Welcome to YESTERQUEERS, Kayla Goggin's monthly column dedicated to LGBTQ icons throughout history.
Of all the crazy shit organized religion asks us to believe about the Bible, the craziest is that in four thousand years of human history there was not a single queer.
For centuries, the Bible has been a favored tool by countless oppressors in their fight against LGBTQ rights. Scripture, they insist, is clear about God's position on gay relationships: they're "an abomination." Except the Bible doesn't say that. Unlike the public figures and presidential hopefuls constantly spouting it, the Bible actually has a lot of nuance and is capable of metaphor.
In the most commonly referenced verse (Leviticus 18:22*, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination”), the Hebrew word To'ebah was translated into English as "abomination," but it's actually a technical term for what is “ritually unclean”, like pork or having sex with a woman on her period. To'ebah wasn't about moral or ethical issues; the passage more than likely referred to the perceived ickiness of non-traditional gender roles. See? Nuance!
Christian authorities on biblical interpretation, seminarians, and biblical scholars agree that there is zero evidence that the Bible condemns homosexuality. Besides, the authors of the various books of the Bible didn't share our modern sexual customs anyway—marriages were arranged and romantic dating hadn't even been invented yet. Their cultural understanding of sexual relationships had less to do with desire and way more to do with power and divisions of class.
Sex was a valence; penetration was seen as a mode of asserting cultural dominance. The proper targets of a man’s sexual desire would've been those whose legal and political rights were below his—specifically women, boys, and foreigners or slaves of either gender. Sex was sex no matter the gender of the person getting you off; the idea that some sort of innate, personal sexuality could define the experience of sex would've been alien to ancient peoples. (Or ancient to alien peoples?)
Just because queerness hadn't been defined yet doesn't mean it didn't exist. The fact that the Bible makes no specific mention of its immorality is actually evidence for the relative acceptance of romantic homosexual relationships at the time.
A closer look at the Bible reveals gay people doing gay shit together from the very gay beginning.
The Old Testament contains one of history's greatest lesbian romances: Ruth and Naomi. Naomi was an Israelite whose husband and sons died during a famine, leaving her alone with her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Ruth and Naomi eventually exchange vows of love and Ruth goes on to marry a man, Boaz, explicitly to protect the women’s relationship and ensure their survival.
Here's Ruth's declaration of love to Naomi: "Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God" (Ruth 1:16). Ironically, this passage has been used in straight wedding ceremonies for years.
A few verses earlier, Ruth embraces Naomi: "And they lifted up their voice, and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clave unto her" (Ruth 1:14). The Hebrew word for "clave" in that verse is the same word that’s used to describe the straight marriage of Adam and Eve's children: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). This is one of the more hotly debated bits of language in the Bible, but the evidence absolutely suggests the word “clave” may have had the same sexual connotation for Ruth and Naomi as it did for Adam's sons.
Then there's David and Jonathan, the original gay warrior fanfic couple. The Bible introduces them like this: "The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul" (1 Samuel 18:1). To the ancient Israelites, the "soul" represented a combination of body and spirit, so the verse suggests these two loved each other both physically and emotionally.
David and Jonathan also kiss: ". . . and they kissed one another and wept with one another until David exceeded." (1 Samuel 20:41). However, the original Hebrew says that David “became large" (gadal) while kissing Jonathan. The earliest preserved text of this verse appears in the Greek Septuagint and reads, “And each kissed the other, and each bewailed the other, until a great [mutual] fulfilment [or: consummation].” Someone please go tell Mike Huckabee there are gay erections in the Bible and report back.
If you're still not convinced, here's what David says when he learns of Jonathan's death: "I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women." (2 Samuel 1:26). If he had said it with Jonathan's dick in his mouth I don't think it could possibly be any clearer, but people still insist these two were just "close friends."
There are plenty of other examples (Daniel and Ashpenaz, Lydia, etc.) and allegorical readings of biblical stories which have potential LGBTQ connections. Some people see the story of Doubting Thomas, the disciple who refused to believe in the resurrection until he touched Christ's scars, as an allegory for those who doubt the trans* experience and demand physical proof of gender identity. Biblical scholars also continue to debate the sexuality of Christ himself.
As we celebrate the gays of the Bible, we can't forget the real star of the story: King James himself. Yes, the King who commissioned the most widely read English translation of the most important book of all time was so shamelessly, openly gay that Sir Walter Raleigh publicly called him "Queen James." In her book The Lion and The Throne, Catherine Bowen notes that Raleigh made this “joke” repeatedly.
James had three long-term affairs with men, the first of which was with his cousin, Esme Stuart, who was thirty-seven, married, and had five kids when the affair began. James was a teenager at the time. Their relationship ended the way it began: in complete and utter creepiness. When Stuart died four years later, he left his embalmed heart to James in his will.
The King's second affair, with a gentleman named Robert Carr, ended when Carr blackmailed James and threatened to reveal their sexual relationship. In response, James threw Carr in the Tower of London for seven years and forgot about him so he could start hooking up with George Villiers, the First Duke of Buckingham.
In the midst of all this English Reformation gay sex, the Puritans came to King James and commissioned the King James Version. The Bible of the times, they said, was "too corrupt" for their tastes.
Blessed be the Lord for he bestows upon us delicious, delicious irony. Amen.
Kayla Goggin is a freelance writer based in Savannah, GA. She is the editor of the Savannah Art Informer, the arts columnist for Connect Savannah and has contributed writing to MESH Magazine, XOJane, and elsewhere.
The Lion and the Throne, by Catherine D. Bowen
Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, by John Boswell
The Seventeenth-Century Literature Handbook, ed. by Robert C. Evans and Eric J. Sterling
The Evangelical Response to Homosexuality: A Survey, Critique, and Advisory by Jeffrey Satinover (published in A Public Faith: Evangelicals and Civic Engagement, ed. Michael Cromartie)
But Ruth Clung to Her: Textual Constraint on Ambiguity in Ruth 1:14, by Scott N. Callaham
*All Bible verses referenced in this article are from the King James Version.