Transgender Jesus on stage in Irish play

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Jo Clifford, a man living as a woman, reinterprets Jesus as a transgender in "The Gospel according to the Queen of Heaven." The play, which has been performed in front of small audiences since 2009, is receiving renewed attention after Northern Ireland's assembly vetoed a measure that would have allowed same-sex marriage in the country. Clifford claims he is depicting what Jesus was "really like." | The Gospel According to the Queen of Heaven/Production Photo

BELFAST (Christian Examiner) – A play depicting Jesus Christ as a transgender will appear at the Outburst Queer Arts Festival in Belfast, Northern Ireland, BBC News has reported.

In "The Gospel According to the Queen of Heaven," Jo Clifford portrays Jesus coming back to the world in the form of a transgendered woman, or a man who has chosen to live as a woman, and preaching to those who are prejudiced toward gay, lesbian and transgender people.

"She pitches a sermon and tells a few very familiar gospel stories," Clifford told the BBC. "She has a communion, shares bread and wine with the audience, which is really a gesture of solidarity in the face of death —and she gives a blessing."

Clifford, who wrote the play and describes himself (or herself) as a "practicing Christian," told the news agency the play is a "very important, intimate show" and normally opposed by people who haven't seen it.

The play has flown under the radar for several years, being performed in small venues but occasionally serving as a catalyst for protest. In one instance in Glasgow in 2009, protestors outnumbered those attending the play 10-to-1. In 2014, it was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world's largest arts festival.

The play isn't the first to challenge the church's traditional understanding of human sexuality or even of Jesus. "Southern Baptist Sissies" depicted what its writers perceived as the backward stance of America's largest non-Catholic denomination on the issue of homosexuality, and "Corpus Christi" featured Jesus and his disciples as gay men in a modern Texas town.

Like those plays, the writer of "The Gospel According to the Queen of Heaven" believes people will prejudge the play, but should not.

"Obviously, being a transgender woman myself it concerns me very greatly that religious people so often use Christianity as a weapon to attack us and justify the prejudices against us," Clifford said. "I wanted to see if we could move away from that and make people think again."

Clifford said some people called the play blasphemous, but did so because they didn't know anything about the play and assumed it would be offensive to the church. He said, however, no offense to the church is intended in the play because he doesn't intend for it to be offensive or blasphemous.

"I simply want to assert very strongly, as strongly as I can that Jesus of the gospels would not in any way wish to attack or denigrate people like myself," Clifford said.

According to Clifford, the play is now more important than ever since members of Northern Ireland's national assembly passed over a motion to enact same-sex marriage in the country last week. Northern Ireland, because of its contentious history of warfare between Catholics and Protestants, has a complex legislative process.

Even if a measure passes in the assembly (as the same-sex marriage proposal did), it can be vetoed if it does not obtain broad community support (as the same-sex marriage proposal was).

"I think it's very important to get across the message that Jesus of the gospels would not condone or want to promote prejudice and discrimination against anybody and to try to convey a message of compassion and love and understanding of everybody," Clifford said. "No matter what their belief, no matter what their gender, orientation or sexuality."

A YouTube video promoting the play begins with Clifford on camera and his reinterpreted version of the Lord's Prayer, complete with images of lesbians kissing, people protesting same-sex marriage, and nuclear destruction:

"Our Mother, who art on earth, blessed is your name;

Your joy be here on earth, as it is in heaven;

Give us this day our daily kisses;

Forgive us our stupidity as we forgive those whose stupidity is done to us.

Lead us not into self-righteousness or rage, and save us from destruction and negativity,

For yours is the queendom, the beauty, and they joy, forever and ever. Amen."

In another video, Clifford describes the play as a "work of devotion" meant to remind people of what Jesus was "really like."

"He was talking to the victims of persecution, to the victims of prejudice and he would speak to them in a very accepting way, as one human being to another. That's how he was continually throughout the gospels. I think it's important to remind people that's what he was really like. He wasn't the nasty, prejudiced, judgmental, self-righteous person you might tend to assume if you watch the behavior of a lot of these fundamentalists – so called Christian – groups," he said.