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Saturday 11 April 2015

The Vanished "Ruins" of "Sodom"

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 12th February 2015

Where did Logan Robertson's particularly vitriolic form of homophobia come from? Welcome to the phantom neverworld of "Sodom and Gomorrah", and "sodomy."

To begin with, there is the Bible. To be more specific, the Book of Genesis, Chapters 18 and 19. Mythical Biblical Jewish 'patriarch' Lot and his family have arrived in "Sodom," a perverse metropolis that exists as a 'city on the plain,' along its sister city, Gomorrah. We don't hear much about Gomorrah, although apocryphal myth suggests that it was a female-dominated matrilineal realm of its own. Sodom somehow incurred the wrath of the tribal and territorial god of these patriarchs and in a fiery fit of primordial ethnic cleansing, Sodom and Gomorrah were obliterated, but not before Lot and his family had fled the city. After that happened, Lot's daughters got their father drunk and had sex with him through adult date rape incest, producing some companion Canaanite communites within Israel's territory, the Moabites and Ammonites respectively. It is significant that no negative outcome awaited what one would surely consider the greater crime, compared to whatever happened in Sodom.

If there ever was a Sodom and Gomorrah. However, there is a distinct lack of historical evidence that would substantiate the aforementioned biblical myth. The description of the alleged "destruction" of Sodom and Gomorrah have been compared to vulcanism, seismic disturbance or even asteroid impacts that are purportedly the work of 'divine intervention.' However, there are no geological traces to substantiate any of these theories, or adjacent earthquake faultlines, or impact related elements such as iridium. Moreover, available archaeological evidence did not leave any references to any existence of such 'cities' within the appropriate geological area or time frame. There are two villages, Bab-Ed-Dhra and Numera, on the approximate sites, but they are tiny villages, not anachronistic thriving 'cities.' Moreover, their desertion does not tally with any known seismic or volcanic disturbance in that or any adjacent area. Therefore, Sodom and Gomorrah are about as 'historical' as the ancient Greek Gods of Olympus, or their Norse counterparts in Asgard.

Unfortunately, the above detailed archaeological and historiographical scrutiny had to wait until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when scientific analysis had sufficiently developed to render such investigation possible. Obviously, that didn't stop a thick layer of interpretative grime from building up on this shaky pseudo-historical foundation. According to Catholic gay historian Mark Jordan, there was no rhetorical relationship between "Sodom" and gay sex until the eleventh century, whereupon one Peter Damian devised a theological edifice entitled "sodomy", which argued that urban decadence (or "luxury") or disobedience to/derision against "God" ("blasphemy") were elements of sexualised "sodomy." However, to begin with, that was not solely equated with gay sex. Instead, sodomy was an amorphous set of whatever non-procreative sexual acts or identities that did not contribute to the expansion of local ethnic communities or religious constituencies. This not only included gay sex, but also straight anal sex, pedophilia, incest and bestiality/zoophilia. It was only condensed down into male homosexuality specifically in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the rise of metropolitan LGBT communities in Western Europe, Australasia and North America. In its turn, that led to the emergence of specific homophobic rhetoric from fundamentalist Protestant Christian communities within the United States from the seventies onward. As this week's accompanying graphic suggests, before the rise of LGBT politics and communities, "Sodom and Gomorrah" referred to "urban decadence" and sexual liberalism, without specifying which sort. In the aforementioned campy film , The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah (1962), slavery and heterosexual 'decadence' were the 'causes' of the destruction of the fictional cities.

In an act of gross historical oversimplification, fundamentalist "sodomy" rhetoric mapped gay sex onto the ancient "sin of the cities of the plain," but also retained the other residual categories, equating gay men with an amorphous and diffuse predatory fusion of sexual categories, primarily pedophilia. Straight anal sex got left out of this equation, because by this time, pleasurable straight sex had come to be reconciled with social and sexual freedom. And thus, in the eighties, New Zealand and the United States went their separate legal and social ways. In 1986, New Zealand rejected the last vestiges of "sodomy' rhetoric still remaining within the Crimes Act 1961, and passed the Homosexual Law Reform Act. However, things took a darker turn in the United States, where Bowers versus Hardwick (1986) upheld Georgia's "anti-sodomy" law before the US Supreme Court. This would not be fully remedied until a different US Supreme Court handed down a different verdict in Lawrence v Texas (2004). Elsewhere in the world, though, 'sodomy' rhetoric still resonates- Russia, Uganda and Malaysia are three such examples. This is usually the case where societies have suffered economic turmoil and where manipulative and incompetent authoritarian populist governments have taken power, often to divert attention from real social and economic problems that beset such societies. As in the case of Malaysia's Anwar Ibrahim and his repeated show trials, a defendant does not necessarily even have to be gay under such circumstances. Certainly, in the case of Russia and Uganda both, economic turmoil, civil war, terrorism and government corruption and incompetence explain the deployment of 'sodomy' rhetoric under Putin and Museveni.

In much of the developed western world, homosexuality has long been decriminalised and other legislative reforms have taken place. Consequently, lesbians and gay men are not mapped on to those who engage in child sexual abuse, zoophilia or other non-consensual sexual activities and have largely been normalised, due to the development of antidiscrimination laws, spousal and relationship equality reforms. It tends to take a socially isolated individual or subculture to still believe in the mythological "cities of the plain" as if they had ever actually existed. Through his vitriolic use of tell-tale homophobic rhetoric, it appears that the leader of the Westcity Bible Baptist Church falls into that category, otherwise why would be believe that gay men "must" be pedophiles. That's the real "sin" of "Sodom"- sloppy categories that don't hold water.

Mark Jordan: The Invention of Sodomy in Medieval Christian Theology: Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1997.
William Eskridge: Dishonorable Passions: Sodomy Laws in America: 1861-2003: New York: Viking Press: 2008.
Michael Carden: Sodomy: A History of Christian Biblical Myth: London: Equinox: 2004.
Mohamad Osadaly: Sadum Wa Gamurah: The Annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah: Kuala Lumpur: Nordeen: 1999.
Mark Trowell: Sodomy II: The Trials of Anwar Ibrahim: Singapore: Marshall Cavendish: 2012
Peter de Waal: Unfit for Publication: NSW Supreme Court and Other Bestiality, Buggery and Sodomy Trials: 1727-1930: Balmain: P.DeWaal: 2012.
Cynthia Herrup: A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law and the Second Earl of Castlehaven: New York: Oxford University Press: 1999.
Netta Goldsmith: The Worst of Crimes: Homosexuality and the Law in Eighteenth Century London: Aldershot: Ashgate: 1998.
Paul Hallam: The Book of Sodom: London: Verso: 1995.

Craig Young - 12th February 2015

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