Academic journal article Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality

New World Sodom: Biblical Tales of Conquest and Acculturation

Academic journal article Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality

New World Sodom: Biblical Tales of Conquest and Acculturation

Article excerpt


"I saw a devilish thing" recalled Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca: I saw a man married to another man." One was typical and less noteworthy, but the other was "covered like [the] women" and performed "the work of women." In the anthropological idiom, these biological men, who assumed the dress, manners, and social roles of women, were berdaches. In the Spanish vernacular, they were sodomitas. This was not a casual word choice. By evoking the Biblical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, conquistadors hoped to justify their paths of destruction in the Americas, which they fashioned in their texts as a New World Sodom. By the time that native voices entered the records, acculturation was well underway, and given the high stakes of sodomy accusations, natives had little interest in or ability to articulate a pre-contact worldview. On the contrary, they symbolically sacrificed the berdache before the newcomers. The following will outline the mythical invention and destruction of New World Sodom at the hands of Spaniards and natives.


The following admittedly trespasses on a previously trekked landscape. The premier scholar on the sixteenth-century berdache, the late Richard C. Trexler, argued that Native American warriors gendered their enemies as feminine in ways that surpassed mere rhetoric: they captured men from the battlefield, turned them into women, and raped them. This militaristic tradition bled into the domestic sphere and inspired the homegrown berdache phenomenon, in which coercion, rape, and child abuse were defining features. According to Trexler, "Based on the absence of evidence alone, we would have to characterize the existence of berdaches as a degraded one."

Although evidence-driven, Trexler often treated European representations as ethnographic reality. According to Will Roscoe, Trexler's positions "depend upon a literal reading of the texts of European conquerors and missionaries." Roscoe suggested: "A more careful approach would begin by asking why this information was collected and written down, and what discourse (and rules of discourse) was it apart of." In the face of such criticism, Trexler replied: "one marvels at the naivete of the notion that the Spaniards referred to the berdache so often merely because 'the conquerors were collecting evidence to justify their conquest.'" To think otherwise, claimed Trexler, is to be "unfamiliar with the primary sources," and "there is no alternative to the use of these European records." Without entirely dismissing the theory of social construction, the following seriously questions the ability and will of anyone in the sixteenth century to articulate a pre-Hispanic social reality.


Michel Foucault argued that Europeans exhibited a "nearly universal reticence" to discuss sodomy. To Foucault, the scientific and legalistic discourses of sodomy and sexuality were interesting, not scriptural interpretations. True, Europeans were reluctant to speak of sodomy, but only among their own people. In theory, sodomy was a foreign and contagious custom carried by the exotic, proverbial other. Unsurprisingly, sixteenth-century Iberians convicted a significant number of Italian immigrants, Muslims, and Jews for sodomy while rarely acknowledging homegrown practices.

At the heart of this paper is the notion of New World Sodom: a sixteenth-century Iberian representational strategy of conquest that likened the natives of the New World to the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah through such literary tools as intertextuality, allusion, imitation, and parody. Thus, in order to understand sixteenth-century representations of the berdache tradition, one must understand the biblical tradition that informed those representations. According to Genesis 18-19 (New American Bible), the Lord said: "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave" that the Lord sent two angels to investigate if the rumors were true. …

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