Recently I have been reading a lot about how homosexuality was understood and punished in the England of William Shakespeare’s time. The budding imperial powers at the time–Spain and Portugal, among them–were no kinder than the English in killing men who committed sodomy. The main reason that men were punished with death for sodomitic acts–not just anal or a blow n’ go, but any sexual activity that did not result in procreation–was that sodomy was symbolically connected with heresy and treason, considered the same as disregarding God and King. At its core, the punishment of sodomy has been an exercise of power over men and women who fail to embody very narrow and socially inaccessible forms of gender and sexuality. In this way, women and gay men are both vulnerable to patriarchal violence.
It might be worth mentioning that historians debate whether or not a gay identity existed that resembled anything like the one we enjoy in the present in the U.S. However, it is important to highlight that much of these old laws have shaped the social and legal institutions in the United States today. No doubt has the country undergone drastic changes in social acceptance and civil rights, and yet gender and sexual violence make up ordinary and ongoing instances in our private lives. Remember that things are slow to change, and history is as recent as one second ago. How can we possibly entertain a realistic distance between the present we do not understand and the past we might try to neglect?
It is hard to accept how slowly things seem to change in history. Of course, the writing of history is as much about the documents that are found by historians as it is about what they choose to write about. Historians, publishers, and other professional writers have unusual power in this regard, and it becomes the responsibility of readers to have faith in the information presented to them. Many people who claim their heritage in Latin American countries experience this as a distinct disadvantage, since the information we have about our histories has largely been destroyed, deformed, and devalued in many kinds of violent acts during the initial contact between Europe and the Americas. This comparative lack of accessible history, between what is stored in and shared by institutions and the traditions and practices we receive from our families.
I talked at my mom today. I mean “at” instead of “to” because I needed her to be a soundboard while my brain tried to figure out if it was experiencing a hunger-induced headache or a migraine. Somehow, the conversation veered toward a discussion of patriarchy without the academic vocabulary. We have both escaped or survived encounters with gender and sexual violence, and have become scarred in our imaginations and distrustful of the worst of men’s actions. But again, we never feel the need to talk about these things. Pride has never helped, but I have never been quick to learn from my mistakes.
I don’t know what those experiences were exactly, but we didn’t have much of a language for it, or the details were too large and unforgiving to fit into the mosaics we struggled to share with one another. Maybe I blow my problems out of proportion in this way. Words help us cut up pictures into smaller parts. They are like knives in intent and function. This cutting up of the whole story makes meaning manageable, relatable, measurable, and possible to compare our experiences to. Without the right words we struggle with measurement.
I wonder if a lack of representation in media and politics leads to a lack of good measurement to the nature of our problems, and I wonder if the fantasies of what our lives might have or should have been like spin out of control because we lack the right tools for comparison.
These connections between the histories we receive from the sites of our formal education and our families has a large impact on how we connect with ourselves, each other, and the world around us; how we decide what matters. Valuable conversations that are honest in their disclosures must be had in order to complete the gaps in our own histories and to reshape histories worth sharing. It is clear that our personal histories are connected with each other in many ways, especially through patriarchal violence that stretches back through the centuries.