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To the Faithful: Pilgrimage Travel

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Not too long ago, I saw in the Internet something called a "pope package," basically a package deal created by Italian tour companies for people celebrating the ascension of Pope Francis I to the Papal Throne. I will be the first one to admit that like a few LGBTQs, I have a dubious relationship with religion that was all the more strengthened after a body dedicated to moral supremacy seemed not to notice, or care, or stop, decades of child abuse. And I'm not holding my breath for any change in the company line, let's say.

But it struck me how important faith is to people, including LGBTQs. So with this, I am going to step out of the comfort zone of exotic locales and luxury properties and into another aspect of travel that may seem entirely alien: pilgrimages. When you read my column, most often you will find the inside scoop where to go for a LGTBQ-friendly vacation. This time around, it's where to go when in search of a LGBTQ-friendly higher power. Believe it or not, they are out there, but you have to know where to look, and how to peel away layer upon layer of spin doctoring to get to the fundamental truths.

St. Bacchus & St. Sergius
There are lots of reasons to go to Rome, and when it comes to matters of faith, it's pretty much the top of the heap for Catholics, and certainly, Vatican City was made to be awe-inspiring from the very first brick.

Located on the other side of the Tiber River from the Vatican, however, on the humble Piazza Madonna dei Monti (actually an alleyway two blocks from the larger Via Cavour) is a rather nondescript church you could walk by on a dark night and never know it is dedicated to two gay saints.

Santi Sergio e Bacco, the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, commemorates two martyred 4th Century Roman soldiers killed for their Christian beliefs. That's not a particularly original story in the bloody history of how saints rose up the corporate ladder, but what is a stand-out is that Sergius tends never to show up unless Bacchus is beside him; the two are the most consistent examples of "paired saints." The reason for this is simpler than most: they were lovers.

Of course the Church disavows this, they have a vested interest in downplaying the theory, but oldest of texts describing Bacchus and Sergius - and, admittedly, most of it is legendary and fantastical - unmistakably refer to the two as "erastai," a Greek word that can mean "lovers." And even if the obvious, and not so obvious, hyperbole is stripped away, there remains the fact their behavior indicates a very close relationship; after Bacchus was beaten to death, his spirit appeared before the similarly-fated Sergius, urging strength so that in the afterlife they could be together. Sergius and Bacchus are today so popular among gay true-believers that it is not unusual to find their icons at gay prides the world over.

Sergius and Bacchus were enormously popular in their day, and their veneration spans both present day Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, but the Roman shrine is by far the easiest to reach. When it comes to Santi Sergio e Bacco, however, don't expect Vatican City splendor...or even the hint of a rainbow flag. As churches go, this one is on the demure side, being little bigger than a townhouse (if you are going all the way to Rome just for this church, my hat is off to your devotion). Nevertheless, it is very "Roman" in that for all the simplicity outside, the church manages to be so crammed with centuries of iconography that you'd have a hard time picking out the namesakes. Nothing is stopping gays and lesbians from entering, nor offering up prayers to the saints who were probably more kindred spirits to us than Francis would care to admit.

Tu Er Shen
Whatever ambiguity surrounds Sts. Sergius and Bacchus is entirely absent from Tu Er Shen, the upside is there is absolutely no ambiguity here: Tu Er Shen is, flat-out, the God of Gay Men. The love between them, the sex between them -- all of it. The downside is that you have to be a Taoist to know who he is.

Tu Er Shen is one of the many reasons to visit Asia, on a pilgrimage or otherwise. A god belonging to the immense Chinese pantheon known as Taoism, Tu Er Shen first appeared in China's Fujian Province around 300 years ago, and where the Fujianese went, so too did Tu Er Shen, which explains why he found in a wide swath of theological real estate spanning southern China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia down to Singapore.

Like Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, later authorities toned down or covered completely the myth of how of how a mortal named Hu Tianbao was, like Sergius and Bacchus, killed unjustly, but this time around, it hits closer to home: A peeping Tom, he was caught eying an official undress and was executed. In response, the gods of the Middle Kingdom, incensed such a senseless killing, at transfigured Hu Tianbao into Tu Er Shen, with the responsibility to oversee the relationships of gay men.

The best place to see the veneration of this unique deity in action is in the Yonghe City section of Taipei in Taiwan (Yonghe Road Section 1, Alley 37, No 12 for those of you taking notes). Like Santi Sergio e Bacco, pay attention to the address; it's not a big standout of a place. More of a modest shrine. Images of the god varies from region to region: He can be anything from a particularly cheerful-looking man dressed in golden robes, a pair of men embracing, a wild-man of sorts wearing a crown of rabbit ears, or a rabbit-human hybrid. Yonghe favors the golden boy, so you know. Where does the rabbit iconography come in? In a linguistic coincidence, the "Tu Er" part of his name is a synonym with the Chinese work for rabbit, or "tuer." Thusly, Tu Er Shen can be translated into "Rabbit God," even though rabbits -- tuer" in Chinese -- have nothing to do with the god's history.

And unlike those fusty old fogies at Santi Sergio e Bacco, gay men of all shape and sizes are welcome. Tu Er Shen acts like something between Cupid and a patron saint, and is said to be a very hardworking god. In matters of faith, it is always a comfort to know that the other side is trying as hard as you are.

These are just two examples. Buddhism, Asatru, Wicca, Druidism, and a host of other faiths that didn't come from deserts welcome LGBTQ adherents, but pilgrimages to some of there holy sites aren't the easiest places to get to -- just try walking up to sarsens of Stonehenge and not setting off a major security breech. I'm not advocating a change of religions, but I would not be the first to say that questing for the presence of a high power has taken men and woman to some distant corners. Hopefully, with this article, I made it easier for you.

Live Your Indulgence, with the new Pope.
www.SteeleTravel.com