Queering Iconography

Celebrating the Wonder of Radical Imagination

It’s no secret that the bulk of religious iconography from across spiritual traditions highlights the faces of men, oftentimes whitewashed to erase the varied hues of skin that our saints embodied. Overlooked, strategically erased, and missing are the bold faces of women, queers, people of color, and the holy ones whose identities intersect these differences. As an artist, activist, and author at the Holy Women Icons Project, I seek to evoke wonder by painting and writing about those whose faces we don’t often see stained in glass or canonized as icons. Most bold among the over 100 holy women folk-feminist icons are some of the queer women of color who have lived and loved bravely and prophetically inside and outside the confines of religion.

Pauli Murray was a queer black woman raised in Durham, NC. She was a civil rights attorney, coining the phrase “Jane Crow” to acknowledge the role of sexism in addition to racism in Jim Crow laws. In her sixties, she became the first African American woman ordained Episcopal priest. All the while she loved women, also claiming that if she could transition from Pauli to Paul, she would, thus providing hope and holiness, not only for women, lesbians, and African Americans, but also for transgender persons. Discriminated against because of her race, gender, sexuality, and gender identity, Murray was hope incarnate as she came out again and again, inviting us to consider “coming out” as a spiritual practice.

Frida Kahlo was a Mexican revolutionary, artist, and queer lover. Kahlo fell in love with both painting and Diego Rivera after a tragic bus accident put her in a full-body cast. Though she savored her role as the adoring wife of the “genius artist,” she was also a queer feminist, artist, and political revolutionary in her own right. One may say that Frida Kahlo was the inaugurator of folk feminist art, birthing the surrealist movement. Frida, a sexually fluid woman, pursued other lovers, and so did Rivera. Most famous among her lovers were artist Isamu Noguchi and dancer/singer/actress Josephine Baker. She painted her reality, inviting us to fully live into our own realities.

Overlooked, strategically erased, and missing are the bold faces of women, queers, people of color, and the holy ones whose identities intersect these differences.

Perpetua and Felicity were North African women arrested for being Christian in the third century. Imprisoned together, there are stories that the two women—described as “dear friends”—held one another and kissed in their final moments before death on March 7, 203. Perpetua kept a diary, which is acknowledged as one of the first written documents by a woman in church history. Though Perpetua was married, her husband is conspicuously absent in her journals. Instead, it is filled with thoughts of Felicity. Gay historian John Boswell named Perpetua and Felicity as the Patron Saint of Same-Sex Couples. These two women had the audacity to love one another and their god at a time when neither was permitted, inviting us to consider the cost of queer spirituality.

The Shulamite teaches us to subvert spirituality. The Song of Songs is traditionally understood as a love poem between a man and woman. But the Shulamite, whose poem is found in Song of Songs 6-7, tells us something different because her lover was most certainly another woman. I first encountered the Shulamite in a passing reference by dance historian Wendy Buonaventura. She listed the Shulamite as an example of a bellydancer in the Hebrew bible. From there, dance history and Hebrew translation collided in the most unlikely way as queerness dripped off the pages of the sacred text. Since bellydance is historically a dance performed by women for women—where men are not permitted—it is most certain that the lover doting upon the Shulamite’s quivering curves was, in fact, another woman. As the Shulamite subverts traditional spiritualities linked to Song of Songs by Jews and Christians, she invites us to consider how we might subvert spirituality.

Marsha P Johnson  was a self-professed drag queen, sex worker, and gay liberation activist. She co-founded STAR, the Street Transvestite (now transgender) Action Revolutionaries with Sylvia Rivera. As a black trans woman, Marsha P has been overlooked as a formative presence in the Stonewall uprising and in the history of LGBTQ activism. Denied the privilege of marching in some of the first Pride Parades, she was often questioned by straight people, gay people, and the police about her sexuality or gender identity. Her response remained the same: “Pay it no mind.” This, she claimed, was what the “P” in Marsha P. Johnson stood for in her name. This patron saint of Christopher Street had courage to live authentically, as Marsha P invites us to “pay it no mind” when others wish to take away our pride.

Guanyin is the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy and Compassion. In the Lotus Sutras, she originates from a bodhisattva named Avalokitesyara. Avalokitesyara is identified as male in the Lotus Sutras. Overtime Avalokitesyara transitions from male to becoming Guanyin, most often portrayed in feminine terms and referred to as “she.” Many scholars assert that Guanyin is androgynous and can take on the form of any sentient being, no matter the gender. And this is how most people speak about Guanyin, as the divinely androgynous one who is often portrayed in feminine form. Placing her into the category of “androgynous” stems from cisgender privilege, though. This privilege does not view the world through transgender eyes; if only one reads Guanyin’s transformative story through her lens of compassionate mercy, one may notice it is a story of transcending the binaries that bind, offering a wide embrace. Because Guanyin has been and continues to be claimed as a trans icon for many in the transgender community, Guanyin invites us to consider how we might transcend the binaries that bind.

Gloria Anzaldúa was a scholar-activist who focused on the intersections among queer theory, feminist theory, and Chicana cultural theory. Born in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, Anzaldúa also bridged the borders of personal and academic writing, weaving together theory with lived experience, English with Spanish, and inviting readers into a new world—Mundo Zurdo—that transcended these seeming binaries. With split tongue, she code switched, building bridges broad enough to span chasms of differences, inviting us to build bridges at the borders of difference.

And Audre Lord teaches us to rage against injustice. A black feminist/womanist poet and civil rights activist who described herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” she dedicated her life to confronting the intersections of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. With imagination, poetry, and creativity, her words created new worlds of power and beauty for the least among us. Her life and legacy embolden us all to rage against injustice.

These are merely glimpses into the lives, legends, and legacies of eight queer women of color who have subverted spirituality, and in so doing, invite us all to consider the wonder of queering spirituality, whether one remains in the church or not. It is for these reasons, and so many others, that the Holy Women Icons Project has created a 7-Day Online Queer Spirituality Retreat, which is an opportunity to subversively queer your spirituality, and for the LGBTQ+ community, to celebrate our spirituality without having to translate it through the lens of heteronormativity. Each retreat day takes about 20 minutes and includes an inspirational quote, an icon image, a reflective essay, a guided writing exercise, a ritual exercise, and a closing blessing. It is available anytime and anywhere. So, open your heart to wonder, subvert your spirituality, and join us as we honor these queer holy women of color with gratitude and pride.

Art, Audre Lorde, Felicity, Frida Kahlo, Gloria Anzaldúa, Iconography, LGBTQ, Pauli Murray, Perpetua, Queer Spirituality, retreat

Angela Yarber

Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is authorartist, and Executive Director at the Holy Women Icons Project, a non-profit that seeks to empower marginalized women by telling the stories of revolutionary holy women through art, writing, and special events. With a Ph.D. in Art and Religion, she is also an ordained queer clergywoman. The author of seven booksaddressing the intersections among the arts, religion, and gender/sexuality, four of which were awarded the Top LGBTQ Christian Books of their respective publication years, she is currently querying literary agents for her eighth book. After fourteen years as a pastor and over a decade as a professor, Angela and her wife left their jobs, sold their home, and traveled full-time with their toddler; this wild adventure took them to Hawai’i Island where they partnered with the television show Tiny House Nation to build their off-grid home, which is the first step in creating the Holy Women Icon Project’s retreat center. Her work has been featured on NPR’s Progressive Spirit and Maya Angelou’s memorial celebration. For more, visit www.holywomenicons.com or follow HWIP on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram.