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Sodomy for Some

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So it looks like Rick Santorum won't go the way of Trent Lott. The chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus came under fire in late April for antigay remarks made during a bizarre interview with the Associated Press in which he defended the criminalization of sodomy, comparing "homosexual acts" to bigamy, adultery, incest and, as he put it, "man on child" and "man on dog" action. While Santorum was publicly rebuked by moderate Senate Republicans, and several Democrats demanded that he resign his leadership position, Bush mounted enough of a defense to save Santorum's job, calling the senator an "inclusive man."

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Richard Kim
Richard Kim
Richard Kim is the executive editor of TheNation.com. He is co-editor, with Betsy Reed, of the New York Times...

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Her comparison of the Lewinsky-Clinton affair to the suicide of an unknown gay Rutgers freshman is gross and inaccurate.

Indeed, Santorum did try to be "inclusive," insisting he has "nothing against anyone who's homosexual" but rather has "a problem with homosexual acts." It's the old "love the sinner, hate the sin" saw that accepts homosexuals as long as they abstain from homosexual sex. What's particularly troubling about Santorum's antigay statements, however, is that they were made just weeks after a crucial gay-rights case, Lawrence v. Texas, was argued before the Supreme Court (a decision is expected in June).

Lawrence v. Texas contests a Texas "Homosexual Conduct" law that specifies sodomy as "deviate sexual intercourse" between persons of the same gender--one of only four state laws that prohibit sodomy for homosexuals only. (Nine other states have laws that criminalize sodomy no matter who engages in it.) Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund pursued a two-pronged strategy in arguing before the Court. Its broader privacy argument would strike down all sodomy laws and reverse Bowers v. Hardwick, the 1986 Supreme Court decision that upheld a Georgia sodomy statute. Its narrower equal-protection argument would eliminate just the homosexual sodomy laws on the basis that they unfairly single out gays and lesbians.

In reality, few sodomy laws are ever enforced, and penalties usually amount to a small fine. As Lambda's brief points out, Texas has neither the interest in nor the ability to prosecute every incident of homosexual sex. The law's true effect is to brand gays and lesbians as second-class citizens and license discrimination against them. It's against this pernicious effect that Lambda has shaped its equal-protection claim, pointing out, for example, that sodomy laws are often cited to prevent gay and lesbian couples from adopting children, and thus forming families, simply because of the presumption of criminal sexual activity.

The argument about equality and family is likely to appeal to conservative Justices like Sandra Day O'Connor (who sided with the majority in Bowers) and Anthony Kennedy. Ruling narrowly on equal protection would allow them to strike down the Texas law while keeping Bowers intact. And this legal argument has its political correlate: It's the strategy used by mainstream gays who counter antigay rhetoric by offering up sanitized, family-oriented versions of homosexuality, as when Dan Savage argued in the New York Times that gay families are "strong, healthy families" or when the Republican Unity Coalition, a conservative gay group, said that "Senator Santorum owes an apology to gay men and women who support, build and have loving families all across America."

Fair enough, as far as it goes. But the gay-family-values/equal-rights argument fundamentally misreads the right wing's expansive view of sodomy laws. Santorum doesn't just hate "homosexual acts." He condemns in the same breath any "acts outside of traditional heterosexual relationships" that are "antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family." Likewise, the Texas brief asserts the right to regulate any "sexual misconduct outside the venerable institution of marriage." Santorum and Texas aren't just antigay; they're antisex. They want to roll back the clock to the colonial era, when laws prohibited any nonprocreative sexual acts--consigning us all to be criminal sodomites.

Even a narrow equal-protection decision could lay the groundwork for repealing nondiscriminatory sodomy laws if, in practice, they primarily target gays and lesbians. But Lambda's privacy claim--that the state has no business intruding on anyone's private, consensual relations--deserves more political attention. A victory on that front would not only bolster reproductive-rights laws based on privacy, it would also avoid strengthening the reactionary notion that sex should be reserved for parenting, monogamous couples, with or without a queer twist. It's also truer to the diversity of gay and lesbian sex--sex outside marriage, sex for fun, sex without love, sex that has nothing to do with children or families. Sex can't possibly bear all those burdens, and in a country that respects sexual freedom, we shouldn't have to pretend that it does to remain on the right side of the law.

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