The Sodomy Delusion

First published in the Chicago Free Press on February 22, 2006.

In a recent column I wrote that members of the religious right want gays to be invisible if their sexual behavior cannot be entirely suppressed. That prompted a friendly correspondent to write the following:

Many conservatives also have these two contradictory beliefs:

  1. Homosexuality leads to misery and unhappiness, and homosexual sex is totally repulsive. (But)

  2. Nonetheless, it's so appealing that if people find out about it, many will want to try it. ... (O)nce they get "hooked" they can't or won't stop.

This is absolutely on target. Two decades ago the late polymath scholar Joseph Wallfield, who wrote under the name Warren Johansson, formulated what he called "The Sodomy Delusion," published in an obscure monograph called Homolexis: A Historical and Cultural Lexicon of Homosexuality by historian Wayne R. Dynes (who also edited the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality).

Johansson characterized the Sodomy Delusion as a set of paranoid beliefs inculcated by the Christian Church in the Middle Ages. It includes the following components:

  • Homosexual acts, particularly by men, undermine people's moral character and assure their eternal damnation.

  • Communities that tolerate homosexual acts are inevitably visited with catastrophes such as earthquakes, droughts, plagues, floods, and infestations.

  • So society should punish people who engage in homosexuality as severely as possible and make every effort to blot out any awareness or record that anyone ever engaged in homosexuality. (The Catholic Church typically destroyed church trial records of people accused of sodomy.)

Most of these beliefs can still be found among many fundamentalist Christians. Reconstructionist R.J. Rushdoony called for the execution of people who engage in homosexual acts. Anita Bryant, Pat Robertson and others blamed droughts and other disasters on the tolerance of homosexuality. Even now many fundamentalists are eagerly awaiting the inevitable earthquake to damage San Francisco, so they can say "I told you so."

Johansson then set out a series of contradictory beliefs held by people in the grip of the Sodomy Delusion. We could call them "Johansson's Antinomies." They include the following:

  • Everyone is by nature heterosexual BUT everyone is susceptible of the demonic temptation to commit sodomy, and potentially guilty of the crime.

  • Everyone regards the practice with loathing and disgust BUT whoever has experienced it retains a lifelong craving for it.

  • Everyone hates and condemns the crime of sodomy BUT the practice is ubiquitously threatening and infinitely contagious.

  • Sodomy is a crime committed by the merest handful of depraved individuals BUT if not checked by the harshest penalties it would lead to the suicide of the human race.

We have all heard these contradictory claims made at various times by anti-gay polemicists from the average Catholic bishop to the average fundamentalist Protestant minister. Even today some polemicists view it as the conclusive anti-gay argument to ask rhetorically "But what if everyone became homosexual?"

To Johansson's list we might add some more recent refinements. For instance:

  • The current version of Johansson's first antinomy is that everyone is by nature heterosexual BUT people-especially young people-can be easily lured to try homosexuality if they see films or plays or television programs that include homosexuals or see people who they know are homosexual or even learn that homosexuals exist.

  • The current version of the fourth antinomy is the religious right claim that homosexuals are only a tiny fraction of the population-just 1 or 2 percent, BUT homosexuality is growing like wildfire.

Of course, anti-gay polemicists have been saying this for many years so we may wonder how homosexuality could have been growing like wildfire for years yet still be only 1 or 2 percent of the population.) Then, too:

  • Homosexuality is viewed as a form of moral depravity that undermines a person's whole moral character BUT people keep being shocked to learn that someone believed to be of unimpeachable moral character such as a conservative religious leader is revealed to be "involved in" homosexuality.

Notice that when they are found out, such men usually blame alcohol or "stress" although alcohol or stress never seem to make homosexuals become "involved in" heterosexuality.

A special Catholic antinomy holds that the celibacy of the priesthood is a special calling and a gift of the Holy Spirit BUT men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" are expected to be celibate throughout their entire lives despite the manifest absence of such a special calling and/or gift of the Holy Spirit.

Where facts and reasoning are insufficient to condemn homosexuality, total fabrication will serve. Elsewhere in Homolexis Prof. Dynes traces the diffusion of a medieval legend that on the night Jesus was to be born, all the sodomites in the world died because the Savior refused to be incarnated as a human unless the world were free of homosexuality.

That could lead us to a final antinomy:

  • Jesus (supposedly) hated sodomy most of all the sins BUT (unaccountably) never thought to mention any disapproval of it at any time during his public ministry.
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