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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.

 

 

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