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Sodomy for the Masses | The Nation

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Sodomy for the Masses

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It's a good thing Bill and Monica held their trysts in the White House rather than just across the Potomac, in Falls Church or Arlington, Virginia. It's also fortunate that their meetings occurred in the late nineties and not earlier. Otherwise, they would really have broken the law. Fellatio, after all, was their method of sexual congress, and until 1992 it was illegal in the District of Columbia to copulate in any orifice except the vagina. To this day, in Virginia a person commits a felony if he or she "carnally knows any male or female person by the anus or by or with the mouth, or voluntarily submits to such carnal knowledge."

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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Imagine the howls of national laughter Ken Starr would have provoked. The media would have had a field day describing fusty vaginal-intercourse enforcement laws still on the books in twelve states and Puerto Rico. In Florida, for instance, "any unnatural and lascivious act"--from oral sex, presumably, to toe sucking--can get you sixty days in jail (mothers breast-feeding are specifically exempt). Florida is nothing compared to Michigan, where oral-genital contact between consenting adults carries a penalty of up to fifteen years' hard time. Then there is Massachusetts, whose law states that an "abominable and detestable crime against nature, either with mankind or with a beast, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than twenty years."

To straight people, these atavistic ordinances are a hoot--curious throwbacks to an earlier, puritanical age, almost never used against male-female couples. But things are different for lesbians and gay men. Every place that prohibits "crimes against nature" includes "sodomy" on the list of forbidden acts. In addition, five states--Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Texas--target gays and lesbians exclusively. Queer bedrooms are very seldom actually invaded by the police (though it happens, as will become clear). But cops don't have to raid houses to terrorize homosexuals. Consider the following cases:

§ In Mississippi a few years ago, a man was denied custody of his 13-year-old son even though his ex-wife's new husband was a physically abusive alcoholic. The boy's father, meanwhile, was living in a happy, stable relationship with a new partner--a man. A judge cited Mississippi's antisodomy laws as he angrily denied custody.

§ After finishing law school in 1991 Robin Shahar accepted a job with the Georgia attorney general's office. Before starting, she and her lover held a private commitment ceremony. When the attorney general, Michael Bowers, found out about Shahar's lesbianism, he withdrew the job offer; Georgia's antisodomy laws implied she was a felon. Shahar's case wound through the judicial process. In 1998, the US Supreme Court refused to hear it.

§ Thirty years ago in Texas, a frightened young lesbian named Norma McCorvey unwillingly relinquished custody of her newborn child after her mother threatened to make a legal issue of her daughter's homosexuality. McCorvey--who later would become "Roe" in the landmark Roe v. Wade case legalizing abortion and, by extension, opening the way for sexual privacy rights--feared the authorities for good reason, and that reason continues. This year, a bill has been introduced in the legislature to prohibit the state from placing children in adoptive or foster homes if those homes are the likely sites of "deviate sexual intercourse." This includes oral, anal or object-assisted acts--presumably involving everything from dildos to cigars. The proposed law exempts heterosexuals; only gays and lesbians would be prohibited from parenting. Meanwhile, groups of social conservatives such as the Texas Eagle Forum have played a major role in keeping objective teaching about homosexuality and AIDS out of Texas textbooks. Eagle Forum president Cathie Adams thanks the state's antisodomy law for guarding children against being born into homosexual marriages, adopted by homosexual parents or forced to read textbooks presenting homosexuality as normal.

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