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Guest Column

Sodomy Law -- Does it really prevent AIDS?
By Patricia Nell Warren

A Montana judge with a lot of guts has just issued a permanent injunction against the state's Deviate Conduct law. District judge Jeffrey Sherlock sees no reason to regulate sex in private between consenting gay adults. The Christian Coalition and reactionaries across the state are already screaming bloody murder about his decision. They insist that sodomy laws prevent AIDS and deter homosexual behavior.

Dream on. Sodomy laws do neither. This is a lesson of history that we are doomed to repeat if we don't learn it now.

As a Montana native, I see the debates on gay sex and disease from my viewpoint on frontier history. My great-grandparents, Conrad and Augusta Kohrs, emigrated to Montana as escapees from religious autocracy in Prussia. They were "progressives" (the word for liberal in the good old days) and helped to humanize Montana law. My great-grandmother supported women's suffrage, and was a partner in the Kohrs ranch at a time when few "decent" women dared to be openly associated with business. Her daughter Katie married Dr. Robert Warren, my grandfather -- a pioneer reformer who brought humane treatment to the state mental hospital.

As for the men, my great-grandfather and his half-brother John Bielenberg helped write the Montana constitution and served in the first legislatures. Bielenberg lived with the tribes for a while. Both men kept solid alliances with native peoples -- in a time where racism ruled Montana -- and were scornfully called "Indians" by other legislators. Historians often whitewash the "good old days." Montana was one of the roughest of the frontier states. Those times were hard on women, blacks, Asians, native Americans, half-breeds of any kind, Jews, homesteaders, prostitutes, immigrants from south or east Europe, queers, pagans, Wobblies, and anybody who wasn't a purebred Christian.

I was born in Helena in 1936, and spent my childhood visiting Augusta Kohrs till her death in 1945. Four years later, at the age of 13, I first sensed I was "different." The words "gay" didn't enter my ken for another two decades, and I didn't come out till 1974, when I published one of the first best-selling gay novels, "The Front Runner," which is still selling today.

History shows me that those who uphold stupid and unjust laws, whether in the pulpit or courtroom or legislature, will lose the respect of thinking voters. Over the last century, as the United States finally grew a social conscience, many bad laws have been changed. All state law in the U.S. once held it immoral to let women vote. Many were the Bible verses thundered from the pulpit in favor of keeping women barefoot, pregnant and disenfranchised during my great-grandmother's youth. It was also "immoral" to sell mining claims to Chinese, let labor unions organize, allow white people to marry non-whites, or let the tribes sun-dance. It was even "immoral" to stand in the way of "divinely ordained" eminent domain -- as my great-grandfather found out when he helped sue the Anaconda Copper Company in the historic "smoke case" -- a first effort to stop air-pollution.

In frontier Montana, "morality" was often enforced by vigilante operations. Admittedly even my great-grandfather helped the Vigilantes hang some of the Plummer gang. Indeed, the word "vigilante" was coined in Montana. There were lynchings, barn-burnings, dry-gulchings, public hangings, massacres of striking union members, assassinations of union leaders, and other things that cause today's saner Montanans to wince. Not to mention that gay men who got outed in the "good old days" were tied to a wagon tail-gate and horsewhipped in public, or quietly castrated behind somebody's barn.

Today, Montana and other states tolerate women voters, labor unions, Asians who own property, mixed-blood marriages. Indeed, the laws now tolerate a lot of things that were called "immoral" a century ago! But two dozen states still forbid adult homosexuals to have consensual sex. Other states are seeking to re-activate their old sodomy laws. What does this prove? Only that political expediency, and the most stubborn kinds of bias, can drive some lawmakers and voters into the looniest kind of inconsistency.

Sodomy-law advocates aren't consistent when they hype the Bible. Biblical texts demand the death penalty for homosexuality. Lobbyists and legislators who go by the Bible ought to be advocating death for adultery as well -- and for swearing, disrespect for parents, working on Sunday, worshipping other gods than Jehovah. The Old Testament gives American lawmakers a clear mandate to codify all these things as felonies! But reactionary politicians and organizations like the Christian Coalition don't follow the mandate, because it would be political suicide to criminalize most Americans in this broad biblical way.

Sodomy laws don't stop AIDS. Anybody who says they do has their head in the sand about how heterosexuals spread AIDS.

AIDS is being spread by the heterosexual sex industry. But what legislator is ready to criminalize the many men, both married and single, who keep this industry going by patronizing it? Few men are ever prosecuted for their complicity. The "john" gets to take his covert infection home to his wife, girlfriend, casual date and often the unborn child as well.

Hard times are spreading AIDS. Many homeless and unemployed women and teenagers inevitably turn to prostitution for economic survival. As I listen to the Americans who vent their outrage about teenage hustlers, I wonder how many of these self-righteous loudmouths ever fight AIDS in a real-world way, by starting job programs for hard-up kids.

Prison rape spreads AIDS, as convictions rise. This is a nasty subject, but heterosexuals must wake up to it. According to Stop Prisoner Rape, an estimated 350,000 men and boys are raped each year in our overcrowded prisons. SPR emphasizes that straight men usually do the raping. Possibly one third of the victims (usually young first-timers) may seroconvert. Most straight inmates are prohibited by machismo from revealing their rape. Once released, these infected men can transmit HIV to the unsuspecting wife, girlfriend, casual date, unborn child.

Heterosexual machismo itself helps spread AIDS. Unlike gay sex, which is pursued by only a small percentage of American men, freewheeling straight machismo affects a high percentage of men. A macho man in the throes of lust doesn't give a hoot about health, his own or anyone else's. This is the kind of guy who slaps his girlfriend around if she wants him to wear a condom. Even in the most church-going of times, American machismo has operated blatantly.

As a child of Montana history, I know that machismo and disease have old, commingled roots. Staunch pioneer family men contracted syphilis and gonorrhea from the Victorian sex industry, and infected their wives and children with these (then) incurable diseases. Syphilis was the dread plague of the frontier. Yet nobody dared to criminalize those heterosexual men as a group -- those tobacco-spitting miners, those businessmen in mutton-chop whiskers -- the way homosexuals have been today!

Gay stigma on AIDS has led to heterosexual lying that directly threatens all of us. From the many celebrity deaths that are fudged as "pneumonia" in the obituaries, one can only guess at the cover-ups among all the non-celebrities among us -- especially in conservative communities, where a desperate family might do anything in its power to keep an illness or death from becoming known as AIDS.

Sodomy laws also don't prevent people from being gay. If it is true that heterosexuality can be inculcated and enforced by law, then perhaps legislators should codify all parents of gay kids as felons, and put them in prison too. After all, these parents have violated the sodomy law by their "failure to teach heterosexuality."

Every gay person my age grew up in defiance of universal sodomy law. In 1949, when I was a freshman in high school, homosexuality was not publicly discussed. There were no gay books or AIDS education in Powell County High School in Montana. I was never molested by a lesbian teacher. There was no liberal media, no free condoms -- none of the "permissiveness" that today's reactionaries love to rant about. Church conservatism was in complete control of my childhood world -- in fact, I was raised in Presbyterian Sunday school. So how, in this vast heterosexual vacuum, did I ever "get taught" or "recruited" to be a dyke?

Let's face it -- sodomy laws are useless. They don't even prevent the estimated 200,000 forcible penetrations that happen annually in our penal system! In fact, sodomy convictions send gay men into prisons where they are expected to be "punks" or "queens," and service the "men" (meaning the heterosexuals). Prison officials mostly look the other way as they hear the screams of young straight and gay men being "turned out." According to SPR, many male inmates who went to prison as heterosexuals leave prison as functioning bisexuals.

Who are the advocates of sodomy law kidding?

I feel profoundly angry as I see the worst attitudes of the "good old days" re-occupying my native state, and my country. We're back to the whippings at the wagon-tailgate.

Attitudes, like wolves, run in packs. Voters and legislators will find themselves more and more pressured to accept the whole reactionary package. Anti-gay goes along with anti-feminist, anti-sex, anti-race, anti-ethnic, anti-free speech, anti-Earth, anti-any religion that isn't Christianity.

Montana has already legalized some of this reactionary package. The new English-only law has its roots in the worst historic dirt of hate for "furriners." The recent disenfranchisement of Montana's tribes through re-drawing of voting districts is a disgrace, and harks back to frontier hate for "redskins". New censorship laws in several counties are shockingly invasive. If my great-grandfolks were still around, they'd have some scathing things to say. And my great-grandmother might fix her blazing blue eyes on the hordes of women who don't vote, and ask them if they deserve the rights that her generation fought so hard to get.

It's hard to believe that the majority of Americans want this kind of reactionary law, or the violence and agony that go with it. But are the saner citizens in every state willing to do the hard lobbying to get our legislators and political candidates off this bloodthirsty reactionary bandwagon?

The 1996 Presidential campaign will show us ever more starkly what Remedial American History 101 will be like, if this trend isn't stopped at the polls.


Patricia Nell Warren is the author of the gay literary classic The Front Runner. She is also the advisor to The YouthArts Project. She can be reached online at WildcatPrs@AOL.COM.
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