The Crime That Dare Not Speak Its Name
The ferocity of the New York City police assault against Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in the summer of 1977 was so striking that, even in the current context of urban police brutality, it became emblematic of the sustained, sanctioned violence of contemporary "law enforcement" - particularly when aimed at communities of color. The trial of the police officers is now over. Justine Volpe, the officer accused of ramming a broken broomstick into Abner Louima rectum in the men's room of Brooklyn's 70th Precinct station house pled guilty to all charges, Charles Schwarz was convicted of helping Volpe, and three other officers were found not guilty of beating Louima in a squad car on the way to the police station, although they still face charges of covering up Volpe and Schwarz's actions.
Most of the public discussion of the Louima case has focused, quite rightly, on the entrenchment of police brutality and the extreme difficulties of getting police to testify against one another. But there is another angle - the underlying homophobia that surfaced during the trial, and in particular the use of the word "sodomized" in describing Justin Volpe assault on Louima. >From the beginning of the case the media consistently used "sodomized" to refer to what legally was a change of sexual assault (and which under the statutes of other state's might have been rape.) For a number of reasons, the term "sodomized" is inaccurate, and yet, each time it was used, it served, intentionally or not, important functions that both shaped public perceptions about the case and played upon popular homophobic prejudices. (Two months ago, after complaints from gay activists, some of the reporting limited the use of the word, but it still appears with varying frequency in all of the accounts.)
"Sodomy" is commonly understood to mean anal intercourse, although the word has a complicated history. Coming from a misreading of the biblical story of Lot and Sodom (which is now generally believed to be about inhospitality not homosexuality) "sodomy" began as a theological term in the early eleventh century that described many non-reproductive sexual activities including masturbation.(Mark D. Jordan's The Invention of Sodomy gives a complete, readable history of this.) In early Christian attempts to establish reproduction as the "only" justification for intercourse it evolved from a smallish, general sin to an enormous, deadly and pernicious one. It was in this form that it was codified into early legal codes, usually carrying the death penalty. Today nearly half of the states still have some form of sodomy law on the books and the crime is defined as loosely as "the crime against nature" to explicitly defining it as various contact between genitals, anus, and mouth. A third of them are specifically aimed only at homosexuals, others stipulate heterosexual contact as well although it is almost never used against straight people. While "sodomy" is a theological and legal term, culturally it's normative usage overwhelming denotes male homosexuality.
So why was the word "sodomized" used so frequently in the media to describe what in a heterosexual context would simply be rape? What does "sodomized" do to the reader? How does it shape the story?
On a basic, gut level "sodomized" queers -- literarily -- the people involved. It creates a clear, indelible homosexual subtext that radically changes and confuses the terms of the discussion. Volpe is turned from a "rapist" and a perpetrator of "criminal assault" to a sodomizer (or a "sodomite," although this term was not used explicitly.) It also, in a curious way, loans a certain aura of consensualness to the attack - rape is clearly forced ("sodomy" is almost never is) and thus begins to suggestively mitigate the attack and its violence.
While the media never overtly implies that Volpe or Louima are "gay" the use of "sodomized" unavoidably raises that specter. And, indeed the charge - and the insinuation that men are homosexual is always a charge - is there. We live in a post-Freudian world in which one man anally rapping another is going to have an implication of homosexuality no matter who says what. (Although it is read far more accurately as an act of homophobic rage, not as homosexual desire or action.) In many ways the issue of homosexuality -- spoken and unspoken -- was an overriding presence throughout the entire trial. Any accusation of or association with homosexuality is, in the world today, overwhelmingly negative. In the Louima assault trial the implied charge of homosexuality was used by each side as a way of branding the opposition as wrong, bad, or at fault. When the persecution first began using the word it was clear that they wanted to paint Volpe in the worst possible light - a "sodomizer," worse, apparently than a rapist.
The defense struck back immediately with a more open and forthright accusation. In his opening argument Marvyn M. Kornberg, Volpe's lawyer, announced that they would prove that Louima's injuries - severely damaged rectum bowels, and bladder - were the result of consensual anal sex he had had with an unidentified male earlier that evening. Despite some talk about male DNA found on the fecal matter on the broomstick, this defense never made it beyond the opening day and Volpe's guilty plea prevented it from going any further. As an defense it was completely spurious -- if these injuries were the result of anal sex, tens of thousands of people would be rushed to emergency rooms weekly in New York. What the statement did do was to effectively shift the taint of homosexuality back onto Louima.
Volpe's defense was well aimed and it was no accident that many media sources referred, with implicit racism, repeatedly to Louima "slight build," "lilting accent," and even "a slight lisp." While everyone agreed that what happened to Abner Louima was appalling - some stories going so far as to imply that it was, as tabloids and melodramas were want to say about rape, "a fate worse than death;" the word "unspeakable" appears repeatedly in the news coverage - there was an investment in playing up the idea that somehow Louima was an obvious victim, perhaps not quite entirely (if legally) "innocent."
A sign of how extraordinarily present homosexuality was at the trial - and how powerful its implied stain is - was the statement made by Al Sharpton after Justin Volpe entered his guilty plea. Lambasting Volpe's defense Sharpton referred to the claim that Louima was a homosexual - and caused his own injuries - "a second rape" adding "this vindicates Abner's character. It vindicates those of us who stood by Abner." Outside of the courtroom reporters repeatedly asked Kornberg if Volpe "owed Louima an apology for insinuating that he was gay." The implicit homophobia is these statements indicates the level of anxiety here, as well as that many found the idea, or the (unfounded) charge of, homosexuality as criminal as violent sexual assault.
In the end justice was - at least in part - done. But the lingering cloud of virulent homophobia has not cleared. On one level it allowed the "average" reader of the news coverage to distance themselves from both Volpe and Louima; this was a messy, complicated crime that had nothing to do with ordinary people. But the endless, insinuations of homosexuality, both overt and covert, throughout the trial have the net effect of presenting gay male sexuality - for which "sodomy" is the essential image in the popular imagination - as dangerous, non-consensual, violent, and criminal.