Last edited: February 14, 2005

The Power of Words In a Vile Assault

Newsday, May 21, 1999
235 Pinelawn, Melville, NY 11747-4250
Fax: 516-843-2986

By Ellis Henican

Words aren’t just words, of course. They signify all kinds of complex meanings. And lately, Matt Foreman has been finding himself at war with one especially meaning-laden word. The word is sodomy.

That word, like the assorted adult acts it has come to signify, is everywhere in New York this week, which is not to say that sodomy ever truly takes a holiday around here.

But ever since the Abner Louima police-torture case began, the S-word has been tumbling off the lips - and through the gritted teeth - of decent people all over town. I used the word in this very space two weeks ago to describe what Officer Justin Volpe is accused of. And look, there it was again yesterday, right on Newsday’s front page: "Cop Testifies: Volpe Admitted Sodomy."

Which does not please Matt Foreman one bit.

"Sodomy," he said yesterday in an eye-rolling tone of voice.

Oh, Foreman’s not a prude or a religious zealot. Nothing like that.

In fact, he has been fighting in the gay-rights trenches for a couple of decades now. He used to run a group called the Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, battling bashers from inside and outside the gay community. Back then, he even helped to write the lesson plan for the Police Academy, teaching new cops how to deal sensibly with gays.

These days, Foreman directs an outfit called Empire State Pride Agenda, which has its offices on Hudson Street in Manhattan and advocates for the rights of lesbians and gays.

"Louima was not sodomy," he said. "People have a hard time saying what is alleged to have happened. So they use this euphemism, this word `sodomy,’ as a catch-all for anything, I presume, that has to do with the anus. Let’s just call this what it was, a sexual assault, forcing an object up someone’s rectum."

OK, now is probably a pretty good time for our underage readers to turn the page. We have a great comics section in this newspaper you kids might like to turn to. Things will get even harsher right here.

Yes, language is a powerful thing. And it is still not possible, this far into the Louima case, to type the words "forcing an object up . . ." and not feel some kind of shudder.

But in New York’s gay community, the case is echoing in yet another disturbing way. Just remember the defense Volpe’s lawyer offered up in his opening statement at the trial: That the Haitian immigrant was injured having consensual gay sex.

"I don’t mean to be flip about this," Foreman said. "But if gay sex was really producing these kinds of injuries, we’d all be dead. Or every emergency room would be filled with men writhing in agony. It is preposterous the evil stuff that gets connected to that one potent word,sodomy.

"In other forms of assault," Foreman continued, "you say what happened: `He was hit in the head with a bat.’ Why are people so squeamish this time?"

It fact, what is alleged to have happened to Abner Louima really isn’t sodomy at all. Not according to New York law. The other day, Foreman went to the trouble of digging out the relevant sections of the state’s penal law. Section 130 defines the crime of sodomy as "deviate sexual intercourse." That, in turn, is defined as conduct between persons not married to each other consisting of contact involving the genitals and the mouth or other orifices. No mention anywhere of broken broom handles.

And unless some even wilder surprises come out of the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, nobody is alleged to have "sodomized" Louima.

The closest crime under the law would seem to be first-degree aggravated sexual abuse: "When he inserts a foreign object into the . . . rectum of another person causing physical injury to such person: by forcible compulsion."

And yet the S-word keeps being used, abused and twisted.

But what’s so new about that?

Said Foreman: "Laws against sodomy have been used for centuries to execute, burn at the stake, hang and torture gay men and lesbians."

And the Bible is often cited as a justification.

"People reach back into the Bible for the sin of sodomy. Why was Sodom destroyed? Most biblical scholars now think it had nothing whatsoever to do with `sodomy,’ men having relations with other men. That wasn’t even the point of that story."

The point, he said, had to do with the people of Sodom being inhospitable to strangers and visitors.

"Really," Matt Foreman said, "if you read the analysis, the so-called sodomy is a very minor part of it. Of course, if you want to go after something, you can find anything in the Bible."

It’s not so difficult, really.

Just look for the words, carefully chosen words.

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