The Demonization of (Female) Homosexuality
Western society currently has (and historically has had) a precedent of ascribing any behavior that seemed to be "out of the norm" (read: "queer") as being "the work of the Devil." These images clearly still exist in the public consciousness and they have real consequences, including but not limited to churches who preach homophobic sermons and even attempts to "exorcize" the homosexuality out of people. This inevitably has an effect on people, LGBT or not.
In the modern day, the demon motif is often played as a joke or otherwise repurposed by gay creators – some examples are the music video, "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" by Lil Nas X (2021) or the independent cartoon Hazbin Hotel, created by Vivziepop (2019). This is a way of reclaiming these harmful images, but it's also often considered controversial, both inside and outside of the community.
As demons and hell and other such imagery are a common backdrop to stories about homosexuality and gender divergence, I thought it would be a good idea to delve a bit deeper into this phenomena. So, here are some of the questions we are going to be discussing here today:
- Where does this association between homosexuality and the Devil come from?
- What are traditional gender roles? How did they form?
- What does it mean to deviate from traditional gender roles?
- How does this affect gay & lesbian literature & culture?
- How can we move on from this? What does the future hold?
Where does this association between homosexuality and the Devil come from? To answer that, I think it's important to consider why homophobia and the stigma against homosexuality exists in the first place.
If you look at older research into this topic, if nothing else, it’s interesting to see the extent that these ‘researchers’ refused to look past their personal biases. For example, both William James (1890) and Edward Westermarck (1908) say it comes from the ‘inherent revulsion one feels when thinking about same-sex attraction.’ James even believed that in cultures that were more tolerant of homosexuality, the people had simply been conditioned to overcome this 'natural disgust,' rather than consider that he's the one with the engrained bigotry (Herek). That certainly tells you a lot about them and their beliefs, but doesn’t actually answer our questions!
One suggestion offered by Gregory M. Herek (1984) is that homophobia rises from religious indoctrination (namely from certain branches of Christianity and other Abrahamic religions, which are popular in the West). This is further backed up by studies that show that homophobes are more likely to be very religious, to have grown up in very religious areas, and to be more likely to hold conservative values (particularly in regards to sex roles).
But, what I find more convincing is the idea that homosexuality breaks down the patriarchal social order, which itself generally stems from religion. Herek notes that there seems to be simultaneously a hatred of gender non-conforming / gay individuals for breaking from the rigid social roles prescribed by their sex, but also a sense of envy for the freedom that this person apparently gets that they don’t (which just wraps around to more hatred). Similar processes result in homophobes projecting their personal insecurities and fears onto gay people, as a defense mechanism (Herek). The most popular form of this is the classic demon metaphor that we are discussing in this article.
I think this second theory is particularly engaging because, while obviously religion is still a major aspect in many people's lives (and, unfortunately, in many cases, is also a major driving force of 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." Why is this?
I think this is due to people (even ones who claim to be progressive or otherwise completely against these norms!) being reluctant or even scared to break down our patriarchal social order, as mentioned earlier. They don't even want to fully acknowledge that such a thing exists. They haven't been influenced by anything! Their choices and their beliefs are fully their own!
You see this pushback a lot in regards to criticisms of the makeup industry or plastic surgery, where women insist they do it for themselves because it makes them feel "more confident" – but they don't stop to wonder why that is. Why do they feel the need to change their appearance? What is stopping them from being "confident" as they are? It's like our 'friends' from the beginning of this article who try to argue that the root of homophobia is 'being disgusted by gay people' – they are confusing the cause with a symptom, which isn't helpful at all.
To continue from here, it's important to look at traditional gender roles and why / how they formed. [Please note: this discussion is going to be specifically focused on Christianity. Obviously, gendered expectations change a lot through time and location, and I may come back and revisit other configurations in the future, but this is where I'm starting, at least.]
Literally every aspect of our lives is 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 and getting married, starting a family. It's difficult to even begin to imagine a world outside of this framework!
Because, without these pre-determined paths, where would we be? Life is already scary and meaningless enough – but to be completely without guidance, forging your own path, alone, without even a light at the end of the tunnel? How could you possibly bare such an existence??
But, how have these norms come into place, exactly?
It seems the shortest answer I can give here is from the Bible. Obviously, it didn't originate every little bit of our modern gender roles, but it has definitely played an enormous role in how they developed in Western, Christian-dominated society. From the beginning, in Genesis 2, God is said to have specifically created woman from man, to serve as a companion to man. Later, in Colossians 3, a list of "Instructions for Christian Households" is given, including a section telling wives to submit to their husbands. There is so much more going on, but I think these snippets paint a decent picture of what's going on.
Now, I'm not going to lie to you: I grew up an atheist. What I know about all of this has mostly come from cultural osmosis. But I believe that looking at media portrayals of the roles of men and women really does tell us a lot about what they believed these roles to be and how actual people were affected, and presumably more accurately than simply reading off Bible verses. The specifics of these roles may change from generation to generation, but media from a given era preserves those roles, often showing both an idealized version and deriding what they consider to be violations.
So, with that in mind, let's look at some literary examples!
Certainly, we all have heard some version of the story of Faust, in one form or another. It's a classic example of quote-unquote deviating from God's path, and the dangers of doing so.
One section of the original Faustbuch is a particularly good example of this, in which Faustus realizes how much 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 after this book was published!]
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 affirmative 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 (Ellis), which mounts them as technically progressive, I guess...
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!
How does this belief affect gay life and culture?
Numerous lesbian or lesbian-adjacent stories have been written about "androgynous" characters or characters who, at the time, would've referred to themselves in the only way they knew, as "inverts." Prominent examples include Oscar de Jarjayes from The Rose of Versailles or Stephen Gordon from The Well of Loneliness.
Similar ideas are still very common today. Personally, I experience dysphoria and I know many others who do, as well. Unfortunately, as the meme goes, we live in a society and, as such, are bound to its rules – it's deeply uncomfortable to not know where you fit in…
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, 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 a bit more clearly lesbian culture (or idealized lesbian culture) on the ground, 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 the fic still lives! 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, 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!
This question has been posed multiple times before in this article, but where do we go from here? How can we possibly escape these societal expectations?
Again, there is no simple answer. A full escape would require a complete overhaul of modern society and how we see ourselves – in short, gender abolition, which is definitely never going to happen anytime soon. But, I think the next best thing would be for more stories to be written, exploring all walks of life and showing people living outside of gender conventions and who (most importantly) have happy endings.
At the very least, this would show other gender non-conforming people 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...
And now, I'll leave you with this poem, by Baudelaire:
Lying on the sand like ruminating cattle,
They turn their eyes toward the horizon of the sea,
And their clasped hands and their feet which seek the other's
Know both sweet languor and shudders of pain.
Some, whose hearts grew amorous from long confessions,
In the depth of the woods, among the babbling brooks,
Spell out the love of their timid adolescence
By carving the green wood of young saplings;
Others, like sisters, walk gravely and with slow steps
Among the high rocks peopled with apparitions,
Where Saint Anthony saw the naked, purple breasts
Of his temptations rise up like lava;
There are some who by the light of crumbling resin
In the silent void of the old pagan caverns
Call out for help from their screaming fevers to you
O Bacchus, who lull to sleep the ancient remorse!
And others, whose breasts love the feel of scapulars,
Who, concealing a whip under their long habits,
Mingle, in the dark woods and solitary nights,
The froth of pleasure with tears of torment.
O virgins, O demons, O monsters, O martyrs,
Great spirits, contemptuous of reality,
Seekers of the infinite, pious and satyric,
Sometimes full of cries, sometimes full of tears,
You whom my spirit has followed into your hell,
Poor sisters, I love you as much as I pity you,
For your gloomy sorrows, your unsatisfied thirsts,
And the urns of love with which your great hearts are filled!
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.