Sodomy and Gay Men’s Lives by John Erickson

How do we begin to deconstruct the word sodomy so that it no longer associates and elicits hateful propaganda regarding the sexual activity of consenting gay/queer adults?

Meaning if often produced, not through a one-to-one relation to things in the world, but by establishing the difference you or a particular group of people have in relation to the activity/object you are distancing yourself from. The word sodomy is inextricably linked to the Old Testament (Genesis 19:1-11) and has become a popular manifestation for conservative and fundamentalist social and religious critics to use whenever they are critiquing why gay men are different or deviant from normal, heterosexual adults.  Furthermore, sodomy has been and still is highly involved in constructing both positive and negative sexual ethics that often define and rule over the lives of those who participate not in sodomy but other forms of non-vaginal intercourse.

The word, action, and taboo of sodomy have blurred the real meaning of consensual non-vaginal sex between people of the same sex.  Defined as “anal or oral copulation with a member of the same or opposite sex,” sodomy has become the sign that defines the lives of gay men and keeps them in the social and religious shackles that perpetuates the public opinion that sex between men is deviant, devious, and dangerous to society at large.

We all can point out news stories that have involved men, both young and old, taking sexual advantage of innocent, non-consenting adolescent boys.  This blog has even been home to articles discussing former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky or the abuses the Catholic clergy inflicted upon adolescent boys for decades.  However, what we are looking at is, and has been, the constant recapitulation of the word “sodomy,” through deviant social actions of specific individuals, non-heteronormative sexual acts, and abuses on both national and transnational scales.

The problem with headlines that read “Man Sodomizes Little Boy” or briefs discussing how Jerry Sandusky “sodomized a young boy in the shower,” is that these acts get bundled up and categorized as sodomy without further explanation into the matter.  As we saw before, the definition of sodomy, provided by Merriam-Webster, does not provide a negative or positive connotation of the word itself, but nevertheless as a result of these horrible actions, the word sodomy is recapitulated as the deviant and abusive behavior of disturbed or mentally ill men who inflict sexual abuse upon children instead of the social and sexual actions of a larger group of gay/queer individuals who have been longing to define their lives and sexual actions themselves.  Ultimately, sodomy, regardless of if it is consensual or not, is always defined and used in a negative light rather than creating or using a new term or sign to describe the perverted and horrific actions of certain individuals and not a larger group of individuals in general.

The word sodomy is used to keep the sexual and emotion lives of gay men in a frozen state and mindset of being.  The creation of sodomy has inscribed a blazoned S on the chests of all gay/queer individuals who perform consensual “oral or anal sex with members of the same sex,” as a way to culturally stagnate the positive sexual revolution of ascribing the public opinion that gay/queer individuals are not all deviant or dangerous. Gay/queer individuals are from a community who have had their sexual acts defined for them by heteronormative society at large and who still, to this day, cannot define their own sexual acts without the fear of being labeled a sodomite.

John Erickson is a doctoral student in Women’s Studies in Religion at Claremont Graduate University.  His research interests involve an interdisciplinary approach and are influenced by his time as the director of a women’s center and active member in the GLBTQ and women’s rights movements.  His work is inspired by the intersectionality of the feminism, queer identity, and religious political and cultural rhetoric.  He is the author of the blog, From Wisconsin, with Love and can be followed on Twitter at@jerickson85.



Categories: LGBTQ

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35 replies

  1. Well done for posting ! Ditch the Old Testament – it doesn’t like women either.

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  2. Hey June,
    I agree. I didn’t want to go into the some exegetical affair with the Old Testament because it has been done (and overdone) before in the case of this (and many other) arguments. I want to keep the discussion in the here and now and discuss the modern historical impact on this name, specifically looking from the 1950s forward!

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  3. You either believe what God says in the Bible or you don’t. No hate intended.

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    • Hi Karen,
      Indeed, you either believe it or you don’t. However, hate happens as a result of the individuals who read and interpret the word: sodomy. It’s individual/group actions rather that what “God” has said.

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      • Hi John, you make such an important point here. The issue is the misinterpretation of the bible because of a lack of information. It is interesting to me that we, as a society, reject so much from the bible (we certainly don’t stone anyone to death anymore for blending seeds and we don’t sell our daughters into slavery,etc.), yet we hang on to issues around sexuality – it seems to me to be a another way to justify hate.

        Karen, I disagree with you, it is not about what God says – it is about misinterpretation by the greater community because of a lack of awareness or education on how to read scripture.

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      • Gina,
        You are so right and I feel that we always hang around sexuality, with one of the main reasons being that it is one DOMINANT form of submission to keep people “in check.”

        We all know that certain conservative individuals have performed anal/oral sex. We all know that these individuals might come from conservative or evangelical backgrounds, but that doesn’t matter because the issues of “their bedroom,” i.e. heteronormative couples, although a topic in the media and popular discussion, has not been restricted to the point of sodomy has with Anti-sodomy laws and their impact on gay men’s lives. If we look at the historical court cast analysis even, it wasn’t until 2004 when it was finally overturned! We ALL know people were engaging in anal/oral sex before then!

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  4. I was responding to the fact that you quote from Genesis.

    For what its worth,I think one of the most important things we need to do is disconnect the word ‘sodomy’ from ‘pederasty’. And I think we need to insist on this whenever and wherever we find them conflated.
    Just my tuppence worth, as we say this side of the pond.

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    • June,
      I couldn’t agree with you more. I think we need to also disconnect the performative action of anal/oral sex from the word sodomy itself. I often wonder, are gay men the only one (as perpetuated by Anti-Sodomy Laws, etc) the only ones who perform anal sex? The obvious answer is no, but heteronormative society does want to include themselves with the actions of “different” people, i.e. conservative Republicans or even those who just make bold statements against anal sex don’t want to admit that they too have had this form of intercourse due to the word sodomy being associated with it.

      When did the actions define a person or group instead of the person/group defining their actions themselves stop and begin?

      Our connection to words is deeply a part culture everywhere and in the case of sodomy, it’s a sign that shows no progress to letting go of the shackles it places on individual’s lives and identities.

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  5. Karen, I think what you say is problematical because it simply isn’t that neat.
    Do you mean the whole of the Bible, Old and New Testaments plus Epistles ? And if so, what do you do when one bit contradicts another ? Remember Jesus’ words – ‘I bring you a new law’. Whose law will you follow, the god of love or the god who commands a man to kill his own son?
    In another post on this site I took huge issue with the idea that women must suffer in childbirth for the ‘sin’ of Eve. Do you believe that ?(please see my discussion of this post) Will you believe everything in the Bible in it’s literal sense, or will you interpret it ?
    So there are contradictions within the Bible, and problems with how literal we ought to be where there is no contradiction – I mean seven days ? Are you sure?
    But there is a much more radical issue here, and that is with those of us for whom the Bible is not the word of God, but an historical text written by men (pretty well mostly men, I should think) for men (and maybe sometimes a few women).
    We don’t live in Iran: our beliefs are a matter of individual conscience. You believe the Bible is the word of God, I don’t. The problem is when the Bible upheld as a template for secular law. It is that from which we all need to emancipate ourselves so that we can truly claim to live in societies which both recognise and respect that faith (or its absence) is a matter for each one of us to decide, and not for the state or social convention to impose.

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  6. Let me just start by saying that I’ve reread the first two comments on this post about ten times. I’m not sure what to make of them, but they do disturb me.

    As someone with deep connections to Judaism, I find it extremely problematic that the first two comments include blanket statements to “ditch” the Hebrew Scriptures. This is disrespectful to those of us who find real meaning in it including the prophetic call for social justice, love and concern for the widow, orphan and needy. Rather than “throw it out,” I think Jews (and Christians alike) need to continue to wrestle with our sacred scriptures just as Jacob did with God. We might walk away with a limp (knowing that we will always encounter problematic portions that hurt us), but at least we aren’t turning on backs on what could be a really amazing encounter with God.

    I hope that we nurture respect for all religious traditions, their sacred texts and their adherents on this blog. Blanket comments to “ditch” any religious community’s sacred writings should not happen.

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    • I apologise unreservedly for any offence the word ‘ditch’ may have caused to anybody.

      I would not want to hurt or offend anyone: but as a pagan who honours the Goddess as my supreme deity, I am constantly hurt and offended by other people’s comments on my own faith. Two wrongs don’t make a right: but the dismissive if not actively hostile responses I have frequently encountered tend to make one a little defensive, and I am too quick to show defensivesness by being flippent.
      None of this is an excuse, and my apology for the manner of what I said remains. Neverthelss,I believe that those who are hurt or excluded or condemned by biblical teachings (and many women as well as many homosexuals feel alienated in this way) would do better to leave the Bible behind rather that force themselves to conform to something which is alien to their own nature.
      I remain strongly convinced that monotheism, as preached by all the peoples of the book, is a hard and cruelly exclusive form of religion which habitually resorts to violence in order to assert its authority.
      Although I personally worship only the Goddess, I am very comfortable with the idea of lots of gods; a plurality of deities in which Jehovah must take his place among all the others.

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    • Hi Ivy,
      Thanks for the comments. I think that I need to also “show my cards,” so to speak because although I agree with you that “we [need to] nurture respect for all religious traditions, their sacred texts and their adherents on this blog,” and that “Blanket comments to “ditch” any religious community’s sacred writings should not happen,” I, for the sake of my argument, find sacred texts from all traditions to be harmful on a number of accounts.

      I do not associate with any type of religious community and/or read a particular “sacred” text as you call it. We need to foster an environment of community and respect but oftentimes, when individuals who are not a part of these communities (as I have also blogged about on this project before) state that we need to “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” we do get labeled as people who “do not respect specific religious traditions and/or texts.”

      In reality, we do see how communities see them as sacred but that is part of the over-arching argument that individuals on the “outside” may have with those “deeply connected to religious traditions.” Just because we reject your line of thinking and or practices, does not mean we are critiquing you but rather the oppressive social, political, sexual, and gendered structures we see developing as a result of the texts that you promulgate as holy and from the “Almighty” and/or “Goddess.”

      How we can discuss these issues with individuals who claim to have God or the Goddess on their sight is problematic because at the end of the day, we, as in non-religious individuals, are left outside and in the case of sodomy and its perception into the identities of gay/queer individuals, we often just get defined as “deviant,” disturbing,” or “misguided” without any consultation as to if that is really the case.

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  7. Thank you June and John. Your clarifications contextualize what you meant when you said what you did. I agree that much of what is considered sacred writings is also often considered to be “sanctifying” patriarchal and heterosexist structures in multitudes of ways. It can be difficult to find anything redeeming in them. I happen to think there is much we can learn from them, but I realize that not everyone shares my perspective. The gap between reforming movements within feminism and religion and revolutionary ones is quite large. The last thing I’d want is for those of us committed to the intersection between feminism and religion to make the gap larger. So thank you for your response. These are the healthy kinds of dialogues I love on this site.

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  8. I could not agree with you more. We NEED to have these discussions so that the gap does not get larger.

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  9. John: I especially liked your discussion of the problematic nature of recent headlines. I’d add a few things: (1) there is the larger theological problem that some Jews and Christians continue to believe that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their homosexuality (whereas scriptural texts place the sin elsewhere: idolatry (Deuteronomy 29:23-28), pride and neglect of the poor and needy (Ezekiel 16:49), adultery, lying, and complicity in evil (Jeremiah 23:14), inhospitality and refusal to hear the message (Matthew 10:14-15), sexual sin (Jude 1:7). (2) There is also the problem of the King James Version of the Bible incorrectly translating “male prostitute” into the word “sodomite” in Deut. 23:17 and 1 Kings 14:24. (3) There is the false belief, as you rightly pointed out, that “sodomy” in legislation only meant to proscribe same-sex sexual conduct, whereas in colonial America, “sodomy” referred to a number of discrete acts, mostly of the non-procreative variety (e.g., between men and men, men and women, women and women, human and animal, masturbation, etc.) and that anti-sodomy legislation in various states even up until the time of Lawrence v. Texas sometimes criminalized just same-sex conduct or any kind of “deviant” conduct (e.g., in Virginia as recently as in 2008, it was a “crime against nature” to “carnally know” any animal, male, or female by the “anus or by or with the mouth, or voluntarily submi[t] to such carnal knowledge”). I always used to joke to my students (at Virginia Tech), “do you really believe the travel slogan that “Virginia is For Lovers? Well did you know that VA considers it a class 6 felony for two people, even if married, to engage in oral sex? Or that premarital sex is technically a class 4 misdemeanor?” That would certainly get my students talking…

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    • Grace,
      I’m sorry its taken me so long to write back.

      1.) I love this comment. “Do you really think Virginia is for lovers!?” You make so many great points within this comment that I do not know where to begin. I think one of the main reasons for why these statues were created is because of the idea that they do not lead to procreation. As we discussed above, procreation is seen as the ONLY reason for sex. As a result we see religious and sacred texts criminalize non-procreative forms of sex.

      People are not supposed to enjoy sex but rather only take part in it when they want to conceive a child. In relation to the lives of gay men, I am reminded of a scene from the movie Milk in which a conservative individual asks Harvey Milk: “Can gays have children?” in which Harvey answers: “No, but that certainly doesn’t stop us from trying!”

      We cannot let these mandates and laws dictate our lives. We must, as they did with Lawrence v. Texas, work to change the oppressive natures of sexual laws that define our sex lives for us rather than allowing us to experiment and define them for ourselves.

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  10. Ah Soddom and Gomorrah…. it’s ok to rape daughters, but male guests get protection… honestly, we are in the 21st century. I don’t believe that we’ll ever truly know the intent of patriarchal texts other than as tools of male supremacy. There really is no way to reform these texts, and they do so much damage to women and gays, they are used to revive new movements to keep women pregnant and imprisioned. Sodomy, killing animals on altars, destroying goddess worshipping peoples…. what would it take to ride the world of male supremacy? What would it take to put an end to this stuff? Any ideas?

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    • TW,
      The rape of daughters is directly in that text but first and foremost, we have to discuss the nature of household codes in the story. I have been told and had this discussion with numerous individuals who say the story gets conflated to be about sodomy, etc. when in reality it is about the inhospitable nature of not inviting the guests in and offering them food, shelter, etc before they start to ask them questions about why they are there.

      What would it take to rid the world of male supremacy? Your answer is as good as mine but in all honestly, would you rather have the switch (patriarchy to matriarchy)? Do you really think that would solve our problems?

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  11. I find it interesting that some people would rather make “God” “cruel” because cruelty is found in a sacred text than admit that the ones who are cruel to others are people.

    I have studied the Hebrew Bible in the original language because I once believed it was “the word of God.”

    I left the Bible behind as a source for encounterling God more than thirty years ago. I still “encounter God” all the time in Her immanence in the world and as a presence who understands and loves the world.

    Speaking for myself, I sometimes marvel that I don’t miss the Bible at all as a source of revelation. I don’t have to struggle with things I don’t agree with–whether condemnation of homosexuality, imaging God as a warrior or king, or you name it–in worship or theology.

    But this does not mean that my life is not affected by attitudes some people believe are mandated by the God of the Bible or other sacred texts. So I do believe that I still have a right to think about the Bible and to criticize the use that is made of it by others.

    I am happy to say that I learned about God’s love for the world in church and Sunday school, but if I had children, I would teach them that in other ways.

    As for the word sodomy, it should never be used. As for anal intercourse, it is widely practiced as a form of birth control in heterosexual sex in many countries, including the one in which I live.

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  12. Ivy, thank you for your response.
    Carol, I do find the god of the Old Testament cruel, and could cite many instances. I’ll make do with two: the Plagues of Egypt (why take the firstborn – little children who had hurt no-one, why does god kill the children?) and the command to Abraham to murder his son, an order which comes straight from the mouth of jehovah himself.
    When I was a little girl, and first heard that story about the order to kill Issac, my thoughts were immediately for Sarah: Issaac was her only and beloved son, born when she believed herself too old to have children. How did she feel about the command to have him murdered? Did she ever recover from the trauma? Did she ever forgive Jaweh ? Apparantly, nobody bothered to ask her.
    The story of Issac’s conception raises an interesting point in the context of the present discussion. Sarah, as we all know conceived in ‘old age’ meaning when she was long past the time of childbearing. Neither she nor Abraham believed she could ever now have a child. Yet in spite of this unequivocvally acknowledged fact, she and Abraham are still sleeping together, that’s how she got pregnant. Abraham doesn’t say, ‘Lord, how is this possible, we don’t have sex ?’, he says, ‘Lord, how is this possible, she’s too old’.
    What this means is that Abraham and Sarah were having non-procreative sex. And what’s good for Abraham and Sarah should be good for the rest of us. Yet a very great deal of teaching about sex among the People of the Book (laws on marriage, contraception, same-sex relationships and so on) is predicated on the insitence that procreative sex is and must be the norm. Same-sex relationships are necessarily evil because they cannot produce children.
    It is exactly these kinds of contradiction and difficulty to which I was referring in my response to Karen.
    Bright Blessings to all, no matter who your deity or what your sexual ID.

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    • June, I always make it a practice NOT to criticize the OT and leave the assumption that Christianity did better. For example I would add to what you say here that Christianity is the religion that created and illustrated the idea that sinners will burn forever in the files of hell. The Christian God pictured in this story is more cruel than anything the OT ever imagined.

      Actually when I spoke above about God’s cruelty, I was referring to the cruelty of a God who is said to hate gays and lesbians in the present day.

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      • Hi Carol, and thanks for your response. To tell the truth, I’m not even very intersted in the OT.
        But it seems obvious to me that the OT is used again and again (and especially in the USA) to justify ancient and barbaric cultural attitudes which have no place whatsoever in contemporary life.
        These attitudes would be laughable, were they not so dangerous. I read American fundamentalist websites, and I fear they will lead us to another war – and if America goes to war, Europe will be dragged in at some level.
        The fundamentalists -Christian, Muslim, and Jewish – are a minority but an increasingly strident one and they want war.
        We all know how th OT is used by fundamentalist Christians to underwrite their agenda. It seems to me that the rest of us must fight this evil with every weapon at our disposal.
        Blessings J

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  13. Carol, thanks for your sensible and well written post. I too left the bible behind ages ago. I see no point in debating endlessly with its womanhating male supremacist agenda. It is quite useless to me. However, we all know that people are still attached to this book, and actually “believe in it” and these people try to use it to make public policy today. So I kind of have to engage with this.

    Sodomy as a word has to go! Agreed! To echo Carol’s words, I do have a right to criticize how the bible is used to take away my human rights. To search for “inspiration” which is a word I like a lot more than “sacred.” The source of inspiration is Emily Dickinson or Elizabeth Bishop. The women who wrote great books, the powerful writing of feminism over 200 years. We have to be very careful of what we read, and we don’t have to stay stuck trying to fight with words like “lord, king, master of the universe.” We don’t have to struggle to “change” churches. My greatest freedom is in finding my foresisters, in reading their poetry, or in studying their lives.

    We have a huge culture based on blind faith, and reading texts that have not liberated women at all.
    We could move farther and faster without dragging patriarchy along with us. The bible is filled with cruelty, it is used every day to attack gay men viciously… being true patriarchs, the right wing ignores lesbians in its attacks on “gay people” on bible talk radio… This book is used to make women second class citizens every day in every way. I don’t get it.

    It Carol could read it in the original language and move on, what’s stopping everyone else?

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    • I completely agree with you TW: “The source of inspiration is Emily Dickinson or Elizabeth Bishop. The women who wrote great books, the powerful writing of feminism over 200 years.”

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  14. John, you’re very brave to have written this. Good for you! What people do in their private places and how they do it is no business but theirs. I figure that any expression of love–like same-sex marriage–is good for the planet. Love is good for the planet! Take good care of yourself.

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  15. Reading through all the comments is like picking at a wound for me. Maybe even two different wounds.

    Still have lots to sort out, but it makes me sad that after all the work Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (Christian) and Mieke Bal (post-Christian/secular) have done to find ways to read the Bible outside of a binary for-against, after Kathleen Sands’ beautiful argumentation in Escape From Paradise that completely transcended the “reformist-revolutionary” boundary, the choices we make with regard to our relationships to biblical expressions of spirituality and ethics are still so divisive.

    In the early phases of writing my dissertation, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why the biblical texts still have any kind of sacred authority in my life, given that I see them as completely relativized by the panoply of religious expressions – both textual and non-textual – in the world. After a while, I just had to accept that they do have some kind of authority for me, or I would have to write a completely different dissertation.

    In any case, the gap, the divide, the conflict, is one that I’ve internalized to a damaging degree.

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    • Dirk, I am not sure what you are saying here? That if June and Turtle Woman and I had read ESF et al we would not have left the Bible behind? Of course we can read them and appreciate their views and still leave the Bible behind. It is a choice many many of us have made and many many others have not. Respecting each other as feminists in religion is something I applaud. The idea that there is not a Reformist-Revolutionary boundary makes no sense to me. Though I do understand that some Reformists do not believe there is an essential core of “good” in the Bible but stay in their communities not to call them back to the core of good, but to transform them beyond anything they have been at any point in the past. Also I recognize that some feminists have a foot in both camps.

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    • Dirk,
      I think you are onto something when you discuss the fact that these texts did have some type of “authority” for you. It is often more difficult to be within specific traditions and work for the type of equality the LGBTQ (as well as others) movement has been working towards.

      For me, it was always easy to leave these sacred texts behind because I never was or had any investment in them. I was forced to sit in these church spaces but never actually told to listen. For my mother, it was more important that I was there than actually take part. That was the best thing she ever did for me. I read other critical thinkers and these are the texts that eventually became sacred for me.

      Working within faith based traditions that promote the idea that we need to love the sinner but hate the sin is convoluted for me. While I respect the work that Schussler-Fiorenza and other reformists have done for biblical interpretation, I do not find them to be useful texts for my radical stance in regards to these texts.

      Once we have accepted the power these texts/practices have in our lives, we have two options: move on without the texts/traditions or engage in a lifelong struggle of trying to be heard. There have been great movements within the UCC and other communities of faith that have deeply tried to change the tide in their viewpoints of equality (both in regards to women and LBGTQ individuals) but I believe that a lot of these tend to be folly. Most of my research has found a large growing divide within younger generations of LGBTQ youth to expel any type of religion because of the hate based rhetoric they have seen growing up throughout their lives (Westboro, Prop 8, ect.) While these groups make it easy to “love the sin but hate the sinner” that make it even easier for us sinners to inflict the same type of pain back onto them.

      The problem is that when these two arguments become a battle, we lose the space that we have to talk about equality on both accounts. Can equality EVER really happen? Will it? Your guess is as good as mine but my nature states that it won’t be within our lifetimes.

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  16. John, thank you for your article
    Webster’s New World college Dictionary 4th edition. Sodomize, to engage in sodomy with; specif., to forcibly subject to sodomy. Sodomy any sexual intercourse held to be abnormal; specif., a) bestiality b)anal intercourse, esp. between two male persons.
    I read three words identified as negatives, forcibly, abnormal, bestiality, however the later statement “between two male persons,” when keeping with the current social growth of the western world could easily be seen as in the wrong place. As we learn the tools to sit at the table with are adversary’s, are voices will become clearer, and change becomes possible. We have seen the doing away both socially and politically of negative words that were once common place in usage to identify people of many different racial backgrounds. I understand your discourse with the manner in which Sodomy is applied to identified a consensual sexual act. I looked it up John, there is no definition for anal sex in this dictionary, perhaps one might entertain the idea of petitioning for such.
    Sticks and stone, and words, all hurt. Peace in your quest.

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  17. John, a great article that gave me a better insight to how the word is used in our society and I absolutely agree with you.
    I also want to say that i feel that Carol is right when it comes to the fact that we rather make “God” “cruel” because cruelty is found in a sacred text than admit that the ones who are cruel to others are people.” I agree with this point with sadness in my heart because the way we tend to treat each other is heart breaking. Everything has to be seen in opposition to each other where one side is always the superior norm while the other have to be devalued, and treated as inferior and this is done with the characteristic, word etc to control those who are consider ‘abnormal’. We see this binary thinking everywhere; men v. women, heterosexuality v. homosexuality, Christianity v. Islam white v. black etc.
    Why is that we cant see people for their beauty, for the diverse background they carry with them so we can honestly express individual freedom and equality. I have also thought its interesting how people use the word ‘normality’ to separate themselves from others. But what does it mean to be normal? I mean, heterosexuality was once defined as a deviant act until homosexuality was seen as abnormal by using the word ‘sodomy’ to explain it.
    One day I wish that we live in society were we only show respect, compassion and humbleness for all people, no matter sexuality, gender, race, age, etc
    I believe that one of the steps that have to be made besides taking away words such as sodomy that only are used to control and devalue gay men, is also to change the binary consciousness that has become the toxic air we breath in on a daily basis.

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  18. Thank you John for your article. I found it very interesting!

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