Even with the recent proliferation of transgender characters in popular media, there remains a real dearth of strong trans representation in our culture. This is even truer when it comes to religion. That’s why a new exhibit at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley is so compelling. Titled “Queer Santas, Holy Violence,” the installation connects the persecution of saints and historical figures with the violence faced by contemporary trans men and women.
In 2001, queer Chicana artist Alma Lopez created a series of paintings depicting various Catholic saints as gender outlaws. Small details—female saints blessed with a beard that exempts them from an unwanted marriage—urges us to reconsider the relationships between gender, sexuality, history, and faith.
Not surprisingly, not everyone appreciates Lopez’s artistic license. Protests have accompanied “Queer Santas” in New Mexico, Ireland, and Oakland. But controversy is nothing new for Lopez—a Catholic group called her a “blasphemer” after she exhibited her “Lady of Guadalupe” image internationally (see photo above). The Pacific School of Religion, where the new exhibit is on display through January 9, hasn’t reported any protests or criticism so far, but Justin Tanis, the school’s managing director, says he’s prepared to “offer hospitality to any protesters.” He credits the images’ openness as one reason they’ll appeal to a diverse audience. They declare “I am natural, I am one of God’s people,” Tanis said about the artworks.
Information about other displays and works by Alma Lopez can be found on her website.