Angels don’t have a known gender.
Jesus said so. In the resurrection, people will no longer marry, but will be “like the angels,” like the first human made from mud and God’s own breath, before God split the Adam. Angels don’t fit our binary understanding of gender. Angels, God’s messengers, are genderqueer.
Of course, it’s pointless to argue about angelology. We do not know how many can dance on the head of a pin. In the Hebrew Bible, authors simply call an angel “a man” or “a stranger,” but what else would they call a being who isn’t a man or a woman? Our language didn’t fit those who fall outside our either-or binary understanding.
When I take this understanding of angels seriously, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah finally makes sense.
Imagine this scenario: It’s 1963 in the southeast United States. Two people of ambiguous gender show up in a town square. The place is known as a “sundown town,” because black people are told not to let the sun go down on them in this place. But the invitation to leave is extended to any who don’t fit the town’s profile of acceptable guests: gays, hippies, or communists.
The two genderqueer strangers visit the general store, and the shop owner glares at them while they buy their supplies. A man sitting on the porch says loudly to his colleagues, “Which one is the man and which is the woman?” The strangers are meant to overhear. There is laughter and one or two slurs. As the strangers walk away, another voice yells something at them speculating about their genitals. When they ignore it, the voice becomes indignant: “Hey! I’m talking to you!”
As the sun sets, an immigrant newcomer offers them shelter in his home, but by dark a crowd has gathered outside his door. They demand that the strangers come out so they may “know” them.
“Let’s find out if those two are really men or women!” It’s a threat of physical and sexual violence.
We see this kind of violence against trans and queer persons on a regular basis. In May of 2014, on Atlanta public transportation, a crowd of people not only assaulted two transgender women of color, but recorded it on video as they punched, kicked, and stripped them naked. The crowd cheered. Their words are eerily similar to the mob’s words in Genesis 1—they wanted to “know” the “real” biological sex of the two women.
So which scenario is more likely?
That Sodom was a town of ravenous homosexuals, or that it was a conservative moralistic town known for lynching? Who is more likely to suffer violence in our society, and which is more prevalent in our own American history? We know what Ezekiel said about Sodom and Gomorrah: their sin was pride, prosperous ease, and failing to aid the poor and needy. Self-righteous racist and homophobic sundown towns fit the profile. Genesis 13:13 says the people “were wicked, great sinners against the Lord.”
Their citizens would burn or hang a man on Saturday night and go to church on Sunday.
I’ve used the scenario of a sundown town to highlight another important fact: people of color are still more likely to suffer violence in our society, even though “sundown towns” are less prevalent than they used to be. Gay and lesbian people of color are more likely still to be attacked by mobs. Trans women of color are disproportionately more likely to be victims of violence in our culture even than their gay or lesbian peers.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not a story about the supposed sin of buggery. It’s the story of a society so in love with its own purity that it ignores the violence it uses to enforce its social codes. It cannot recognize God’s own presence in the form of angels who visit. It cannot see God’s image in people who are a different ethnicity or who understand gender differently. In order to maintain its own fragile sense of masculinity and femininity, it must police any deviation from the norm with physical and sexual violence.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah, trotted out as a homophobic trope for centuries, should be read by Americans as an indictment of the ways we use mob violence to deal with social fear.
In the previous century, whites often used mob violence—and often sexual violence—against African-Americans because in popular white imagination, black bodies were a sexual and political threat. Both white and black mobs continue to use violence against gay, lesbian, trans, and queer persons because they are likewise perceived as a threat to social order.
For folks who live at the intersection of being black, lesbian, trans or queer, the threat of mob sexual violence is very real—much more so than for any other demographic. For this reason, it is disingenuous for anyone in our society to read Genesis 19 as a story of violence by gay persons against supposedly straight protagonists.
It takes a deliberate interpretive choice to pervert the plain and obvious reading of how violence actually happens in our world.
Outside of dystopian fiction, the scenario of a city full of violent gay men is a farce. In the real world, where seven trans people were killed in the first seven weeks of 2015, we must see Sodom and Gomorrah reflected in our own society that sanctions violence against LGBTQ persons.
The irony of the story, of course, is that Sodom and Gomorrah is still used as the justification for violence against LGBTQ persons.
Part of the recent backlash against the advance of LGBTQ rights in our country has included a man in California who has proposed a ballot measure to execute gay persons by shooting them. The language of the proposal refers to Sodom and Gomorrah and the threat of divine punishment. It is both sad and predictable that people continue to use the Bible in a way that supports a culture of mob physical and sexual violence. This man, and the hatred he represents, is a far better representative of the lynching mentality of Sodom and Gomorrah than the gay persons he rails against. It’s the same lynching mentality that put Jesus on the cross, that blamed and punished Jews for it through the centuries, that tied Matthew Shepard to a fence post, and that beat Islan Nettles to death as she walked home in Harlem.
If angels of indeterminate gender were to visit my city from heaven, if they were to walk the streets at night or ride public transportation, I would fear for their safety. I would pray that they would not meet up with a mob like the one who attacked the trans women in Atlanta, or the man who proposes open season on LGBTQ persons in California. I would hope that they encountered at least one person who would offer them hospitality.
1 I recognize that angelology is purely speculative, and that it’s problematic to dig back through thousands of years of layers of cultural meaning to assess what different authors at different times believed about angels. Jesus could have meant that angels are hermaphrodites or polymorphous. According to conventional assumptions about angels, they don’t need to reproduce, so there’s no need for sex, and they are immortal, so there’s no need for vows “until death do us part.” Whatever intimacy they would have with God or each other would probably be as different from sex as flying is different from walking. When Joshua meets an angel, he asks if the angel is friend or foe. The angel’s enigmatic response is “Neither.” What is consistent in these stories is that angels don’t fit our human ways of understanding groups or tribes.
2 One of the most moving scenes in the story “To Kill a Mockingbird” is when Atticus and Jem Finch confront a lynch mob. But this fantasy belies the reality—white saviors almost neverstepped in to prevent violence against minorities. If they did, they may be part of the minority statistic in this interactive map. In my own state, 48 white people were lynched between 1882 and 1968. 299 black people were lynched.
3 Of the gay men I know, most are not especially violent. Most are more likely to have suffered violence at the hands of others. But since elementary school I’ve witnessed violence against anyone whose appearance deviated from the norm, or whose masculinity or femininity were called into question. When I was in second grade, I invented a game with a group of other boys. The rules were simple: you tackle whoever has the ball, and take it away. When you have the ball, you are “it,” and the group chases you. An older boy told us that we didn’t invent the game. It already existed, and it had a name: “Smear the Queer.” We repeated the name, appreciating its rhyming quality, and that’s what we called it. At that point, queer just meant strange to me. I never even knew that I was being educated into a culture of anti-LGBTQ violence. It was just a game. So in some sense, I sympathize with the lynch mob. They were simply reenacting a drama they had been practicing from the time they were kids. For them, it was just a game.
4 The violence continues in news stories of police brutality and vigilante justice, and in the justifications for violence that refers to black men as “thugs.”
5 We also can’t ignore the fact that in the story, Lot (the “hero”), believes that sexual violence against his own daughters is more acceptable than sexual violence against his guests. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah highlights this double-standard in the way we address violence against women and our own rape culture.
6 One anti-gay website makes this astonishing claim: “It is obvious to anyone who believes the Word of God, that Sodom was predominantly homosexual, and these homosexuals were violent (as is often the case today).” There is no data cited for this incredible claim, but we can see the perverse logic at work: LGBTQ persons must be policed with violence because of some imaginary possibility of violence. In the same way, black persons are subject to excessive violence because of imaginary violence, and Christians have historically enacted violence upon Jews because they were blamed for Jesus’ death or imaginary deaths in their own communities. This is the logic of Sodom and Gomorrah at work: mob violence against a perceived weaker minority, because the minority represents some imaginary threat.