Friday, September 6, 2013

Disappearance and Re-Emergence of Discourse of Sodomy: A Catholic Contribution to Culture-War Rhetoric vs. Gays?

Lately, we've discussed the casual and still-permitted use of taunts like the word "sodomite" in discussion threads at Catholic blog sites (see, e.g., here and here). We've also noted Huffington Post's new policy requiring all contributors to discussions at that site to register with proof of their identity, in order to cut down on the toxic discourse that, according to HuffPo moderators, has burgeoned there of late and in discussion threads all over the internet (see here and here).

In light of the preceding discussion, I was very interested to read yesterday Jim Burroway's report at Box Turtle Bulletin about a study that Lisa Bennett published in 1998. It's entitled The Perpetuation of Prejudice in Reporting on Gays and Lesbians: Time and Newsweek: The First Fifty Years (Cambridge, MA: The Joan Shirenstein Center of the Press, Polics and Public Policy, 1998). According to Burroway, Bennett looks at "the persistence of 'derogatory language' used to describe gay people in publications that 'have the potential to influence popular prejudices.'" 

To be specific, she analyzes 356 articles about gays and lesbians from Time and Newsweek from 1947 to 1997. She then lists the derogatory terms describing gay folks and gay life she finds in these articles, decade by decade, with the fifties including the final three years of the forties.

Many of those terms are, of course, still with us, and they're to be found in full force at Catholic blog sites today: "aberrant," "abnormal," "dirty," "disgusting," "disorder," "filthy," "pederast," "sinner," "sodomite," "unnatural," etc. I'm especially intrigued by Bennett's findings re: the term "sodomite": she finds it in use in the period 1947 up to 1970, and then it drops from her list, only to reappear in the 1990s.

Without having done any real study of this matter, I'd be inclined to wonder if the decline in use of the slur "sodomite" from the 1970s through the 1980s had something to do with the watershed decision of the American Psychiatric Association to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973. Though many sectors of American culture didn't, as a result of that decision, stop choosing to use stigmatizing terms to refer to those who are gay, the term "sodomite" may--I'm musing here, and this would need to be confirmed by further evidence--have lost some of its cachet when the APA dropped homosexuality from its diagnostic manual of mental disorders.

And then in 1986, along came Cardinal Ratzinger's infamous "Halloween letter," the document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that invented the term "intrinsic disorder" to refer to those who are gay, and which rehabilitated the language of psychiatric disorder--with a theological gloss. And with this development, right-wing Catholics and the Catholic hierarchy emerged as major players in the culture-war battle against the human rights of LGBTI people, and specifically theological language strong in the Catholic tradition--the language of disorder itself, but also the term "sodomite"--began to inform public debates about these issues.

Or, in the case of the term "sodomite," as the church's leaders aligned the church with the religious right, the specific Catholic theological contributions to the culture war against gay rights brought the term "sodomite" back with new energy, new force. An old weapon renewed by right-wing Catholics in the culture-war battles against their LGBTI brothers and sisters . . . .

As I say, I have no data other than Lisa Bennett's study, which I've read only in Jim Burroway's summary, to back any of this up. It's me thinking off the top of my head. At the very least, Bennett's finding that the term "sodomite" did drop off the cultural radar screen for a period of time before the 1990s leads me to conclude, once again, that Catholics slinging that particular anti-gay slur term around on Catholic discussion threads are doing so quite deliberately, with the very deliberate intent of stigmatizing their fellow human beings who are gay.

And for that very reason I continue to maintain that moderators at Catholic blog sites need to put this term off-limits, along with its allied slurs about disease, dirt, rape, and pederasty. It's time for many of us to grow up in the Catholic community and own responsibility for our share in generating toxic prejudice that contributes to violence--whether the "soft" violence of discrimination or the "hard" violence of outright physical assault--against those who are gay. And I say all this with full and grateful awareness that a majority of U.S. Catholics support gay rights and want the church to do far better in its connection to those who are gay.

The photo is from a January 2012 article by Marie Diamond at Think Progress about the decision of GOP leaders in Kansas, under (Catholic) governor Sam Brownback, to retain on the books sodomy statutes that were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision.

No comments: