into his church. I am not asking him to be baptized into the pre-Stonewall bar “church” either. But – this interaction begs the question—are we “allowed,” those of us who discourse religiously, to use religious terms for our experiences in ways other than perhaps their original intended use? After all, to give the young man his due- the Christian sacrament of “baptism” is the first meaning listed in Webster’s and the ability to initiate or be named is the second meaning.
The word “saint” is a little trickier—but the fifth Webster’s meaning of “saint” is “an illustrious predecessor.” The first meaning is one officially recognized by the church for canonization, the second refers to those spirits of the departed in heaven, the third one is God’s chosen and the fourth meaning refers to one who is eminent for piety or virtue. I could argue that Frida Kahlo, on several levels of this definition, fits the bill—but certainly she fits the bill of the fifth definition—“an illustrious predecessor.”
It helps me as a Catholic, a gay Catholic, to have “saints” that I relate to, that I can “pray” to for intercession for my needs. I was trained to not pray to God (“He’s awfully busy!”) but to pray to the saints. The canon of saints had saints for everything from Saint Veronica (who wiped the face of Jesus on his way up Calvary and therefore is the patron saint of photographers) to Saint Jude (the patron saint of impossible causes). But, as a young woman, there was no specific saint I was to pray to for being a feminist artist, for being a gay person… for being a woman on my own.
The official record of saints is approximately 8,050. But this includes people the Church also indicates as “blessed” or “venerable.” Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints lists 1,700. But Pope Benedict in 2012 said there are 810. So, it is just not the feminist artists and gay men who aren’t allowed “sainthood.”
Having said that—it seems that we might as well get friendly with the language and (not profane) these religious terms—but use them—even if we make good use of their definitions beyond the traditional and first usage.
I for one intend to call Frida a “saint” from now on in my own canon of saints that I pray to. And I invite you to name into sainthood those venerable and illustrious folk that help you and guide you and have paved the way for you.
That’s what Gay Pride Month is all about, and what our lives are about—paving a way for others and honoring the path that was paved for us.
*All photos by author unless otherwise noted.
Marie Cartier is a teacher, poet, writer, healer, artist, and scholar. She holds a BA in Communications from the University of New Hampshire; an MA in English/Poetry from Colorado State University; an MFA in Theatre Arts (Playwriting) from UCLA; an MFA in Film and TV (Screenwriting) from UCLA; and an MFA in Visual Art (Painting/Sculpture) from Claremont Graduate University. She is also a first degree black belt in karate, Shorin-Ryu Shi-Do-Kan Kobayashi style. Ms. Cartier has a Ph.D. in Religion with an emphasis on Women and Religion from Claremont Graduate University.