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The Sodomite as Scapegoat of Plagues: A Case Study to Introduce the Early Modern Period in the Era of COVID-19

Jaime Hernández-Vargas
University of Michigan

Scapegoats have long been accused of being responsible for diseases, epidemics, and famines. Since the emergence and spread of the novel coronavirus, religious leaders and politicians from different religions and countries have blamed LGBTQ people as the cause of the pandemic. Among the accusers are the American Cardinal Raymond Burke and the Mexican Bishop Ramón Castro, from the Catholic Church; the evangelist pastor Ralph Drollinger, leader of the “White House Bible Study”; the politician and orthodox rabbi Meir Mazuz; and Muqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric, military leader, and politician.1 They have all agreed in saying that COVID-19 is a divine punishment for the LGBTQ community’s “abominable” sexual practices, pride parades, legalization of same-sex marriage, as well as gender-reassignment surgeries. Over the last four decades, public figures have commonly blamed sexual minorities for social ills. It should not be forgotten that during the 1980s and 1990s, far too many people believed that HIV/AIDS was God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior of LGBTQ people.2 Likewise, in 2012, rabbi Noson Leiter described Hurricane Sandy as “divine justice” for the legalization of gay marriage in the state of New York.3

As a teacher-scholar of the culture and fiction of the early modern period, my purpose is to teach texts that will be of interest to my students and, at the same time, provide them with a diversity of ideas for both their final essays and our discussions. Therefore, as the case study proposed here is the sodomite accused of causing tribulations, it is important to provide and define the following terms: sodomite, “pecado nefando” (nefarious sin), plague, and epidemic. Understanding these key terms is essential, as it allows for dialogue on a number of issues, such as the differences in meaning that the term “sodomite” conveyed in the past, as well as its evolution toward the later use of terms such as “homosexual” or “gay.” Likewise, highlighting the analogy of the term “sodomy” with “sin” will serve as a transition to speaking about the word “plague,” a concept associated with punishment (in this case, supposedly arising from homosexual practices). Clarification of these terms permits the discussion of broader questions, such as the evolution and cyclical recurrence of prejudicial ideas against gay people from the early modern period to the present.

The rationalization of a divine punishment on a sinful and corrupt society appears nonsensical to many in the modern world. However, this idea becomes more intelligible when taking into account that blaming homosexuals for social ills is a recurring theme since at least biblical times, as evidenced by the story of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.4 This logic also appears in legal, fictional, and visual texts from the medieval and early modern periods. For example, King Alfonso X’s Siete Partidas (The Seven Divisions of Law) (1256–65) states: “Every man should avoid this offence [sodomy], because many evils arise from it, and contempt and ill fame attach to the person who commits it. For on account of offenses of this kind our Lord God sends hunger, pestilence, tempests, and innumerable other evils on the country where they are committed” (Seventh Partida, title 21, law 1).5

Accusations that sodomites were to blame for evils is a relevant topic to bring to the classroom, in person or remotely, and allows students to see how ideas from past ages reemerge in the context of the current global pandemic. On the one hand, exploring the demonization of the sodomite helps us to realize how the LGBTQ community has long born the blame for a variety of social ills. On the other hand, it enables students to discuss and understand the reasons why current religious and political leaders attempt to use sodomites and homosexuals to explain the origin of the epidemics, both past and present. One possible lesson of this history is that diseases, epidemics, famines, and natural disasters—from the 1348 Plague to the Lisbon Earthquake to Hurricane Sandy—have afforded leaders a state of exception in which to impose political and religious order in their societies. This is accomplished by establishing a form of social control in which figures of “the other” (outcasts, foreigners, transgressors) are blamed for wider catastrophes.

I propose to analyze the theme of the sodomite as the “cause” of plagues in religious, legal, fictional, and visual texts. This corpus can be studied separately or could be included as a unit in a broader-themed class on the early modern period (one text per class might be ideal). My research and teaching focus mainly on Spanish culture and fiction of the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, but I am certain that the notions found in the texts are present in cultural productions from other times and contexts as well. As an introduction, students must gain familiarity with the already-mentioned biblical episode of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, a seminal text that portrays sodomites as creators of evils. Students will also learn that such accusations and punishments of sodomites also appear in legal texts, such as King Alfonso X’s Siete Partidas (Seventh Partida, title 21, law 1),6 as well as the “Pragmática de 1497 de los Reyes Católicos” (Pragmatic of 1497 by the Catholic Monarchs) (book 12, title 30, law 1)7 and the “Pragmática de 1598 del Rey Felipe II” (Pragmatic of 1598 by King Felipe II) (book 12, title 30, law 2).8

In relation to fiction, the Spanish chivalry novel entitled Floriseo (1531), by Fernando Bernal, presents the case of the Muslim sodomite Paramón (chaps. 11–13).9 He is a knight who causes social ills in the territory he rules by forcing young men to have sexual relations with him and by killing all women. Analysis of this character leads students to observe diverse digressions about the “other” (both the sodomite and the Muslim) as sources of social ills.

Moreover, virtual classes have taught me that visual texts are an essential component these days. Images increase students’ sensibility, reinforce course themes, exemplify key concepts, and allow for more interpretive work than can be achieved solely with readings. Hence, I suggest analyzing “Emblem 64,” a graphic depiction of a hermaphrodite that is included in Emblemas morales (Moral Emblems) (1610) by Sebastian de Covarrubias.10 Moral emblems are a category of didactic images, and the text that accompanies “Emblema 64” indicates that intersex people were a monstrosity and therefore stigmatized as bad omens as well as the cause of sinister happenings. Through the analysis of sodomites and hermaphrodite, it is possible to discuss the relation between gender and current and former pandemics, as well as to talk about discrimination against other minorities in the midst of present-day challenges.

After studying four different types of texts, students will realize how religious men, jurists, writers, and artists from biblical times to the early modern period shared similar concerns about sodomites as the cause of social ills. Students will also recognize the irony that arises when people maintain that all plagues change society, culture, and more importantly, consciousness far and wide; yet, the same past prejudice towards LGBTQ communities and desire to social distance from them continues to impact our modern experience. Last, but not least, I hope class discussion of the sodomite as scapegoat encourages students to realize how insensitivity and discrimination towards others can be as dangerous as any virus.

Jaime Hernández-Vargas is an ABD student in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan. His research and teaching interests focus on minority groups, reform of social practices and their moral justification, as well as material and visual culture in Hispanic early modern literature and culture & Lusophone world. He is currently teaching a remote course entitled Death in México: Celebration, Massacres, and Epidemics (from the pre-Hispanic period to the present day).

1 Robert Shine, “Two Church Leaders Blame LGBTQ People for Coronavirus Pandemic,” New Ways Ministry, 25 Mar. 2020; Brooke Sopelsa, “Trump Cabinet’s Bible Teacher Says Gays Cause ‘God’s Wrath’ in Covid-19 Blog Post,” NBC News, 25 Mar. 2020; Toi Staff, “Israel Rabbi: Coronavirus Outbreak is Divine Punishment For Gay Prides Parades,” The Times of Israel, 8 Mar. 2020; and Alex MacDonald, “Coronavirus: Iraqis Criticise Muqtada al-Sadr for Same-Sex Marriage Claims,” Middle East Eye, 30 Mar. 2020.

2 In David France’s documentary about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, there is a scene where Jesse Helms, a homophobic senator from North Carolina, exclaims that gay misconduct created the proliferation of AIDS (mins. 21–22). David France, dir., How to Survive a Plague (2012; USA: IFC Films, 2013), DVD.

4 Gen. 19:1–29 (NRSV).

5 Alfonso X, Las Siete Partidas, vol. 5, Underworlds: The Dead, the Criminal, and the Marginalized, trans. Samuel Parsons Scott (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 1427.

6 Alfonso X, Las Siete Partidas, 1427.

7 Vicente Salvá, ed., Novisima recopilacion de las leyes de españa T. IV (Paris: Libreria de Garnier Hermanos, 1854), 638–39.

8  Salvá, Novísima, 639.

9 Fernando Bernal, Floriseo, ed. Javier Guijarro Ceballos (Alcalá de Henares: Centro de Estudios Cervantinos, 2003), 71–79.

10 Sebastián de Covarrubias, Emblemas morales (Madrid: Luis Sánchez, 1610), 164.

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