Unnatural Law

I'm a law-abiding person. I don't cheat on my taxes or cross against the light and I always clean up after my dog. Yet even my respect for the law can't keep me from committing a gross misdemeanor in Minnesota. I've committed sodomy, and I intend to do it again. Often.

The Minnesota criminal code defines sodomy as "carnally knowing any person by the anus or by or with the mouth." In other words, whether you're on the giving or the receiving end of this guilty pleasure, you're engaging in a crime. Good thing President Clinton didn't conduct his affair with Monica Lewinsky in this state, or Ken Starr would have an actual criminal offense to pin on him.

Sodomy laws have been repealed or overturned by the courts in most states, leaving the allegedly progressive state of Minnesota in the company of Michigan, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, and a swath of southern states that still criminalize particular kinds of sex between consenting adults. Most sodomy laws, including Minnesota's, apply to both homosexuals and heterosexuals, and the actual acts covered by these laws are called everything from "sexual misconduct" to a "crime against nature" to "unnatural intercourse." South Carolina gets the prize, however, for the most succinct yet descriptive legal title: buggery.

So one might ask, what's the big dea,. State statutes are full of archaic, rarely enforced laws. Gay people have bigger things to worry about, like discrimination, domestic partnership, and hate crimes. Tell that to Sharon Bottoms, a Virginia lesbian who lost custody of her son because a judge was able to point to the state's sodomy law and proclaim that a person who commits illegal acts is an unfit parent. Or tell the two Texas men who were charged with sodomy in November of this year after police entered their home on a false burglary report and found the two having sex.

Ann DeGroot, executive director of OutFront Minnesota, calls the sodomy law a threat hanging over gays and lesbians. It was used as an argument against passing the state's human-rights law, and if the Legislature tries to repeal portions of that law next session, don't be surprised to hear sodomy cited as a reason. Although sodomy repeal is on OutFront Minnesota's long-term agenda, De-Groot isn't optimistic about it happening soon.

State Sen. Allan Spear, who is openly gay, believes repeal is important, but says, "It's probably more important on a symbolic level."

The most recent move toward repealing Minnesota's sodomy law was packaged with the recommendations of the Non-felony Enforcement Advisory Committee, which was formed to clean up the state's criminal code. Spear, who headed up the committee, says the 600 to 800 pages of recommendations included dropping three outdated consensual adult laws: sodomy, fornication, and adultery. You read that right: Unless you're having conventional sexual intercourse with your lawfully wedded spouse, you're breaking the law. The NEAC recommendations, however, proved too controversial and no action was taken. With the new Republican majority in the House, the prospects for legislative repeal remain dim. "I'm not sure that NEAC is going anywhere," Spear says.

Convictions on charges of sodomy are exceedingly rare, so a court challenge is out of the question, and legislative repeal is unlikely at best. What's a law-abiding queer to do?

The Minnesota AIDS Project's director of community affairs and education, Bob Tracy, says we should instead focus on education. MAP is planning an aggressive, yet playful, education and public-awareness campaign with an eye toward the 2000 elections. "Sodomy repeal is not a legislative issue, it's an electoral issue," Tracy says.

With little hope of action in the Legislature, people should start talking about the issue now. Tracy says if you are a member of a community group, get your organization to take a stand for repeal. Or do what Tracy does--bring it up at dinner parties. Not your standard ice-breaker, but it'll do.

MAP has already begun soliciting support from communities of color, health-care organizations, women's groups, and other potential allies. The Minnesota Council on Disabilities recently added repeal of the bedroom laws to its legislative agenda. DeGroot says for some disabled people and senior citizens, a sex act which breaks the law in Minnesota may be their only option. To be labeled a criminal for that is "disgusting," DeGroot says.

Tracy says the feeling among many disabled people is similar to that of gay people. Although no one is breaking into our bedrooms with arrest warrants, the state is there with us nevertheless and will continue to be as long as our sex lives are defined as criminal. No matter what face you put on the state--Arne Carlson, Skip Humphrey, or Jesse Ventura--the thought of the state in my bedroom scares the hell out of me.

If conservatives can raise enough fear over the distant specter of same-sex marriage to pass useless "defense of marriage" legislation, surely gay people can muster enough concern over the possibility of sodomy arrests to make this an issue for the 2000 elections. If you're not concerned about your own welfare, think about me. I don't know how much longer I can carry the guilt before I'll feel compelled to turn myself over to the authorities.

Melodie Bahan can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]

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