My name, Janet, is the feminine form of John, which means “God is Gracious.” I have also read that “Janet” means “Little Joan.” Joan, of course, is also a feminine form of John.
At Confirmation in eighth grade, I had no idea that the names Janet and Joan were so closely related. I just knew that I admired the courageous St. Joan of Arc, so I took her name as my confirmation name.
I knew the basics of her story, but at that young age, there was much I did not know. It has only been recently that I have been reading more about her.
It has come to my attention that many groups like to claim St. Joan as one of their own. Especially puzzling to me is the claim in recent days that she was lesbian, while others say she was transgender. After reading about those opinions, I decided to look into the claims.
One source that suggests St. Joan was lesbian appears in a book about her written by Vita Sackville-West. Sackville-West, herself a lesbian, speaks of St. Joan sharing a bed with other woman and having sleepovers with a particular young girl. While the author notes that sharing beds with others of the same gender was a common practice in those times, she still implies that it means St. Joan’s sexuality was in question. For example, after stating it was not uncommon to have sleepovers, especially those who had received their First Communion together, she went on to describe it as “curious.”
On page 107 of her book, she states that Joan slept with another woman “on terms of considerable intimacy.” She does not outright call it sexual intimacy, but her wording and lack of explanation leave the suggestion open.
Kittridge Cherry, another lesbian, also suggests St. Joan may have shared that sexual orientation. At QSpirt, after discussing Sackville-West’s theory, she then mentions another book. She says this:
“Joan of Arc: Her Trial Transcripts” by Emilia Philomena Sanguinetti is a 2016 book that explores whether Joan was a lesbian or transgender person. Extensive evidence that Joan of Arc was a lesbian or transgender person is presented in the epilogue of this groundbreaking book about the cross-dressing medieval saint. She explores how Joan shared her bed with another woman and insisted on wearing male clothing.
I have not read the book but would presume that anyone trying to persuade readers of the “extensive evidence” would write about the most damning evidence, because most readers are not going to buy the book. Instead, the author re-states what had already been said in Sackville-West’s book, evidence that is easily refuted.
From there she says this, a sentiment I have read on other websites:
Nobody knows for sure whether Joan of Arc was sexually attracted to women or had lesbian encounters, but her abstinence from sex with men is well documented.
While this does not outright state St. Joan had an interest in women, it does imply it. There is no other reason to mention it. This, of course, would also apply to any unmarried woman living the Church’s teachings.
Of course, there is no real proof that St. Joan was a lesbian. She called herself Jehanne la Pucelle, or Joan the Maiden, explicitly identifying herself as chaste. Regine Pernoud uses historical documents to teach us about her in Joan of Arc By Herself and Her Witnesses. These documents reveal that the same people who testified that St. Joan slept with women also referred to her as chaste. While this does not preclude same-sex attraction, it also means we cannot with any certainty conclude that her behavior proved, or even suggested, such inclination.
There is another reason to believe that Joan of Arc was not a lesbian. While some sources look to trial transcripts to prove her so-called lesbian inclinations, all they can do is speculate. Most speculation centers on the reasons already listed. Yet in her trial, she was never charged with being attracted to women. The very witnesses who said she sometimes shared a bed with other females also attested to her life of chastity.
Next, I would like to address the claims that Joan the Maiden was transgender. This is often based on the understanding that St. Joan was executed for wearing men’s clothing. A careful read and a study of her history demonstrate that this was merely an excuse. St. Joan’s execution was political.
The basis for trying St. Joan for cross-dressing comes from Dt. 22:5 (NABRE): “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s clothing; for anyone who does such things is an abomination to the Lord, your God.” This is often interpreted as a statement against transvestism rather than against specific garments. However, the Church even then recognized that sometimes there was a need for women to dress as men.
In St. Joan’s case, the need was for protection. According to the Joan of Arc Archive, and several other sources:
A number of the tribunal members themselves later admitted that Joan of Arc had said she clung to her soldiers’ outfit as a desperate means of discouraging rape – since the type of clothing in question had numerous cords by which the long boots and hose could both be fastened to the tunic, thereby making it difficult for a rapist to pull them off.
Joan requested placement in a Church prison, guarded by nuns. This was standard practice in those times, but it was denied to Joan. Records indicate that guards tried to rape her in the past. Placement in a women’s prison would have resolved that issue.
According to Regine Pernoud, the Maid of Orleans wore the long, red woolen dress typical of the times until she traveled with a military escort to meet with Charles VII at Chinon. It was soldiers who first suggested a male disguise and gave her the clothing to wear. Records indicate that after battle, if there was no need for protection, she resumed wearing women’s clothing. She even asked to be buried in a long woman’s gown if she should die in prison. All of this shows she only wore men’s clothing to protect herself.
Ultimately, the court decided to use the cross-dressing charge against St. Joan. She signed an agreement to no longer wear male clothing, under threat of execution. Some suggest she did not know what she was signing. She never learned to read, so it is certainly a possibility.
The execution could not occur unless she relapsed. Instead of placing her in a Church prison with nuns to guard her, they continued to keep her with men. You can read here how she was maneuvered into again wearing male clothing a few days later.
The Joan of Arc archive reports this moving episode:
And from his first preliminary deposition on March 5, 1450:
“… I and a number of others were present when Joan defended herself for having resumed male clothing, publicly saying and affirming that the English had committed, or ordered to be committed, much wrong and violation against her in prison when she had been dressed in female clothing; and in fact I saw her weeping, her face full of tears, disfigured and outraged in such fashion that I felt pity and compassion for her. When they labeled her an obstinate and relapsed heretic, she replied publicly in front of all of those present: ‘If you, my lords of the Church, had brought me to, and kept me in, your own prisons, perhaps things wouldn’t be this way for me.’ “
Why is it important to set the record straight?
First and foremost, truth matters. When people presume things and make their presumptions public without any hard evidence, it is right to question it.
This also calls into question how we view others. Several sources suggesting Joan of Arc was transgender or lesbian came from people who themselves were living this lifestyle. This is not surprising. I think all of us have a tendency to see something of ourselves and our beliefs in others we admire.
In a video about overcoming fear, Sr. Miriam James asks, “How can you love somebody like me?” When we try to make others into our image, are we saying we cannot love those who are not like us? Or are we saying we do not love ourselves, and need to look to people we admire and try to make them seem more like us? Maybe there is a bit of both.
There is plenty of documentation about St. Joan’s story. If you want to learn more, I highly recommend Regine Pernoud’s book. Read the maiden’s story from eyewitness testimony and see the heroic woman she was. She loved God and was faithfully Catholic. She followed what God asked of her as best she could, at great personal cost.
Admire her for all of that, but do not try to make her something she was not.
That is what her trial was about. We should not repeat it.