QOTD (2009-05-28)

Here, have an op-ed/thing from the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, which is coincidentally the Palins’ local paper in Wasilla, AK (h/t my editor and cool dude Jesse, who posted this on Facebook):

While the word “homosexual” is not in the Bible, the behavior of those who practice homosexuality, and God’s estimation of them, very definitely is. When the word came into existence I cannot tell you, but what we can say for sure is that when Noah Webster published his first dictionary in 1828, it was not included. This means that homosexuality is a modern word invented to replace the word Noah Webster did include, sodomy, defined as a crime against nature. This is historical revisionism in action.

I’m pointing this out not because of the homophobia—we’ve heard that all before—but just because of how hilariously lazy it is. I suppose that Ron Hamman, the author of this article, must never have heard of the OED, whose first citation for “homosexuality” is an 1892 English translation of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, which defines the word as “Great diminution or complete absence of sexual feeling for the opposite sex, with substitution of sexual feeling and instinct for the same sex.” Do you see the word “sodomy” there? Yeah, me neither. That’s because, no matter what decade you’re from or how out-of-touch bigoted you are, “homosexuality” and “sodomy” are not, historically speaking, equivalent terms—as the historians’ brief in Lawrence v. Texas (subscription-only) famously pointed out:

… sodomy prohibitions have varied enormously in the last millennium (and even since our own colonial era) in their definition of the offense and in their rationalization of its prohibition. The specification of “homosexual sodomy” as a criminal offense does not carry the pedigree of the ages but is almost exclusively an invention of the recent past.

Prohibitions against sodomy are rooted in the teachings of Western Christianity, but those teachings have always been strikingly inconsistent in their definition of the acts encompassed by the term. When the term “sodomy” was first emphasized by medieval Christian theologians in the eleventh century, they applied it inconsistently to a diverse group of nonprocreative sexual practices. In subsequent Latin theology, canon law, and confessional practice, the term was notoriously confused with “unnatural acts,” which had a very different origin and ranged even more widely (to include, for example, procreative sexual acts in the wrong position or with contraceptive intent). “Unnatural acts” is the older category, because it comes directly from Paul in Romans 1, but Paul does not associate such acts with (or even mention) the story of Sodom (Genesis 19) and appears not to have considered that story to be concerned with same-sex activity.

Later Christian authors did combine Romans 1 with Genesis 19, but they could not agree on what sexual practices were meant by either “unnatural acts” or “sodomy.” For example, in Peter Damian, who around 1050 championed the term “sodomy” as an analogy to “blasphemy,” the “sins of the Sodomites” include solitary masturbation. In Thomas Aquinas, about two centuries later, “unnatural acts” cover every genital contact intended to produce orgasm except penile-vaginal intercourse in an approved position. Many later Christian writers denied that women could commit sodomy at all; others believed that the defining characteristic of unnatural or sodomitical sex was that it could not result in procreation, regardless of the genders involved. In none of these authors does the term “sodomy” refer systematically and exclusively to same-sex conduct. Certainly it was not used consistently through the centuries to condemn that conduct. The restrictive use of the term in the Texas law at issue must itself be regarded as a historically recent innovation.

The brief goes on to discuss at great length the sodomy laws that were established in colonial America, which followed a broader definition of “unnatural acts” as described above. So if we’re going to be throwing around the “revisionist” label at anyone, it should really Hamman’s side—he’s the one deviating from the letter of the Bible and how it was implemented in Christian societies all the way through the 19th century. “Homosexuality” was a word that became increasingly common in the early 20th century in particular to describe a psychological condition, and later a less stigmatized way of being and sexual object choice. Its connotation is not that of specific sexual acts, and it’s pretty damn inaccurate to say that “homosexuality” replaced “sodomy” as a term. You simply can’t equate the two words, whatever connotation you want to ascribe to them.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I know that whoever reads this probably doesn’t need to be told all that. But if I may rationalize my self-indulgence, I think it’s important to reiterate these pieces of history, which even LGBT folks and their allies rarely learn, unless they take it upon their own initiative to do so (credit, by the way, for the Lawrence stuff goes to this past semester’s gender and sexuality class, information from which has graced this blog many times). I think there’s a lot to be said for compiling a historical narrative and then making sure that it gets heard, and that historical inaccuracies are called out—even if Hamman and folks who agree with him never read this post. If someone is motivated to be homophobic by their personal “ick” factor or their personal understanding of the religious doctrine they subscribe to, well, there’s not a whole lot I can do about that. But I have the facts on my side, and I think there is an intrinsic value to making sure they get heard alongside the complete disinclination of someone like Hamman to learn them.

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