Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Hidden History of Queer Biblical Interpretation

According to the Astrodienst site, my horoscope for today and tomorrow features the Moon making rather emotional transits in my chart. According to today's reading "Your emotions are so much closer to the surface of your being that you can see them clearly" while tomorrow I'm told " In your relations with others, you will project much more emotionally than usual" so maybe that's why I'm so caught up with reflecting on same sex love and desire.

Another reason relates to my involvement with the LGBT History Action Group through Qld Association for Healthy Communities (QAHC). It's Pride Festival time in June and one of our projects is a Brisbane Queer History Bus Tour which is going to take place on 27 June. Yesterday we reconnoitred the tour itinerary. While most of it goes by old pubs and other venues (or the sites where they used to be) there are three sites which are intricately linked in the most personal way, St Mary's Anglican Church Kangaroo Point, the Mt Olivet Hospital and Hospice Kangaroo Point just down the road from the Church, and a grave over on the other side of town at Toowong cemetery.

The grave is of two remarkable women, Lilian Cooper and Josephine Cooper. Now rather than give my own version of their story I'm going to reproduce material from two sites. The first is from the State Library of Queensland page titled Lilian Cooper and Josephine Bedford: Lifelong companions who travelled against the tide

In 1861, two remarkable women who would improve the lives of women and children in Brisbane, were born in England. Lilian Cooper decided at an early age, and against her parents’ wishes, that she wanted to be a doctor. While studying in London, she shared rooms with Josephine Bedford. They became lifelong companions. In 1891 at the age of 30, Dr Cooper accepted a position in Brisbane as a doctor’s assistant. She and Miss Bedford travelled half way around the world together, only to discover that Dr Cooper’s new employer was an alcoholic and impossible to work with.

With gritty determination and bolstered by Josephine’s support, Lilian decided to set up her own private practice in The Mansions on George Street. She encountered fierce opposition from the all-male medical fraternity but was undeterred. Within six months her medical and surgical skills were recognised and her practice began to grow. Dr Cooper made house calls in a horse and sulky by day and a bicycle by night.

When motor cars were first available in 1905, she became one of the first women to drive a car in Brisbane. She did all her own mechanical repairs and was often heard cursing and swearing at an obstinate engine. Lilian Cooper was a founding member of the RACQ. When World War I broke out, both women volunteered with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, an organisation staffed entirely by women. They served in Serbia for 12 months – Dr Cooper as a surgeon and Miss Bedford as the head of the ambulance service.

After the war, they returned to Brisbane. Dr Cooper continued practicing medicine in her consulting rooms and as an Honorary Medical Officer at the Hospital for Sick Children in Herston and the Mater Misericordiae Hospital in South Brisbane. She retired from medicine in 1941 at the age of 80.

As well as supporting Lilian and running their busy household, Josephine Bedford worked tirelessly to improve the lives of impoverished women and children. She helped to establish the Creche and Kindergarten Association in 1907 and the Playground Association in 1913. The Bedford Playground in Spring Hill is named in her honour. Even at the age of 89, this slightly built but enormously energetic woman was organising an antiques exhibition to raise funds for the Association.

On 18 August 1947, Dr Lilian Cooper died quietly at her home in Kangaroo Point. She left all her assets to Josephine. To commemorate the work of Queensland’s first female medical practitioner and her lifelong companion, Josephine Bedford donated their house to the Sisters of Charity, on the proviso that it be used to build a hospice for the sick and dying. Today Mount Olivet Hospital stands where Lilian Cooper and Josephine Bedford once lived. They are buried together at Toowong Cemetery.

The second is from the Lesbians in 1900 Brisbane page:

Dr Lilian Cooper was Queensland's first female doctor, described as a champion of women and children and "a mannish and abrupt woman who was idolised by her patients." (Courier-Mail 5.6.1991)

“One (male colleague) jokingly said to her (Dr Cooper), 'What you want is a wedding ring.' (where have we heard that, albeit modernised and more vulgarly expressed, since?) 'I'd wear it on my big toe,' she flashed back contemptuously. Nothing could have insulted her more deeply than the suggestion that she should prefer marriage to medicine. Actually, she would have preferred death on the rack to marriage. The antagonism she had always felt for men had hardened in recent years into utter contempt." From a biographical essay on Lilian Cooper by Lorraine Cazalar, 1970.

Cooper opened her own practice in George Street in 1891 when she was 30 years old. Shunned by the city's all-male medical fraternity, she was at first denied the services of an anaesthetist for her operations. She was finally admitted to the Queensland Medical Society in 1893, and was the first woman surgeon appointed to the Mater Public Hospital. Lilian and Josephine were both members of the Pioneer Club, a women only club loosely linked to the Women's Franchise League

After Cooper's death in 1947, her partner Josephine first offered their Kangaroo Point clifftop home to the Anglican church. The men of the church in their wisdom refused the house, for unknown reasons. So Bedford approached the Catholic Sisters of Charity who readily agreed to convert the house into a hospice for the aged and dying. That hospice later evolved into the Mount Olivet Hospital.

And so it was a very moving experience for me to stand at the gravesite yesterday. It's very simple compared to many of the graves in the cemetery. Also considering that when the notion that Lilian and Josephine were lesbians was first publicly mooted there was quite an outcry from many quarters. But yet standing at the gravesite, everything about it pinged my gaydar. Not least the "God is love" verse inscribed on the grave stone together with a verse from the Book of Wisdom "They are thine, O Lord, Thou Lover of souls" (11.26). In death Josephine proclaims their love unashamedly and grounds it in the Divine Love. Love is central to the European Homosexual Tradition and the tradition is not unafraid to draw on the Christian mythos. And on her headstone Josephine does so both beautifully and confidently.

But there is more. I had hoped that I would for my last post for May do something on the New Testament and I was initially considering linking up to a post on gospel dating over at Source Theory. However there is an even more fascinating aspect of biblical interpretation, and also New Testament related, that links Lilian and Josephine to St Mary's Church at Kangaroo Point.

I'll quote again from the Lesbians in 1900 Brisbane site

Josephine also commemorated her lifelong love of Lilian with a double stained-glass window which she donated to the Warriors' Chapel of St Mary's (Anglican and next door to the hospital) which can still be viewed on the southern side of the little church. It features a Roman centurion asking Jesus for the salvation of the centurion's slave. The centurion oppressor is risking his life to save his slave. Why did Cooper and Bedford choose this particular theme (they probably discussed donating the window before Cooper died, and as educated women they would have had access to theology and Roman history)

Here is the image also from the same site (photographed by Shev Armstrong)

their donated stained glass window

What is the significance of this image which is based on the story in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10? For that I want to quote from an article by Jack Clark Robinson in the November-December 2007 issue of the Gay and Lesbian Review

THE GREEK WORDS used to tell the story of the centurion and his servant provide several linguistic reasons for arguing that the story involved a gay man. First, however, a clarification: the word “homosexuality” is not found here or anywhere in scripture. It was only in the late 1800’s that the Western scientific community began to name this sexual orientation using this word. Thus the very Greek-sounding word “homosexuality,”‘ coined in the late 19th century, cannot be found in the New Testament or anywhere else in an ancient Greek text. But this does not mean that we cannot spot what we would call gay relationships in other historical periods and documents, including in Judeo-Christian scripture, very possibly in the above passage.

The Greek word translated “appealing” in the passage is parakaloon. Only a few verses later, the translators rendered the same Greek word “beg” (Matthew 8:34). They also translated the same word “beg” in three more uses by Matthew (14:36, 18:29, and 18:32). The translators may have doubted that a Roman centurion would beg from an itinerant Jewish preacher like Jesus. But suppose the relationship of this centurion and his servant was not superficial. If this particular centurion were gay and in love with his servant, begging is what he would do, if his beloved suffered dreadfully and by begging he could bring about relief for that suffering.

The translators preserved the differences between two other Greek words, which could easily have been confused. One of these words is doulos. This word, translated “slave,” occurs only in verse 9 of the passage. Doulos was the ordinary word used to indicate a slave. It referred to a slave of any age or any sort. A doulos could have been the highly trusted and highly educated slave who directed a large enterprise owned by some rich citizen, such as a huge estate, a fleet of trading vessels, or a factory producing great quantities of pottery. At the same time, doulos referred to the most menial worker slave in any of those same enterprises.

The word translated “servant” is the Greek word pais, which had a variety of meanings. It could mean “boy.”‘ Pais occurred here only when the centurion himself described his relationship to the sick person. Pais appeared simply as the word “servant” rarely in the New Testament: here, in Luke 7 (a parallel account of Matthew 8), and in Galatians 4. Pais occurs some twenty other places in the New Testament, usually translated either as “boy” or as a very particular form of “servant.” Apart from Luke 7 and Matthew 8, pais was translated “servant” nine times, with five of those uses being references to Jesus himself. Twice the word referred to David, and once to Israel. In the reference in Galatians, Paul used the word to refer to Hagar and there recalled specifically that she was the mother of Ishmael. Pais appeared at times to denote a complicated relationship of unusual intimacy in the New Testament. At various times it referred to an adult servant, a child, Jesus, David, Israel, and Hagar.

The age of this particular pais remains undetermined. The term doulos, used almost exclusively about this figure in Luke’s account of the episode, does not indicate age. Further, the use of pais in reference to the fully adult Jesus, David, and Israel, and the reference to Hagar as a mother indicate that pais cannot be limited to a term for a child or servant. The term was used in a manner similar to the historic use of “boy” in referring to an adult considered socially inferior. Fully adult black males were commonly called “boy” in the southern United States or South Africa well into living memory.

Outside the New Testament, the use of pais was further complicated, as illustrated by these words from historian K. J. Dover (1989): “The junior partner in homosexual eros is called pais (or, of course, paidika) even when he had reached adult height and hair has begun to grow on his face, so that he might more appropriately be called neaniskos, meirakion, or ephebos.” Linguistically, the meaning of pais cannot be limited to “servant,” but the possible meanings must also include a sexual partner or “boy” in the sense of social inferior.

Now Robinson is not the first to have argued that interpretation of the story. Over at Michael Bayly's The Wild Reed, he put up a piece from William A Percy critiquing Robinson's piece for not providing "a detailed outline of the history and development of the thesis that the Roman centurion was what we’d now call gay." Percy provides such a detailed outline from which I'll quote the following:

Robinson could have greatly improved his insufficiently referenced article, “Jesus, the Centurion and His Lover,” (The Gay and Lesbian Review, Nov.-Dec. 2007) by citing Donald Mader’s closely argued “The Entimos Pais of Matthew’s 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10,” first printed in the now-defunct Paidika (1, 1987), and then reprinted in Wayne Dynes and Stephen Donaldson’sHomosexuality and Religion and Philosophy(XII of their thirteen-volume Studies in Homosexuality, Garland, 1992, now available at He would also had benefited from awareness of Theodore Jennings Jr. and Tat-Siong Benny Liew’s meticulously sourced “Mistaken Identities But Model Faith: Rereading the Centurion, the Chap, and the Christ” in The Journal of Biblical Literature(123:3, 2004).

Or, for that matter, Robinson could have noted Tom Horner’s Jonathon Loved David (1978), written at the height of the gay liberation movement. Both Mader and Jennings and Liew credit Horner with being the first theologian (at least in the English language) to suggest that the Centurion and his “boy,” whom Jesus cured from near death, is a text about pederasty, although Horner does not attempt an analysis of the text himself. Despite Mader’s and Jennings & Liew’s assertion, it was apparently one of Fr. Robinson’s own co-religionists, Dr. John McNeill, S.J. to whom the honor should actually go. Two years prior to the publication of Horner’s book, in an obscure interview published in Christopher Street magazine, “God and Gays: A New Team” (interview with J.J. O’Neill by Charles Ortleb, Christopher Street, October, 1976), McNeill says: “The four gospels are totally silent on this issue of homosexuality. There is no explicit reference to it whatsoever. There is one curious story of the Roman centurion whose boy servant is ill. Jesus is asked to cure him. It is said that the centurion loved the boy very deeply; one could read into it a homosexual relationship.”

However around 30 years earlier on the othe side of the world, Josephine Bedford chose exactly this story as the basis of two stained glass windows commemorating her "lifelong love of Lilian." As the Lesbians in 1900 Brisbane site asks, "Why did Cooper and Bedford choose this particular theme (they probably discussed donating the window before Cooper died, and as educated women they would have had access to theology and Roman history)."

It then continues: "It seems likely that Cooper and Bedford knew 100 years ago that this passage in the Bible had some relevance for their own relationship and lifestyle." I am inclined to agree. I can't believe that this is a coincidence. I suspect that we have evidence here of an underground stream of queer biblical interpretation, tellings and retellings of biblical tales in ways that affirm the love of woman for woman and man for man.

I have only seen the windows from the outside and am really eager to see them inside the church and in all their glory. I also think Lilian and Josephine's grave should be a site of pilgrimage for all of us who belong to that army of lovers, and also that church. And it might be salutary for biblical scholars, especially those in New Testament, to stand at that grave and before those windows.


  1. A fascinating read - and making their grave a site of pilgrimage is a wonderful idea. Thankyou for providing all the background to their story.

  2. I attended the GLBT Pride History tour and it was fabulous. Many thanks you you Michael and also Gai fo ryour efforts in providing such a great tour and commentary. Very moving experience and I am looking forward to the 2010 tour.

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