Mary, Mother of God, Help Me Find Queer Joy | Sojourners

Mary, Mother of God, Help Me Find Queer Joy

Image of Mary wearing a rainbow shawl. Image bernardojbp via Adobe, design by Candace Sanders.

This article is part of the series, The Joy of Being Queer and Christian; new articles will be added throughout the month of June.

Although the Roman Catholic Church might disagree with me, my Catholic faith revolves not around a man but rather a woman. Her hair is covered in an opaque veil; she wears a long white gown under a blue mantle. Her hands are outstretched and rays of light radiate from her fingertips, pouring down at her sides. Her name is Mary, mother of God, and within her rests the fulcrum of my queer Catholic joy and trauma. And it wasn’t until my early 20s that I started to see her as a gender-bending, queer prophetess who defied the gender conventions of her time.

My first impression of Mary was in the early 2000s while living in a largely Polish and Italian Chicagoland suburb. As a child, I felt her close at all times. I prayed the rosary every night, rubbing my fingers over the beads of my grandmother’s rosary until they hurt. Mary stood in the wings of every church I visited, smiling gently as I tripped up the aisle and fussed with the hymnal. She was a comfort, a maternal guardian angel, who followed me around until middle school.

Then, I attended my first church overnight retreat for Catholic middle school girls in the diocese — an event called “True Beauty.” It was the early 2000s during the height of the purity culture movement — a movement that equated abstinence and sexual purity with one’s personal salvation. After hours in the church, we lined up in the central aisle, mumbling and poking one another. We were each handed a single white rose to place on the altar which was meant to serve as a purity pledge. Each one of us walked the path alone. Mary also appeared on that altar, as the person we should aspire to be.

Even if unintentional, the ritual made me feel separate from Mary. While as a child it felt like she walked with me every Sunday up that aisle, encouraging me to cross my arms and close my eyes while praying, my middle school self felt like I was walking alone. During this church retreat, I was taught that Mary was the ideal virgin, heterosexual mother and wife; she was sexual purity incarnate. Mary had been transformed into a symbol of pure hyper-femininity, causing me to feel alienated from a figure I saw as the only representation of female divinity.

Over the next six years, I bent myself to become the woman I believed she was until I finally broke. It was in college while I was working as a research assistant for the Muncie LGBTQ+ Oral History Project. It was during an interview with the only queer-affirming wedding videographer in Indiana that I first learned about purity culture. At the same time, I was researching veiling traditions among young Catholic women — a practice closely associated with traditional gender roles and sexual purity. As I wrote about my findings, something pushed me to analyze my own faith experience and the way in which it impacted my gender and sexuality.

As a result, I turned my attention back to Mary. She was still standing in the corner of every church I visited, but for years, I had avoided her gaze, afraid that she would judge me for the person I had become, for failing to transform myself into a version of her. It wasn’t until I began the Queer and Catholic: A CLGS Oral History Project at the Pacific School of Religion that I learned about Mary’s importance to queer Catholics.

She was their mother, just as she was the mother of God. Because of who Mary was, she loved and accepted them as they were. For many LGBTQ+ theologians and laypeople, this perspective on Mary is what connects them to her and legitimizes their existence within Catholicism.

Bisexual pastor and activist Elle Dowd argues that Mary is a prophet because of how closely her Annunciation story matches that of Zechariah (Luke 1:8-23, 26-38). While both are visited by an angel, only Mary believes the words spoken by the angel. Because of her belief, she is transformed into a temple to carry the messiah, Jesus Christ. Although Mary would have been prohibited from entering the inner sanctuary of the temple in Jerusalem due to her gender, her womb became the ultimate temple as she carried Christ in her belly.

This Annunciation narrative is also critical because Luke notes that Mary questions how she can conceive a child without a husband. Gabriel, the angel replies, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (1:34-35).

Queer clergywoman Rev. Angela Yarber subverts the idea that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus represent a prototypical heterosexual family. Borrowing from feminist liberation theology, she argues that the Holy Spirit is feminine and the Annunciation narrative is a decidedly queer one in which Jesus’s two parents are women. Yarber argues: “God is a She … Mary and She Who Is (God) brought Jesus into the world. Jesus had two moms!” She recalls Sojourner Truth’s argument at the 1851 Ohio Women’s Convention that Christ came from God and a woman. “Man had nothing to do with him!”

“I think of the powerful potential of a Queer Mary that emboldens, empowers, and enlivens the queer community to be proud of who we are, to honor and celebrate the beauty of the families we create amidst outside threat,” writes Yarber. For Yarber, it’s ultimately about trusting queer theological interpretations and their potential to create an affirming and welcoming church.

Therefore, Mary can be understood as a queer liberator, defying heteronormative and traditional gender and sexual roles. The version of Mary that was presented to me on that middle school retreat never existed. She was the creation of cultures and institutions trying to uphold traditional gender roles, patriarchal divinity, and sexual purity. Digging into queer liberation theology has shown me how Mary shares my drive and will for the Christian faith.

When I look at Mary tucked in the corner of every church, I do not see her in blue and white anymore. Instead, she is bathed in brilliant rainbow light, opening her arms for an embrace.

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