Sodomy for the Masses | The Nation


Sodomy for the Masses

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Today, progress comes in fits and starts. Since 1992, when the District of Columbia abolished its deviant-sex bans, seven states have followed suit. Last month a Louisiana court threw out the law that had criminalized oral and anal sex for both hetero- and homosexuals. A Maryland court did the same in January. Last November Georgia's high court struck down the state's 182-year-old antisodomy law--the same law that in 1986, at the height of the AIDS crisis, was famously upheld by the US Supreme Court in Bowers v. Hardwick on the basis of "millennia of moral teaching." This time around, the plaintiff, Anthony Powell, was straight. He had been charged with forcing his wife's 17-year-old niece to engage in anal sex, and though he admitted to the sex, he argued that it was consensual. The jury believed him but convicted him on the lesser charge of sodomy. The judges who heard Powell's appeal abolished antisodomy laws for all Georgians, regardless of sexual orientation.

About the Author

Debbie Nathan
Debbie Nathan, a New York City-based writer, is the author of Women and Other Aliens: Essays From the U.S.-Mexican...

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Still, America's sex police are busy, and they are targeting both hetero- and homosexual pleasures. In New York City, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is determined to sweep all but corporate manifestations of sex from the streets. In Texas and Georgia it's illegal to sell dildos and other objects obviously designed to stimulate the genitals. Until March 29 it was also illegal in Alabama. As Sherri Williams, a plaintiff in the federal suit that overturned Alabama's law, told the Washington Post, "They set out to eliminate strip clubs, but along the way they snuck in sex toys. Not only did they take away your entertainment, but when they were done they also took away your right to entertain yourself."

Meanwhile, in Texas 55-year-old John Lawrence and 31-year-old Tyrone Garner were caught having sex in their home last fall when Houston police responded to a bogus report, phoned in by a vindictive acquaintance, that a crazed man was on their premises with a gun. In Texas sex between same-sex partners is a misdemeanor that carries up to a $500 fine. With assistance from the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, Lawrence and Garner are challenging the antisodomy law, and gay activists are optimistic about a victory. Lambda and the ACLU are also working, together and separately, on cases in Mississippi, Arkansas and Puerto Rico. Michael Adams, associate director of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, says litigation to revoke such laws is "on a roll" at the state level. Things are looking so good there's even room for levity: Last fall Michael Moore was driving around the country in a screamingly painted vehicle occupied by screamingly dressed dykes and queens. He called it the Sodomobile.

At the federal level, things aren't so cheery.

In the military "unnatural carnal copulation" remains a crime. In the first year of President Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, 597 people were drummed out of the armed forces; in 1998, the number had almost doubled, to 1,145.

The Defense Department attributes the increase to voluntary statements from raw recruits who decide during basic training that soldiering is not for them--either because they're gay and can't bear the closet, or because they're straight, can't bear the military and feign homosexuality to make a quick exit. Even if those claims are only partly correct, we have a new and intriguing phenomenon to consider. Unlike in the Vietnam War era, when gay pretenders were generally upper middle class, educated war resisters, today's soldiers are mostly blue-collar volunteers with far less academic or political schooling. A generation ago, most such young men wouldn't be caught dead telling people they were gay. Today, they can switch on the radio and hear the Butthole Surfers. The turnaround suggests homophobia is fading among the masses.

It still rules higher up. The government is appealing a 1997 decision by a New York federal judge that struck down "don't ask, don't tell" as a violation of the equal protection clause. Last year the Supreme Court turned away three challenges to the policy. And Hardwick still stands nationally, even if it's been repudiated in Georgia. The Court did invalidate Colorado's notorious Amendment 2 in 1996, ruling that government cannot deny homosexuals their civil rights, but dissenting Justices, citing Hardwick, argued that if states can deny gays the right to have sex, they can deny them other rights as well.

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