Break Out Your Queer Bibles, Say Your Sapphic Prayers: A Review of Emily Austin’s “Gay Girl Prayers”

Emma Cieslik

Today’s post is from guest contributor Emma Cieslik (she/her), who is a queer museum professional and religious scholar researching the intersections between gender, sexuality, material culture, and religion.

In six of the poems in Gay Girl Prayers, a poetry collection by Canadian writer Emily Austin, there are ten girls in Heaven who take up their lamps every night. The poems take their titles from Matthew 25:1-8, the Parable of the Ten Virgins. In the Biblical story, ten women take up lamps to prepare for the arrival of their bridegroom, five foolish and five wise. The wise women took with them extra oil in jars but the foolish took none, and so were unprepared for when the bridegroom arrived. The wedding banquet began and its doors shut.

While Jesus’s parable urges His followers to be prepared for His second coming, Austin’s reimagination of the story, however, removes the bridegroom entirely. She argues that what these women are waiting for is one another. The ten girls first use their lamps to light each other’s bed chambers before reading lesbian erotica and becoming physically intimate in the dim glow. In the lamplight, they discuss polyamory and sperm donors and screen print salacious t-shirts, before feeding the sick guided by their trusty oil.

The Holy Spirit within them leaps for joy in this queer parable, as the girls find love, intimacy, and community with one another. For many lesbians, including myself, it was a satisfying revision, as we often receive comments that we have not met the right man yet or claims from different men that they can turn us straight. Instead, Austin argues that the women are what they are waiting for, a prophetic theme tied to a divine She.

Each poem in Gay Girls Prayers is named after a pivotal Biblical passage that recounts the experiences of women and LGBTQ+ individuals during the time of Christ. The whole collection is defiantly dedicated to “anyone taught they were going to hell.” Austin herself was raised Catholic and had a fervently Catholic grandmother. While she still feels connected to some Catholic traditions and material cultures, she acknowledges in an Xtra Magazine interview that “Catholicism is incredibly anti-woman and anti-queer–particularly in Canada” where she recalls the history of sexual abuse in Catholic boarding schools.

Even if her poems sometimes use language that could offend some, the collection invalidates the idea that LGBTQ+ people are not religious, or that they do not hold onto material and spiritual parts of Catholicism from their childhoods. For many who were denied a Bible, denied their faith, because of queerphobia, Austin offers it back–bolder and more blatantly queer than before. In lines about folk Catholicism and witchcraft–two traditions that have historically been more inclusive of gender expansive individuals, Austin affirms there is no right way to be Catholic or to be religious, just as there is right way to be queer. There have been debates for thousands of years about how to encounter God, and with this new publication, Austin offers us a new source for thinking about God for LGBTQ+ folx everywhere.

In the second stanza of her poem “Crack, Crack,” Austin invites readers to follow her lead in upsetting traditional parables and psalms, to sign ourselves in the name of sapphic joy:

“Shall we resurrect, strange women?
Rise like steam, like birds from a subway station?
Defy the convention of the proverbs?
Write with our fingers?
I am.”

Austin introduces a capital-case Her, reminiscent of the feminist liberation theology and feminine interpretation of the Holy Spirit in Elizabeth Johnson’s book She Who Is. But Austin also invokes the gospels written by early Christian women which were discarded and left out of the bible canon, the Council of Nicaea. Some of these writings featured discussions of what we may call today queer relationships. Most importantly, however, she starts the collection with the goal to deconstruct two pivotal Biblical women–stainless Madonna and sinful Eve. In a poem entitled “Crack, Crack,” she writes:

“Take the white clouds into white rooms.
She is at the front now,
Fire in Her belly.
Fruit on Her chin.

There are words in Her mouth,
In Her gut with the apple

There are virgins in the white clouds
Waiting for dead men
Crack
If heaven is hell for girls
Crack
Then heaven is hell.”

Eve’s primordial sin is often used as justification for the subjugation and illiteracy of women, with her serving as the first “strange woman” that Austin describes in her collection. “Strange woman” serves as a pseudonym for queer women throughout her book, as people who unsettle gender norms and further conceptions of womanhood. “Strange women” remain on some level unknowable and unclaimed in a binary-based Church. Eve thus stands counter to Mary, Jesus’s mother Mary, who is made known and claimed because of her womanhood, because of her motherhood. Thus, both figures sit at the crux of the Church’s traditional gender roles.

But many generations back Eve is still our mother. We all, Austin argues, descend from this “strange woman.” We cannot liberate this “strange woman,” without liberating Mary from the hyperfemininity assigned to her by generations of Catholics, just as we cannot liberate white, straight, cis women without liberating queer, trans, and nonbinary women. The theological liberation of Mary cannot occur without the theological liberation of Eve, the liberation of all “strange women.” Thus, if heaven is hell for lesbians and trans women, then heaven is hell for us all.

Austin’s “bible”–as I have come to call her book –glorifies trans, nonbinary, and queer bodies that are themselves transformed by coming out, transitioning, and affirming their chosen names. In a poem entitled “Deuteronomy 32:18 & John 6:35,” Austin argues that the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is the same thing as how queer bodies, our flesh and blood, take on their truest form–their queer form–made in the image of the living Christ.

Queer bodies are thus consecrated and made holy through every queer act, from women buying shirts in the men’s section, getting an undercut, or locking eyes with a woman wearing a carabiner.

I believe that Austin’s collection is meaningful because of its honesty. Written by and for queer women, her bible openly discusses everything from crows (female crows sometimes partner together), to self-pleasure and menstruation, to women feeding the sick as lesbians cared for people dying of AIDS during the 1980s, to Jesus’s ancestor Rahab who worked as a sex worker. Rahab, Austin argues, “was intrinsically valuable, sacred like all sex workers.” For every queer child raised in Catholicism who felt cast out, Austin invites them to read again.

In her rewritten “Sign of the Cross,” Austin shows how the LGBTQ+ communities consecrate gender diversity–the same gender diversity that the Vatican today criticizes in Diginitas Infinita

“In the name of the questioning,
The curious, and the closeted.
Glory be to the butches,
The studs, and the femmes.
In the name of the aces, the demisexual, and the gay.
Glory be to the bisexuals, pansexuals, and the fluid.
In the name of trans lesbians, t4ts, non-binary bisexuals, and all queer trans people.”

This poem  is followed by a rewritten Hail Mary, titled “Hey Mamma” which includes rewritten choruses to O Holy Night and Joy to the World” featuring City Hall pride flags, queer children’s books in libraries, and friends who have been on testosterone for four months. Heaven and Nature–with drag queens harmonizing–sing “queer joy to the world.” 

Austin emphasizes  it is important to glorify moments of queer happiness, of body euphoria, of Catholic joy! Traditionally, any discussions of queer Catholic experiences were traumatic ones, and these experiences are critical to documenting how the Church has hurt its LGBTQ+ members. But at the same time, there are many examples of queer Catholic joy, of being baptized with a chosen name, of receiving Communion with a partner, and in Austin’s case, writing and welcoming queer reimaginings of Biblical passages and traditional prayers. Austin’s book asks us to create our own moments of queer joy, of queer Catholicism, and in doing so, to change the Church.

Emma Cieslik (she/her), May 10. 2024

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