Conquistadors of the Senses

BY PATTRICE JONES
11.28.2006 | SOCIETY

Throwing the homosexuals to the hounds sounds like a metaphor for the Republican Party's electoral strategy of recent years, but it actually happened back in 1513 in what is now Panama. Then, governor Vasco Nunez de Balboa condemned 50 homosexual Indians to be torn apart by dogs.

Seen by both Catholic Conquistadors and Protestant Pilgrims as a sign of godless animality, same-sex pleasure was ruthlessly suppressed throughout the process of the subjugation of the Americas. Today, the conquest of the senses continues, as billions of people and animals are forced to forgo all kinds of natural happiness so that a privileged few can enjoy the empty gluttony that has brought us to the brink of planetary catastrophe.

When Columbus blundered into the Caribbean, sexual freedom -- including full acceptance of homosexuality -- was the norm in the region. Did the invaders understand that such physical freedom would be a wellspring of resistance? Did they dimly suspect that people who don't need a reason to enjoy each other might be hard to control?

Whatever they knew, they threw themselves into the task of policing sexuality with a fervor that would satisfy any latter-day acolyte of Focus on the Family, mercilessly murdering those who transgressed the new world order of patriarchal heterosexuality. When the Tairona Indians on the Caribbean coast of what is now Colombia rebelled against the suppression of their sexual customs, which included divorce and homosexuality, the resulting repression nearly erased 80 communities. As Eduardo Galeano has remarked, it is one of the ironies of history that the Caribbean, where indigenous people physically fought for their right to same-sex pleasure, is now among the most homophobic regions of the world.

The Tairona were not alone. Same-sex coupling was recognized as natural by hundreds of indigenous South, Central, and North American peoples. In many cultures, homosexual men and women were not merely tolerated but fully integrated into the life of the people, often with designated routine or ritual roles that recognized their unique positions and perspectives.

Then came the Europeans with their guns and bibles. Disease, displacement, and missionaries dedicated to cultural genocide conspired to estrange many native peoples from their own traditions. New practices, such as Christianity and cattle ranching, became the new "traditions." These days, some gay and lesbian Native Americans who embrace the old ways are locked in struggles with conservative Christian elders over the same subject that brings Bush voters out in droves: gay marriage.

The glee with which our fellow Americans regularly run to the polls to deprive us of our civil rights is no surprise to LGBTQ people who know our own history. The Puritans whose survival is celebrated every Thanksgiving, like the Conquistadors of the Caribbean, often imposed the death penalty for homosexuality.

Anti-gay referenda are just one of many legacies of the European invaders. Historian Alfred Crosby has written that "one who watched the Caribbean islands from outer space during the years 1492 to 1550 or so might have surmised that the object of the game going on there was to replace the people with pigs, dogs, and cattle." Today, factory farms in which hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands of animals are confined litter the landscapes of the Americas. Their effluents poison our water while the carbon dioxide and methane released by their operations are among the chief causes of climate change.

Some of the diseases that decimated indigenous people were deliberately introduced, as when Sir Jeffery Amherst distributed smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans in 1763. Today, we live with the very real prospect of a pandemic of avian influenza that Dr. Michael Greger, in his new book Bird Flu, calls "a virus of our own hatching."

The conquest of the senses continues too. Gluttony of all kinds has replaced the natural pleasures that have been suppressed. Estranged from their own bodies, Americans have an insatiable appetite for the bodies of others, conveniently converted into objects for consumption by butchery or pornography.

Homo Sapiens is just one of the hundreds of species of animals who enjoy homosexual activity either for transitory sensual pleasure or to form stable same-sex pair bonds. Nothing could be more natural. But, to the Europeans who invaded the Americas, our animal bodies were, like all of nature, profane objects to be exploited and controlled.

We've now reached the logical conclusion of behavior based in that mindset. At the brink of environmental catastrophe, we are profoundly disoriented animals living within a dangerously deranged biosphere. We are so out of touch with our senses and feelings that we cannot perceive the changing climate or feel the fear that motivates action in an emergency.

Among the Maya of Guatemala, the word for sex is "play." Play might seem beside the point in these dangerous days. But truly mutual animal happiness brings us into communion with each other and ourselves without hurting anybody else. Unlike the consumption of cancer-causing pork chops, paper sex objects, and plastic electronics, true play energizes people for the hard work ahead. So, if you're wondering what to do instead of going shopping, I invite you to come out and play.

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