The Demonization of Homosexuality
There is a precedent in Western society to ascribe any behavior that seems "out of the norm" as being evil, demonic, or otherwise immoral – this especially applies to homosexuality and any flavor of gender non-conformity. We can clearly see the marks of this demonization in both real life and fiction through history and its reach continues today, even in the most allegedly progressive of communities.
In the modern day, the demon motif is often played as a joke or otherwise repurposed by gay creators, like Lil Nas X's 2021 music video "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)," which portrays a gay retelling of the biblical story of Adam and Eve and includes a scene of Lil Nas X pole dancing to Hell. The video's release came with the expected widespread pushback from conservative audiences, but also, for some, a sense of comfort. In Ashton Crawley's article for NPR, "I Grew Up Afraid. Lil Nas X's 'Montero' Is The Lesson I Needed," he talks about his childhood full of fear of being outed and all it entails, and how much the song means to him, showing an openly gay man living and thriving, despite internal and external judgment.
As demonic imagery is quite common in stories about homosexuality and gender non-conformity (especially in older works), I thought it would be a good idea to take a deeper look.
Before we can further analyze the association between homosexuality and the Devil, it's important to first consider why homophobia and the stigma against homosexuality exists in the first place.
Older research into this topic is rife with cultural bias, as described in Gregory M. Herek's "Hating Gays: An Overview of Scientific Studies" (1984). For example, both William James (1890) and Edward Westermarck (1908) claim homophobia comes from 'the inherent revulsion one feels when thinking about same-sex attraction.' James even went so far as to say that cultures that were more accepting of gay people had simply conditioned to overcome this 'natural disgust,' rather than consider that, in fact, he's the one with the engrained bigotry.
One suggestion Herek offers is that homophobia rises from religious indoctrination. This claim is supported by studies that show homophobes are likely to be very religious, to have grown up in very religious areas, and are likely to hold conservative values (particularly in regards to sex roles).
What I find more convincing, though, is his later argument about how homosexuality and gender non-conformity break down the patriarchal social order of our society (which itself generally stems from religion). As with many other forms of bigotry, there's a tendency to project one's insecurities and fears onto another group as a defense mechanism. Specifically, in this case, gay people come to symbolize all forms of "sexual deviancy" and "immorality," and are perceived as a threat to homophobes' personal values and way of life – in other words, they are perceived as being demonic, as going against God's proscribed path.
I believe this second theory provides a better explanation because, while obviously religion is still a major aspect in many people's lives (and, unfortunately, is also a major driving force for their homophobic attitudes), it seems like many countries are moving away from religious beliefs all together. This is also coinciding with major increases in acceptance of homosexuality around the world. So much progress has been made, and in such a short amount of time! But, still, homophobic statements and attitudes continue, even from people who claim to be "allies."
I wrote about this general phenomenon more in depth here, how people seem to misunderstand how social systems work, resulting them being whatever flavor of activist in name only, but never actually stopping to think about or criticize the roots of the oppressive systems they claim to be against. On social media, you see lots of kids making homophobic jokes and saying homophobic slurs and just displaying a complete lack of understanding and / or interest in actual gay history, and refusing to accept that what they're doing is harmful. They can't possibly be homophobic! They aren't being influenced by our intrinsically homophobic society! Haven't you looked at all the buzzwords in their bio?!
So, homophobia seems to come from a fear of disturbing the patriarchal social order, but how did that form?
Unfortunately, it's impossible to know for sure. So many cultures around the world have independently developed patriarchal structures – despite vast differences in religious beliefs, values, and customs, the glorification of men and oppression of women seems almost universal, and, along with that, strict sex roles. How exactly did this happen? Again, we will likely never know. Therefore, I think we have to narrow our scope a bit.
Since this essay is specifically looking at the Christian idea of Hell, let's start there. In the West, Christianity has undeniably played a massive role in our lives – regardless of whether someone is personally Christian, their values and worldview have been deeply influenced by Christianity, whether they realize it or not.
Our lives are intimately shaped by the pre-planned paths that society tries to push on us. Specifically, the standard map of one's life involves, above all else, eventually settling down with a member of the opposite sex, getting married, and starting a family. There is constant pressure to follow this path, to the point that, even in our modern world, it's still difficult to imagine what other options there are, besides a familial end goal. Where did this sentiment come from? The Biblical story of Genesis describes how God created woman from man, to serve as a companion to man. Futher passages in the Bible, like Colossians 3, talk about how households should be upheld (namely with wives and children submitting to their husbands / fathers).
Now, I am not going to lie to you: I grew up an atheist. All I know about Christianity was learned via cultural osmosis. Still, I believe reading and analyzing media portrayals of gender dynamics can tell us more about what people actually believe those roles to be and their effects, both currently and historically, much more accurately than you can learn from simply reading Bible verses. The specifics of these roles may change from place to place or generation to generation, but media from a given era preserves these perceptions, and often tells us what qualities they idealized and what they considered a violation of those roles.
So with that in mind, let's look at some literary examples!
First, I want to talk about Faust, the classic example of quote-unquote deviating from God's path and the dangers of doing so. One section of the original Faustbuch (1592) in which Faustus realizes he wants to get married. He tells this to Mephostophiles, who responds:
Hast not thou (quoth Mephostophiles) sworn thyself an enemy to God and all creatures? To this I answer thee, thou canst not marry; thou canst not serve two masters, God, and my Prince: for wedlock is a chief institution ordained of God, and that hast thou promised to defy, as we do all, and that hast thou also done; and moreover thou hast confirmed it with thy blood: persuade thyself, that what thou dost in contempt of wedlock, it is all to thine own delight. Therefore Faustus, look well about thee, and bethink thyself better, and I wish thee to change thy mind: for if thou keep not what thou hast promised in thy writing, we will tear thee in pieces like the dust under thy feet. Therefore sweet Faustus, think with what unquiet life, anger, strife, and debate thou shalt live in when thou takest a wife: therefore change thy mind.
Marriage is considered a sacred institution and, therefore, it is strictly off limits to all who turn their backs on God, by threat of eternal pain and death. And, still, just a few hours later, Faustus insists that he "must and will have a wife" – he can't imagine his life with one! Now, rather than Mephostophiles trying to convince him to change his mind, Satan himself appears in Faustus's living room in a circle of flames. Faustus begs for forgiveness and Mephostophiles replies that, despite him not being able to get married (as foolish and meaningless marriage is, anyway):
thou shalt have thy heart’s desire of what women soever thou wilt, be she alive or dead, and so long as thou wilt, thou shalt keep her by thee.
And, so Faustus replaces his desire for genuine companionship with an endless procession of prostitutes. In many other parts of the story, Faustus starts having more doubts about the pact he has made and wondering if there's any way to get out of it… but, conveniently, there's always a beautiful, sexy woman waiting just around the corner to snap him out of any such thoughts!
Women are both dangled as a reward, the meaning of life, and as a temptation to steer men from their "true" path. Neither of these interpretations show women as actually existing and having a will in and of themselves, but they do further serve to convince men into taking the role that society has assigned them: being a husband and father.
So, the vanilla version of the Faustian myth told us about men and how men's desires for family are reinforced, but what about women (and, more specifically, lesbians)? Luckily, in 1889, Catulle Mendès' novel, Méphistophéla, was released, and can answer just that! (I wrote a more in-depth review about it here, if you were curious.)
It follows a woman named Sophie, who is deeply in love with her childhood best friend and neighbor, Emmeline, and the troubles she experiences as both a result of feeling that love and it being unrequited.
Because of the close relationship between the two girls and their families, it's decided that Sophie should marry Emmeline's brother, who ends up brutally raping her on their wedding night. In his monologue, he explains that what specifically angered him was that Sophie refused to properly play the role of the loving, naïve wife and, instead, cowered in a corner away from him and even attempted to jump out the window, rather than have sex with him (or rather let him have sex with her), as a good little wife should. He regards her as his property, who should not be allowed or even physically able to refuse him. [Here, I think it's important to note that spousal rape was only first allowed to be persecuted and criminalized in France slightly over a hundred years later!]
After he falls asleep, Sophie runs away… but shortly comes back to say goodbye to Emmeline. There, standing over Emmeline's bed:
For the first time, the idea occurred to her that feminine enlacement might have everything that was tender in male caresses, without anything of what was tearing. To be a husband with the tenderness of a friend; to be the force that does no harm, which wants, no less than its own joy, the joy of the adored: that possibility appeared to her, distant, but so pleasant! (Mendès 102)
She can only conceptualize her own attraction to other women if she imagines herself as a man. This theme continues throughout the book (and many others from the time), describing herself and the love she feels as "virile" or masculine. The modern conception of homosexuality didn't exist at the time, and its nearest precursor, sexual inversion (which I will talk about in more, shortly), wouldn't hit the mainstream until around a decade after this was published.
So, what does this mean for Sophie, breaking off from "God's path," and forging her own?
And if there was anything forbidden, if desire did not always imply the legitimacy of realization, would there not be a grandeur in rebelling against the prohibition? To transgress being human, humanity: what a glorious audacity! To infringe the law and brave the punishment is to triumph over the judge. To say no to God is to become a kind of God. The being who makes itself different from what it ought to be recreates itself, equaling the creator, with the additional pride of having overcome. Woman smitten by man is the primitive rule that nothing opposes; woman smitten with woman is the new rule, more superb for having vanquished the other. The proudest conquests are not taking possession of a deserted country but violent occupations after the first occupants have been expelled and dispersed. It is nobler to build on ruins. (Mendès 256)
Here, it's probably important to tell you that this novel, Méphistophéla, was serialized in an incredibly conservative, nationalistic, Catholic newspaper and in 1889, no less. Sophie is supposed to represent everything the intended audience hated and feared, and I think this passage does a good job of showing that – more than anything, they're scared that people living "outside of the rules of God" somehow attacks them and their own way of life. You see similar arguments today about how "sex-sex marriage ruins the sanctity of 'traditional' marriage" or whatever. It's a fear of their patriarchal hierarchy, as a whole, crashing down upon them. And, as said earlier, where would they be without it?
Around the same time as this quote, Sophie may or may not be at a Satanic feast and may or may not have merged her consciousness with some sort of demoness, after possibly sacrificing a pile of male infants to said demoness. She also may or may not, herself, be the product of a cursed family line, which may or may not be the cause of her "affliction" (that is, lesbianism). Mendès doesn't actually make any definitive statements one way or the other, and encourages the reader to come to their own conclusions. Is this a criticism of the enforcement of patriarchal norms or a condemnation of those who dare to defy them?
Still, as you would expect from any story based off the Faustian myth, Sophie never achieves a happy ending. Emmeline, her one and only true love, marries and has children with a man, as society has dictated. Just like Faustus, in being told that he could never find love as a result of his demonic pact, Sophie tries to content herself with copious amounts of sex, and later drugs and hardcore fetishes, but none of it fills the void inside her. She eventually resorts to seeing a psychiatrist, who tells her, as we’ve heard many times before, the secret to happiness is to conform to societal expectations. But marriage obviously hasn't worked for her and she has actually given birth to a child, but feels no motherly love or affection for her. The story ends with her feeling trapped and "haunted by ennui" – there are no other (apparent) options for her…
Circling back to the concept of sexual inversion... it's the idea, arising first around the 1870's, that one was born with a disconnect between their "gendered soul" and their biological sex, which has resulted not only in them exhibiting the "wrong" behaviors and clothing preferences but also in them loving the "wrong" sex. Many psychologists and sexologists, such as Havelock Ellis, regarded it as a "hereditary degenerative" disease, like alcoholism – it was considered to "worsen" as time goes on. Still, they are careful to insist that it's a "congenital disorder" and not a "vice" or simple "insanity," as was previously believed…
But, again, this explanation of the cause of homosexuality is just as flawed as James' and Westermarck's hypotheses of the origins of homophobia, as we discussed earlier – our engrained cultural norms have lead them to believe that love can only occur between a man and a woman, to such an extent that, to them, anyone who loves a woman must therefore be a man and anyone who loves a man must therefore be a woman. This is simply a logical fallacy that has arisen solely due to a refusal to actually examine the systems put in place by our patriarchal culture! Your biological sex is completely independent from your personality or interests or what clothes you wear or who you love!
But, since we're specifically here to discuss literature, let's take a break from the old-oldies and look at something considerably more recent: a Sailor Moon fanfic from (presumably) the late 90's or early 2000's. I think that fanfiction is really helpful in this conversation because it's able to showcase the voice of the average person in a way that was previously never possible. Whereas traditional publishing has many barriers to overcome (capitalistic meddling, censorship, being forced to play into certain tropes, etc), anyone can publish a fanfic and post it on their personal site (or, in the modern day, in an archive, such as Archive of Our Own). These fics, therefore, have the potential to show lesbian culture (or idealized lesbian culture) on the ground more clearly, without the need to try to appeal to a more general audience.
The specific fic we're looking at is Ilana Tavan's "The Kaioh family comes for a visit? An unexpected revelation." The author's original site has apparently been lost over the years, but it was preserved on a different archive. In it, Haruka and Michiru (a classic butch / femme lesbian couple) are living together, but have to pose as a heterosexual couple when Michiru's homophobic family comes to visit.
Everything is going well and the whole family is enchanted with Haruka, until it's accidentally revealed that she's a woman who is just pretending to be like a man, due to a medical emergency. Michiru's mom immediately flies into a rage, calling her own daughter "filth" and talks about wanting to "fix her" and "remove the evil from her," and to Haruka, who she was perfectly fine with and even liked just moments earlier, she screams, "I'll kill the devil!" What ensues is later recounted in a conversation between Michiru and Haruka:
“Well, when my mother threatened to take me home to deprogram me from liking women, you flung open the door and tried your hardest to beat her up.”
“I tried to beat up your mother? I don’t believe it. What really happened?”
“After you grabbed her, she realized the error of her ways. She says she’d never seen any man defend his girlfriend the way you did, and that your devotion must have come from somewhere. That somewhere, she decided, was her daughter’s charm and good looks, which had bewitched you, and made you desire me so much that you wanted to become a man. This explains the cross-dressing and male mannerisms in your speech. There we have it. Keiko was in hysterics. She thinks the whole thing is some cosmic joke or comic book.”
“I want to become a man? That’s some rationalization your mother has created for herself.”
“As long as she’s not threatening to kill either of us and leaves us in peace, it’s fine with me. She can think anything she wants.”
“She won’t bring up the operation, will she?”
“I told her it was too expensive for you right now.”
“And she offered to finance it?”
“How did you guess?”
As Michiru's family is never revealed or mentioned in the anime or manga, it can easily be assumed that this is a projection of the author's personal experiences or otherwise reflects how homosexuality was seen when and where it was written. In other words, it was perceived to be safer to pretend to be a heterosexual couple than to be openly lesbian – no one would assume that anything was "off," unless they were somehow lead to (like in this case, where Haruka needs medical attention). And Michiru's mom's extreme prejudice melts away once she is convinced that Haruka 'actually' is the perfect 'gentleman' she introduced herself as inside, but she just needs to be 'fixed.' The problem here is, as we have seen multiple times over today, a gender non-conforming woman daring to step outside of the established patriarchal gender norms assigned to her sex. But, if she were to take, at least aesthetically, the role of the "man," there would be no visible conflict and homophobes would be able to rest easy.
This sentiment is harmful to gender non-conforming women and lesbians because it just further reinforces that there is something "wrong" with them, that they need to change themselves in order to fit into society. But, to change yourself is to prove society right, to admit that there are 'demons' inside of you that need to be exorcised!
The final question of the day is: where do we go from here?
Again, there's no simple answer. Truly escaping would require the complete overhaul of modern society and how we see ourselves – in other words, gender abolition, which is not going to happen anytime soon. The next best option, however, would be for more people to share their stories, both personal and fiction, involving people who are gay and / or gender non-conforming living outside of our traditional, culturally ascribed paths: thriving, accepting themselves, having happy endings.
At the very least, this would show others who feel left out by society that they aren't alone. That there are other options. That, while their life may not look like fairy tales or Hollywood movies, it's still worth living. And they even they can find their own happily ever afters...
Herek, Gregory M. "Beyond 'Homophobia': A Social Psychological Perspective on Attitudes Toward Lesbians and Gay Men." Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 10, No. 1/2 (1984), pp. 1-15. Online.
The history of the damnable life and deserved death of Doctor John Faustus (1592). Modernized by William Rose. The Mayflower Press, 1925. Online.
Mendès, Catulle. Mephistophela. Trans: Brian Stableford. Snuggly Books, 2019.
Ellis, Havelock. Sexual Inversion. F.A. Davis Company, 1901. Online.
Ilana Tavan. "The Kaioh family comes for a visit? An unexpected revelation." I found the .zip here, but also, in the interest of historical preservation, I've uploaded the fic to this site, where it can be read here.