where the sodomite goes

[This is the first, kind of cheeky section of Queer/Christian Collapse: A Scattered Epistle on Gay/Queer Theological Writing, the rest of which I hope to release soon.]

To do queer theology is to speak from theology’s silent hole: the place where, traditionally, the sodomite goes. To some, the practice is a disgusting one (others of us kind of enjoy it), but it is nonetheless what sex and gender deviants do when they come to consciousness within the Christian matrix, curiously wandering into the church from off the street or popping up from the pews or daisy chained chairs in a moment of self-recognition and alienation. The moment is for some an instant and for others a very long process; either way, it’s a kind of crisis. They speak, squawk, scream from the silence, or run out of the building, or attempt to claim the pulpit, sometimes all three.

What is theology’s silent hole?

[Circa, say, the year 1300, somewhere in Europe.] A sodomite enters the confessional. The sodomite may confess many sins, but the priest sticks to his training, deftly steering the sodomite’s confession through and around sodomy without ever speaking the word. Priests and theologians worried that sodomy was so excessive, so unnatural, that speaking it would facilitate its spread within the church. It was so excessive and so unspeakable that it came to mean a variety of things, including the still quite popular varieties of anal sex and gender deviance.[i] Speaking of a medieval manual intended to instruct priests in confessional etiquette (and thus moral theology), Mark D. Jordan writes, “Those guilty of the sin that cannot be named, that makes them less than human, are rendered mute as animals before God.”[ii] Sexual deviance kaleidoscopes into disability, animality. How can one talk to God if one isn’t human?

The sodomite is born within theological systems that classify human behavior in gradations of its sinfulness and goodness. The church’s taxonomies of sin have always also been taxonomies of people, and the sodomite, a figure of pleasure and perversion, is one of their unhappy inhabitants.This is an historical phenomenon, as Jordan traces it, and also a feature of much theology today: How few words can one devote to homosexuality in one’s theology? to sex, generally? How generically can one speak of sex and gender and still consider that base covered? How much can one say about gay/queer sex without having to listen to someone who does it? The sodomite’s hole is still often tiptoed over or around or found under a different name, only spoken of in euphemism.

Like any body, the body of Christ is a complex system, and it has ways of jettisoning its waste. When sodomitic waste isn’t expelled, it builds up, eventually gaining consciousness. (Hi.)

The sodomite, once self-conscious, knows it must either stay quiet, convert (sexually), leave, or die. When sodomites do none of the above, they often become some kind of theologian, happily or by necessity. The speaking sodomite is forced to argue for its own existence, its presence at the table, or whatever else it may desire.

Towards these ends, the sodomite draws on gay vernaculars, churchy words, practiced ecclesial accents, and its own experiences of God and others—anything it can in its effort either to climb out of the hole, making itself presentable enough to be understood as a theologian by nonsodomites. Outside the hole is where (allegedly) sexually normal Christians live. It is a dangerous place for a sodomite, who must choose either to change itself beyond recognition to fit in or remain lonely and despised—both lead to destruction. Thus, the sodomite may not try to climb out of the silent hole. It may dig even deeper into it, becoming less concerned with making itself easy for the above people to understand, preferring instead to stew in its own rich juices and those of its fellow hole dwellers. The hole still might sound silent to those who live beyond it, but put your ear to it like a conch shell and you’ll hear echoes of cackling, crying, laughing, and moaning—sodomites living in ways they deem appropriate to who and what they are as creatures. Finally, some sodomites go both ways, in and out and in and out, either with the purpose of acting as an intermediary/translator/peace broker between the two places, or just because they are torn and never quite at home in either. They might wonder if it’s possible to get away entirely. (And if so, through what extreme? In or out?)

An important feature of this silence: to be named a sodomite is to be tethered to a geographical place in the past, always long gone and for many, far away. It is to be made anachronistic. Jordan writes, “The Sodomite ought to be exiled from his homeland as unfit for citizenship, and yet the Sodomite is conceived by definition as a citizen of an ancient, enduring city, the city of Sodom.”[iii] Sodomy thus proved useful to European colonizers of the “New World,” who, upon encountering the land’s inhabitants, sometimes referred to indigenous peoples as sodomites to justify murdering them and taking their land.[iv] As Héctor Domínguez Ruvalcaba writes, “The so-called sins against nature… served as a type of ‘just cause’ rationale for the conquest.”[v] Association with Sodom is a kind of displacement, and Europeans made this displacement literal in the colonization of the land that was made to be America and through the murdering of its inhabitants.

To exist as a sodomite is to live under judgment and impending destruction, not just by God, but more immediately, by the church. No judgment, no sodomite. No looming annihilation for sex and gender deviance, no sodomite.[vi]

Living under threat, sodomites develop peculiar and creative habits of reading and appreciation and affirmation. Some of us make the unlikely claim that in our living and being together, including in the sex and gender practices that define our place of residency, we, too, have seen God and have felt God seeing us. We, too, have met Jesus. Those of us who have seen and felt the presence of God’s utter transcendence with us here in theology’s silent hole don’t always know what to make of it. Our testimony is blasphemous to others, and it has been grounds for tossing us out of churches, families, the land of the living. So many keep their secret knowledge to themselves.

[i] See Robert Mills, Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[ii] Mark D. Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, The Chicago Series on Sexuality, History, and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 106. This whole account leans heavily on Jordan.

[iii] Jordan, 161.

[iv] Jonathan Goldberg, Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities, 1st ed (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 193.

[v] Héctor Domínguez Ruvalcaba, Translating the Queer: Body Politics and Transnational Conversations (London: Zed Books, 2016), 33.

[vi] I flesh this claim out in Samuel Ernest, “John Rechy’s Sodomites,” Literature and Theology 35, no. 3 (2021): 328–54, https://doi.org/10.1093/litthe/frab002.

Published by Samuel Ernest

I am a doctoral student in theology at Yale.

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