There is an increasingly well-documented history of deadly and shaming violence against gay-queer men throughout the world. In this essay, three historical snapshots will be provided, trying to give the reader a small window of understanding about that religion-based, state-based, and popular-based violence. The river of hate runs wide and deep from its source, a reality named “hetero supremacy.”
Some present-day gay-queer men might protest, why are you reminding us of a horrendous past when today we are free? To pretend you are living in a historical vacuum and history does not impact your life today is stupid and dangerous nonsense.
It is suggested that just beneath the surface of contemporary U.S. society, hetero supremacist ideology, with its global history of brutal intellectual and physical genocide against gay-queer men, genocide as defined by the United Nations, is alive and well. It is suggested further that if a certain, worse-case-scenario trajectory of contemporary political and religious unfolding continues, seeing gay-queer men-trans people in jails again or hanging from a tree somewhere in the U.S. is not a psychotic paranoid delusion.
Supreme Court Ayatollah Clarence Thomas has made the hetero supremacists’ agenda very clear, with the same constitutional logic that overturned Roe vs. Wade—to rescind gay marriage and return criminalization of same-sex sexual acts. The Supreme Court has the votes and political will to do it, even if it runs counter to U.S. constitutional history and the majority will of the American people.
LGBTQ people and their allies today must never forget the relative freedom that gay-queer men experienced in the German Weimar Republic (1919-1933) and what happened after the 1933 ascend of the hetero supremacist, at a minimum, Third Reich. Political winds can change rapidly, seemingly overnight. Martin Sherman’s stage play and movie Bent harrowingly-depicts how that 1933 overnight wind-change catastrophically-impacted the lives of gay-queer men and their vibrant culture at the time by Nazi repression.
Historical Snapshot from Eighteen Century England
In 18th century England, there were legal executions by hanging of what we today call gay-queer men, then called “sodomites,” among other names. Extreme shaming also took place for simply being visible or being a part of the largely-invisible 18th century nascent gay culture and community in which Molly Houses, like U.S. gay bars in the 1950’s and 1960’s, were an important gay-queer evolutionary social phenomena. The name of the Molly Houses derives from the Latin word “molli” meaning “soft,” i.e., a place for same-sex loving, gentle men.
The hangings of gay/queer men in 18th century England were celebratory public entertainment. They recall events somewhat analogous to the public celebrations that accompanied the lynching of black men in the U.S. Jim Crow South, but without the horrific body mutilations and dismemberments-as-souvenirs by white supremacists that accompanied those extralegal events. The hanging of gay-queer men in 18th century England was legally-mandated by the state, advocated for by the religious hierarchy, and endorsed by the Christian citizenry.
It’s also important to remember that the English colonizers of North America of the 16th century, 17th century and later transported this hetero supremacist ideology—cultural mores, legal principals, religious values—with them. That imported ideology has percolated in a deadly and destructive manner throughout U.S. history right up to the present day. A similar process happened with the cruel and sadistic Portuguese and Spanish colonization of Central and South America.
Here’s a 1724 police report of a raid on a Molly House on Beech Lane in London, “There I found a company of men fiddling and dancing and singing bawdy songs, kissing and using their hands in a very unseemly manner.” It sounds a little bit like a LAPD report on a gay bar raid in mid-20th century Los Angeles.
In 1810, one of the most famous police raids on a Molly House took place at the newly-opened White Swan in London in which thirty gay-queer men were arrested. Here is an account of the event and its aftermath: “A violent mob, of which women were apparently ‘most ferocious,’ surged around the prisoners’ coaches as they made their way to watch house. Two were sentenced for buggery and put to death. A larger number convicted of ‘running a disorderly house,’ were mostly sentenced to many humiliating hours in the pillory where members of the public could throw things at them. Three months after the original raid, these men were led through the streets and out on the pillory. As they went, thousands of people formed a seething crowd, hurling whatever they could at them—dead cats, mud pellets, putrid fish and eggs, dung, potatoes, slurs. The men began to bleed profusely from their wounds. After an hour in the pillory, about 50 women formed a ring around pelting them with object after object. One man was beaten until he was unconscious.”
[“pillory” = a device used for publicly punishing prisoners consisting of a wooden frame with holes in which the head and hands can be locked.]
For more, read “How the 18th Century Gay Bar Survived and Thrived in a Deadly Environment—Welcome to the Molly House.” by Natasha Frost.
A Historical Snapshot in the Time of the Burnings
In 1120, the Christian Council of Nablus, after centuries of relative tolerance for gay-queer men, issued an edict that “sodomites” should be burned alive at the stake, which often occurred in front of a church and burned Jews as well. This ruling echoed through the successive centuries of gay-queer oppression in Europe and reached a zenith with the Inquisition period (1391-1834), particularly, but not solely, in Spain. The medieval French word “fagot,” the kindling used to light these fires, is the etymological source of the word “faggot,” a hate word used to verbally attack and shame gay-queer men, and, post-Stonewall, used as a badge of honor by contemporary gay-queer men.
The fires of gay-queer genocide burned ever higher during the burnings, however, with increased historical importance, three additional words, not of a strictly sexual nature, began appearing more often in association with what occasioned the faggot fires—“heresy,” “sedition,” “witchcraft.” Then, gay-queer men were a danger not simply because they enjoyed performing same-sex fellatio and other sexual delights in secret, but because of the severe threat their very existence posed to civilized society, as seen through the lens of hetero supremacists.
During this horrifying time of the burnings in Europe, gay-queer men were not condemned solely on the basis of a sex act, although that was enough, the pretext, and served its purpose when needed. These men were also seen as committing “heresy,” having a different opinion from established church dogma which they lived out secretly. By their very nature, these gay-queer men were proto-free-thinkers, putting elements of their lives together secretly in a way that made sense to them, even if deadly dangerous—embodying the Archetype of the Non-Conformist. [Just as I finished this essay, synchronicity appeared on “The New York Times” Op-Ed page with an essay by NYU law professor Melissa Murray titled “We Are Losing the Right to Not Conform.”] Such non-conformist thought and behavior were clear threats to the authority of the Christian church and divine-right kings whose power was based on obedience and control. It’s the reason Jehovah Witnesses, who do not recognize earthly rulers, are often among the first to be crushed in fascist regimes.
An echo is heard in 21st century U.S. attempts to banish gay-queer non-conformist ideas, sights and sounds from the view of children. The “Don’t Say Gay” laws in Florida are ideologically-modeled after the horrendous Russian state laws which have made gay-queer men there largely invisible again.
The laws in Russia are monitored and gruesomely enforced by state police and vigilante groups. These laws resulted from the deal Putin cut with the Russian Christian religious hierarchy to buttress and maintain their mutual power within a totalitarian culture of state control, just like the historical church-state alliance in European history led to the burnings and hanging of gay-queer men in the Middle Ages and right into the modern world.
The concept of “sedition” also entered into the burnings and hangings. By their very existence, gay-queer men venturing, even secretly, outside the box of hetero supremacy, represented an incitement of passive resistance to the total control of the state and its coercive power as well its forced and enforced ideology of heterosexualism.
You might have noticed, gay-queer men are not good at coloring inside the lines of the dominant hetero supremacist culture, whether secretly or openly. OMG, call the sheriff to put a stop to this disobedience of heterosexualism by violating the laws of hetero supremacist coloring books, so to speak.
In medieval times, the dirty word “witchcraft” also permeated the burnings. In addition to same-sex relational and sexual pleasure, the umbrella term “witchcraft” also began to be associated with the persecution of gay-queer men among others. Why?
The post-Roman Empire forced Christianization of Europe initially happened almost entirely in the cities, the seats of state and church power. In the countryside, the “Old Ways” continued—woman-centered spiritual traditions instead of the Great Father, shamanic and herbal healing practices rather than Greco-Roman medical theories, living in balance with Nature rather than conquering her, polytheism rather than monotheism, and a more horizontal society based on cooperation rather a vertically-organized church-state hierarchy based on obedience and conformity.
The “culture wars” during this enforced Christianization of Europe largely occurred along a city-rural axis. For example, the first Crusade, the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229), was not against so-called Islamic infidels in the Holy Land. In the name of Pope Innocent III and the French king, the crusade was waged against disobedient Gnostic Cathars in Languedoc, the countryside in southern France, with its free-thinking, anti-authoritarian, anti-materialism culture, invested in the Old Ways, centered around Mt. Segur. It was claimed that “sodomites” lived openly among the Cathars. With the capture of Mt. Segur, all were burned alive together collectively. The Cathars were driven underground and their sentiments still survive today in the countryside of southern France.
The word “pagan” derives from the Latin word “paganus” which meant “country dweller,” those who practiced the Old Ways. In those cultures, gay-queer men were treated as equals and many were skilled practitioners of healing arts and herbalism, among other contributions. Therefore, in the critical struggles between the Christian cities and pagan countryside, gay-queer men were seen as dangerous and an essential part of the Old Ways that needed to be stamped out. Hetero women and men who practiced the Old Ways were also accused of “witchcraft,” and perished alive at the stake.
Several decades ago, on learning of my interest in and practice of shamanism, as well as knowing I’m a gay-queer man, a conservative Baptist relative called me a pagan, with a tone that was much less than congratulatory. If she had voiced those words 500 years ago in Spain, that would have been enough to set off a one-way walk to the fires as a gay-queer man who also disobeyed the state and church by practicing so-called witchcraft as well as prodigious same-sex loving. The threat to the established order then, as now, would have included, but would have been much larger than, a simple same-sex act of loving companionship and enjoyment.
For more on this topic, read Arthur Evans’ Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture.
A Contemporary Historical Snapshot
In connecting the historical dots from the past to the present, the equation is simple—HS = D, whenever and wherever there is Hetero Supremacy (HS) there is Death (D)—for gay-queer men.
In my essay “It’s Time to Bury the Word Homophobia,” the argument was made to erase the wimpy word “homophobia,” a clinical diagnosis, and replace it with the term “hetero supremacy,” which is a more correct socio-political descriptor of the source of gay-queer oppression.
I speculate that black people in the U.S. would laugh at you if you suggested that their history of dehumanization and violence by white supremacists should be called “blackphobia.” How about renaming male supremacy with the word “femalephobia.” After eight sessions of cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy, all would be well—these racist sexist bigots would be cured. It sounds like a sketch by the Monty Python crew.
Gay-queer men and allies, hear me, it is the systematizing and institutionalizing over time of religious-based and state-based hetero supremacy that has led to the intellectual and physical genocide against gay-queer men. Historically, hetero supremacists have forced gay-queer men to internalize deep shame about who they are, just like any system of colonization, slavery, and class and race demonization over time will produce.
Let me make it clear, this is not a blanket indictment of heteros, only the ideology and practice of hetero supremacy. Staunch hetero allies were on the front lines with Gay Liberationists, and continue to be, long before most gay-queer men could utter the words “Gay Liberation.”
Here is a list of contemporary violence against gay-queer men reported by on-site journalists in the “Los Angeles Times” and “The New York Times” over the then previous ten years (2006-2016) prior to my 2016 above-cited essay, excerpted here. Do the following sound like phobias to you?
· The phrase “death by stoning” is accomplished by having a gay man dig a hole in which he is buried up to his shoulders with only his head and shoulders showing. Then rocks and pieces of concrete are forcefully hurled at his head, crushing it.
· In Iran and Saudi Arabia, the ayatollahs and mullahs approve of gay men involuntarily being forced to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Their medieval binary reasoning is that if gay men want to have sex with men like women do, we’ll make them women.
· There have been reports from Iraq that vigilante groups capture gay men, sew their anus shut, and then force-feed them huge quantities of laxatives. Writhing in beyond-severe pain, their gastrointestinal tracts explode.
· In Libya and other places, militias tie up gay men, take them to the roofs of very tall buildings, and throw them off. If they are not dead when they hit the ground, a group at the bottom stones them to death.
· In Uganda, newspapers called for the death of gay and lesbian people. As a public service, they even provided names and addresses. At night, someone broke into the home of beautiful David Kato, a young man central to Uganda’s fledgling gay liberation movement and referred to as the first openly gay man in Uganda. His brains were beaten out with a hammer.
· In Bangladesh recently, Xulhaz Mannan, the vocal and visible editor of “Roopbaan,” the only gay magazine there, was hacked to death with a machete by Al Qaeda fundamentalists.
Historically, the list of state-sponsored and religion-sponsored violence against gay-queer men goes on and on and on, century after century, all over the world.
An urgent Call goes out to Millennials and Z-generation gay-queer men and their allies from your Gay Liberation elders—your community organizing skills, using your genius and methods, are critically-needed
in fighting back against the latest iteration of violence against gay-queer men. LGBTQ people, in the difficult days of the American Ayatollahs that lay ahead, you must continue to remember how to flame without getting burned—let your flaming gay-queer light shine, but, at all costs, avoid the fires. Forgetfulness is not an option.
Don Kilhefner, Ph.D., a pioneer Gay Liberationist, has been a frontlines community organizer continuously for over 52 years in Los Angeles and nationally. He is the co-founder (with Morris Kight) of the L.A. LGBT Center, the world’s largest, and L.A.’s Van Ness Recovery House, the first for LGBTQ people, co-founder (with Harry Hay) of the global Radical Faeries movement, and, recently, facilitator of intergenerational dialogues, among other contributions. firstname.lastname@example.org
This is pretty scary stuff.With the country going through many disturbing trends,we need to watch for those who would take advantage and demand unwanted and unwise changes.The general population can be made to start fearing the “other” and pretty soon you have uncontrollable mobs.
We should also keep in mind that the Catholic Church throughout the Middle Ages was both the chief employer, sanctuary and tormentor of gay men. When King Richard the Lionheart was headed out for crusade he demanded his nobles turn over the eldest sons to his favorite bishop as hostages for the nobles good behavior. The nobles refused saying they would entrust their daughters to the care of the good bishop but never their sons. As we have seen from recent scandals, things have not changed much.
Thanks for this rich journey through history.
Contemporary times really challenge us to confront State violence on numerous fronts. The new “priest class” these days is global finance, unelected bureaucrats, & the corporate bankrolled “expert class”, evoking State violence against a scapegoated group and seeding hatred within the general population.
…there is so much to learn from the historical successes (and pitfalls) of gay/queer liberation movement.
Thanks so much for this eye-opening article. We have to remain vigilant, active and non-conformist to stop these atrocious attacks on LGBTQ people to happen in our times.
Thank you for an amazing reflection. I’m going to read this twice!