Even in 2022, we are still seeing an alarming rate of LGBTQ+ content being unjustly censored. In China, an episode of Friends was edited so Ross’s ex-wife wouldn’t be gay. In Hungary, a recent law has banned queer content in schools or kids’ television. And right here in the U.S., dozens of state legislatures have attacked teachers' ability to teach queer and trans history. But how far back does this phenomenon of censoring queerness go?
Zeb Tortorici, an Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literatures at NYU, understands the reality and nuances of this suppression more than most. Tortorici’s body of research focuses on the origins, archiving, and censorship of the queer “obscene” in New Spain, which included Mexico and Central America.
“I was directed toward the obscene,” Tortorici told me, “through my first book, Sins Against Nature: Sex and Archives in Colonial New Spain, which is about the archiving of sodomy.” It was during this research of colonial, same-sex criminal case records that Tortorici noticed the repeat occurrence of the Spanish word obsceno, or obscene. But it struck him as odd. “The word ‘obscene’ in the cases that I looked at,” explained Tortorici, “was particularly grafted upon desires that were less legible than something like sodomy.” So what were these “less legible” offenses?
First, Tortorici pointed me to the 1776 case of Manuel de Arroyo from Pachuca, Mexico. “Arroyo asserted that consuming human semen from another man is not a sin,” he told me. “The assertion of this heretical thought is what Inquisitors referred to as ‘obscene.’” Curiously, the act of oral sex wasn’t the obscene offense, but holding the belief was obscene.
Tortorici also cited a second example, the 1803 case of Juana Aguilar from Guatemala. “They were a so-called hermafrodita, or a hermaphrodite. Their body is described as ‘obscene’ in some records, including medical reports published in the colonial Guatemalan Gazette.” Again, the alleged act of Aguilar being a hermaphrodite wasn’t necessarily obscene, but the description of their body was obscene.
“Obscenity is produced in conjunction with other forms of alterity,” explained Totorici. “It's not simply something that refers to explicit sexuality or sexual desire in the wrong place or in the public sphere.” For Arroyo and Aguilar, moralistic and cultural opinions were “grafted” onto them in a means that further marginalized them as individuals. The Inquisition’s concept of the “obscene” wasn’t solely about being queer; it was a commentary on diversity and how difference itself was anathema to colonial culture. Thus, being different became criminal.
“Sodomy itself was policed in colonial Spanish, Portuguese American, and Spanish Pacific landscapes,” noted Tortorici, “but women and men were judged and denounced very differently for the crime.” Regardless of the type of court–criminal, secular, ecclesiastical, or inquisitorial–colonial Spanish America, despite an effort to standardize punishments for sodomy, allowed gender biases to influence legal consequences. And, in Tortorici’s research, the proof is in how records were kept.
“I spent from 2003 to 2018 in the archives looking for as many cases dealing with the sins against nature as I could, and I was struck by the fact that almost no cases of female sodomy appeared.” Indeed, Tortorici found only one unambiguous criminal case from 1732: it was about Josepha de Garfias, a woman from Mexico City who was punished for the crime of sodomy. But as far as details goes, that’s it!
“All we have is a one-paragraph summary of Josepha’s criminal case, which basically says that she was convicted of the crime of sodomy with other women,” said Tortorici. Apart from that, all evidence was burned and no record of punishment was kept. A leniency toward a female, same-sex crime all but proves, as Tortorici puts it, “the topic of sodomy was not the the axis of the case itself.”
So, as Tortorici asked me, “What is queer? And what does it mean to think about queerness centuries before the term was ever invented?” As Tortorici suggested, “Maybe what makes something queer is in the ways that it is trying to rupture or challenge identitarian claims and politics.” Queer history, in other words, may be much more expansive than you’d think!
For more of Tortorici’s fascinating work, check out:
Sins Against Nature: Sex and Archives in Colonial New Spain (Duke University Press, 2018)
Sexuality and the Unnatural in Colonial Latin America (University of California Press, 2016)
Against Nature: Sodomy and Homosexuality in Colonial Latin America (History Compass, 2012)
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