Homosexuals Get Short Shrift from the Supreme Court, But an Expert Says History Tells
a Different Tale
Interview with David F. Greenberg
July 21, 1986
When the Supreme Court decided recently that the constitutional right to privacy does
not extend to homosexual sodomy, it prompted a clamorous response. The decision was
applauded by fundamentalist groups as a move toward greater sexual morality, challenged by
civil libertarians as a threat to the right of privacy and denounced by gay activists as a
pretext for persecution of homosexuals. To David F. Greenberg, 44, a professor of
sociology at New York University, these disparate voices reflect societys age-old
ambivalence about the regulation of sexual behavior and of homosexuality in particular.
Greenberg has published numerous scholarly articles in the field of deviance and social
control and is currently completing a book examining perceptions of homosexuality since
ancient times. He discussed the Supreme Courts sodomy decision and the
complex cultural history behind it with assistant editor David Grogan.
In handing down the recent Supreme Court decision, Justice Byron R. White said that
condemnation of homosexuality has "ancient roots." Do you agree with that
I think it is somewhat misleading. Certainly there have been periods of intolerance
toward homosexuals in history, but there have also been periods of social acceptance. The
ancient Greeks, for example, attached no great significance to the gender of sex partners.
There was no word for a homosexual person. What was looked down on was male effeminacy.
The god Zeus was said to have loved young men, as did Apollo and Hercules.
Plato and Aristotle, among other Greek philosophers, also had male lovers. In Thebes,
for example, male homosexuality was regarded as an expression of the "comradeship of
arms" among noble warriors. In Greece, sexual relations with an adult man were
considered part of an adolescent males education. Relations between adult men were
frowned upon the opposite of our own hierarchy of taboos.
When was homosexuality first looked upon as unacceptable social behavior?
Early Hebrew scriptures, notably Leviticus, referred to male homosexuality as an
"abomination." Some scholars believe that may have been a response to the
Jews experience during their exile in Babylonia in the 6th century B.C. Throughout
the Near East at that time, priests in pagan religions tried to emulate a mother goddess
figure by becoming effeminate, even dressing as a woman and sometimes castrating
themselves. Their male followers came to the temple and had anal intercourse with them as
part of religious rituals. Judaism, which depicted a God who was exclusively male, had no
place for such mother goddess worship; so the priests of Jehovah outlawed cult
prostitution and the practice of men dressing as women.
What is the origin of the term sodomy?
It comes from the story in Genesis of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire and
brimstone. In biblical times, the general belief was that this was punishment from God for
inhospitality to his messengers, including a threat by the people of Sodom to rape the
angels who visited Lot. There is no mention of consensual homosexuality in that story. It
was not until more than a thousand years later that the sin of Sodom became generally
associated with anal sex, either homosexual or heterosexual.
How did this change in attitude occur?
St. Paul, who was responsible for the few passages in the New Testament condemning
homosexuality, was heavily influenced by Greek Stoic philosophers. They argued that sex,
even in marriage, prevented a man from concentrating on higher philosophy. Thus you find
him advocating celibacy as a virtue. Some early bishops, exaggerating St. Pauls
views, argued that only virgins would be saved. Then in the 5th century, Augustine, a
scholar from North Africa who converted to Christianity after at least one lustful
involvement with another man and a long-term extramarital relationship with a woman,
worked out a church policy on sexual matters. Augustine argued that sex was acceptable
within marriage only for purposes of procreation. For the most part, homosexuality and
adultery were considered equally offensive sins. But enforcement rarely went beyond
penances imposed by a Church confessor for example, fasting or saying prayers.
When did secular sanctions arise?
The first secular prohibitions in Western Europe were in the 12th and 13th centuries.
They were prompted, in part, by a Church crackdown on rules of priestly celibacy.
Previously, many priests had wives or mistresses. But when monastic discipline was
imposed, homosexuality soon became a greater temptation in the monasteries and hence a
more serious problem in the eyes of the Church. At the same time, a growing class of
merchant capitalists and artisans began to view homosexuality as an excessive indulgence
of the medieval aristocracy and priests.
How did antisodomy statutes become a part of the English legal tradition?
A decree by Henry VIII in 1533, which the Supreme Court cited as a basis for its recent
decision, was the first English law prohibiting sodomy. For 150 years there were few
prosecutions under that law. But in the late 17th century there were some raids on clubs
and taverns in London that catered to transvestite men, some of whom were sent to the
gallows. The British upper classes, believing that a weakening of firm moral standards had
paved the way for the French Revolution, established a society for the suppression of vice
in 1802. The aristocracy launched a wide-scale puritanical campaign and blocked
liberalization of the laws against certain prohibited sexual acts for more than a
Was there a similar wave of homosexual persecution elsewhere at this time?
Not really. By the 18th century, sodomy was a capital crime in Italy, but pimps were
offering boys to tourists in the Piazza Navona in Rome and male transvestism and
homosexuality were practiced quite openly in Venice. French law, which decriminalized
sodomy, was imposed by Napoleon throughout much of Europe. The spirit of the Napoleonic
Code was also taken by the Spanish to Latin America, where, despite the mystique of
machismo and the influence of the Catholic Church, laws regarding sodomy are generally
liberal or nonexistent. Meanwhile, missionaries who visited Japan and China were
astonished that male homosexuality was practiced widely with no stigma. Nor was
homosexuality frowned upon in American Indian culture. Pioneer settlers encountered tribes
where transvestites, called berdaches, were often respected spiritual leaders and healers
thought to possess super- natural powers.
How did laws against sodomy evolve in America?
Early Colonial statutes echoed English law, making sodomy a capital crime. But it was
much more common for offenders to be flogged or just booted out of town. Thomas Jefferson,
one of the few Founding Fathers who made known his views on sodomy, thought that
castration was a more poetic form of justice than death. After independence, the death
penalty was dropped for sodomy in most states. Until the late 19th century, there was very
little persecution of homosexuals in America. But then you began to see some medical
writings on so-called deviant sexuality. Some physicians began to look upon homosexuality
as part of a larger syndrome, called degeneracy, which also included madness, criminal
behavior, poverty and idiocy. It was believed that all of these social pathologies could
be transmitted genetically from parents to children. So castration of homosexuals, or
commitment to insane asylums, was often recommended on medical grounds. Even as late as
the 1940s, some doctors tried to treat homosexual patients by injecting them with
hormones. By 1961 all of the states had antisodomy statutes, though because of repeals the
number is now down to 24 states.
Some gay rights advocates have compared the Supreme Court decision on sodomy to the Dred
Scott case, an 1857 ruling which upheld slavery. Do you agree?
When the Dred Scott decision was issued, slaves who ran away to the North were
actually being shipped back to the South. By contrast, even in those states that still
have sodomy statutes, it is almost unknown for anyone to be prosecuted under them. Gay men
are sometimes arrested for public indecency or other minor charges, but rarely for sexual
activities which are consensual and done in the privacy of their own homes. So I see the
court ruling in the Georgia case as largely symbolic. I dont think it will
dramatically affect the lives of most homosexuals.
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