Historically, homosexuality has been a controversial topic in society and literature. Defenders of gay rights state that gays and lesbians are normal people just like anyone else, while opponents claim that homosexuals are deviants who exist in the world in an unnatural way. The conflicting opinions regarding this issue have been discussed for many years, and they are still matters of disagreement which have even led to violence in the 21st century. The existing prejudice in contemporary society against homosexuals is highlighted in the crime graphic novel Torso by the detective Sam Simon.
Records of homosexual behavior go as far back as ancient Greece. It was not unusual in ancient times for men to be attracted to men. In fact, attraction to members of the same sex was socially acceptable. Whether someone was attracted to a man or a women did not matter, “instead the excellence in character and beauty is what [was] most important” (Pickett, 2002). Gender was not the driving force in attraction, rather the human being as a whole was the essential matter. With the fall of the ancient empires and the rise of Christianity, homosexuality began to be considered a deviant behavior. The exact translation of the Biblical verse condemning homosexual behavior is not possible to prove, but the common interpretation is: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination” (Strauss). If the verse’s meaning is to be taken literally, homosexuality is sinful and outlawed by God. With the rise of power of the Catholic Church throughout the Middle Ages, homosexual acts were condemned. To engage in homosexual behaviors was to insult God, and to break God’s rules was to ally oneself with Satan. Homosexuality was then, considered, evil. This outlook on homosexuality has influenced various cultures throughout history, even seeping into American culture.
Discrimination against anyone not white, male, and Christian has been extremely common throughout American history, and intolerance against homosexuals was no different. In Colonial-Era America, taboos against homosexuality were included in the “regulation of non-procreative sexual practices… [which] stemmed from Christian religious teachings” (Chauncey et al. 2003). Not only were male-male and female-female relations denounced, there were also laws which forbade bestiality and masturbation. These regulations were enacted in order to create a focus on sex for the purposes of procreation only. If there wasn’t enough procreative sex, the colonial population would dwindle in the harsh environments. As the population grew and America evolved into a fully-fledged country, the opinion on homosexuality barely wavered. By the end of World War I, “on the basis of the new medical model, …homosexually active individuals came to be labeled…as sexual deviants different in nature from other people” (Chauncey 207). Instead of solely disparaging homosexuality, the very fact that one was gay meant that he or she was considered subhuman. These opinions were still heavily based on Christian teachings and traditions, which continued to prevail in American society for many years. Discrimination against gays and lesbians began to reach its peak in the 1930s when, “[g]ay men and women were labeled ‘deviants,’ ‘degenerates,’ and ‘sex criminals’ by the medical profession, government officials, and the mass media. The federal government banned the employment of homosexuals and insisted that its private contractors ferret out and dismiss their gay employees…The authorities worked together to create or reinforce the belief that gay people were an inferior class to be shunned by other Americans” (Chauncey et al., 2003). Homosexuals were still almost entirely barred from participating in society at this point in history. Gay men and women had to hide their sexual orientations from the outside world in order to get jobs or walk the street without being yelled at or attacked. This discrimination is a point of interest and discussion in Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko’s Torso.
Torso takes place in Cleveland during the mid-to-late 1930s, as the magnitude of the prejudice against homosexuals was severe. The graphic novel, based on true events and evidence, follows Detective Sam Simon, Detective Walter Myrlo, and Safety Director Eliot Ness as they search for the Cleveland Torso Killer, a notorious serial killer stalking the streets of Cleveland. Detective Myrlo describes the killer’s modus operandi as decapitation of the victims “[a]nd every couple of the torsos have their genitals removed. Clean as a whistle. Sicko sex fiend” (Bendis et al., chapter 3, page 6, panel 12). Myrlo sees the crimes as sexually motivated. His belief is influenced by the prevailing opinion concerning homosexuals in Cleveland in this decade. The general population of Cleveland views homosexuals as aberrations and uses derogatory slurs against gays as conventional words of description. When questioning a bartender in an attempt to identify one of the victims, the bartender describes the victim’s company as “[h]ookermongers and boozehounds…with little to no discriminating taste, so, they all had a bit of the queer” (Bendis et al., chapter 2, page 18, panel 1). The term “queer” is used to describe anything suspicious or out of the ordinary. This is equivalent to present times, when the word “retarded” may be used as a description for stupidity. In Torso, “gay” is used to describe someone perceived as different or strange. The prevailing negative attitude towards homosexuality inundates, influences, and affects the characters in Torso, especially Detective Sam Simon, Walter Myrlo’s partner.
Sam Simon, one of the investigators searching for the Torso Killer, is portrayed as a suspicious character early in the events of the graphic novel. As Myrlo, his good friend, invites him over for dinner, Simon declines, saying, “Tell Mary I’m going to skip dinner again tonight, ok? […] I just need to do some stuff, clear my…” (Bendis et al., chapter 3, page 12, panels 16, 18). The next day, the Killer claims another victim; a woman’s head is found in the water by the docks. Simon’s lack of an excuse to turn down spending time with Myrlo lays an air of suspicion on him, leading the reader to the possible conclusion that Simon is the Killer. Simon also disagrees with his partner’s opinion on the reasons that the Killer removes his victim’s genitalia. He describes another famous case of serial killings, where “[The killer] gut them. He cut their throats…he sliced them from their…genitals all the way to their necks…they called him ‘Jack the Ripper.’” (Bendis et al., chapter 3, pages 7-8 panels 5, 6, 8). Simon indicates that Jack the Ripper’s reason for killing wasn’t sexual, he did it because he was a sick individual. Simon points this out again as Myrlo continues to say that the Torso Killer is sexually motivated. He tells his partner that “[t]he killer is insane…but not because he’s a homosexual. He’s evil.” (Bendis et al., chapter 5, page 15, panel 7-8). He is not defending the Killer’s actions, rather he is defending the Killer’s motivations. The question here is: why would anyone defend the motivations of an insane serial killer, especially the detective investigating him?
The reason is because Sam Simon is homosexual. After being goaded by Myrlo for not acting strong and manly since the beginning of the investigation, Simon finally snaps: “Walt, every step of the way, you’ve been calling the killer a pervert. A nancy, a daisy? Homosexual, right? […] Homosexual is not a perversion…What if I told you that I was a homosexual?” (Bendis et al., chapter 5, pages 13-14, panel 24-25 and 27-29). Simon hid this important factor of his identity from his partner and friend for years because he worried that Myrlo would lose respect for him if the truth had come out. Myrlo has a prejudice against gays because of the way he was raised and the time period in which he was raised. Impugning homosexuality was commonplace in the 1930s. Simon was forced to hide this aspect of himself, not only to retain his job, but also to be accepted by his friend. After returning home and taking some time to think about what Simon said, Myrlo returns and sits with his friend, mentioning that it “seems that this bombshell that you dropped on my head was of no surprise to my darling wife at all, who by the way, thinks you are the bee’s knees.” (Bendis et al., chapter 5, page 21). Even in a time filled with prejudice and discrimination, there are people who are willing to accept those who are considered different because they do not see other people as different but simply as their peers, conducting their own lives differently. At least to Mrs. Myrlo, gender and sexual orientation do not matter as much as one’s character and personality do, reflecting the values held in Ancient Greece. Simon seems to be relieved at his friend’s reaction and is especially relieved when Myrlo tells him that Simon’s preferences “[a]in’t no big deal if you think about it… There’s nothing else to think ‘cept catching the killer.” (Bendis et al., chapter 5, page 22). Myrlo has learned to overcome his prejudice in order to maintain his friendship with the man he’s worked with for years. Myrlo realizes that Simon is no different from the way he was before he revealed his sexuality to Myrlo. Simon is just a man and a detective who wants, just as Myrlo does, to solve the crime.
Bendis and Andreyko present a refreshingly positive outlook on the issue of homosexuality in the 1930s. Just as Mark Twain calls Jim a “nigger” (Twain 20) or F. Scott Fitzgerald describes Meyer Wolfsheim as a “small flat-nosed Jew” (Fitzgerald 55), Bendis and Andreyko only represent the American opinion of homosexuality in the 1930s in order to show how such a person was viewed in that era. It is not meant to be offensive, but simply meant to increase the aura of truth created in the graphic novel. Unfortunately, homosexuality is still a topic of concern and discord in the present. There are groups who make it their primary responsibility to demean and lower the standing of gays and lesbians in society today. For example, The Westboro Baptist Church, the most well-known of these groups, declares that “[s]odomites are wicked & sinners before the Lord exceedingly (Gen.13:13), are violent & doom nations (Gen. 19:1-25; Jgs. 19), are abominable to God (Lev. 18:22), are worthy of death for their vile sex practices (Lev. 20:13; Rom. 1:32)” prominently on the front page of their website (Westboro Baptist Church, 1991). The Church followers still hold the same mentality today that was held in medieval Europe and Prohibition-era America. Luckily, for every step taken backwards from progress, there is a step forward. In a 2003 United States Supreme Court case, Lawrence v. Texas, it was decided that it is “unconstitutional [that] a Texas law…prohibited sexual acts between same sex couples” (Chemerinsky). The federal government affirmed that laws cannot be made to discriminate against a specific group of people, as the government had done in the past to women and people of different races.
The issue of homosexuality is still fervently discussed today in newspapers and on the Internet, specifically pertaining to the upcoming presidential race and as a political issue, and it is quite apparent that the American populace is divided on its stance. The authors of Torso have their own opinions on the matter. Bendis and Andreyko use Simon’s disappearances and the subsequent uncovering of murders the next day as red herrings, in order to distract the reader into believing that Simon is the killer. Consequently, the reader is snared into falling for the same prejudice against homosexuals that is present in the graphic novel. Nevertheless, in the end, Sam Simon is shown to be a respectable and upstanding detective who just happens to be gay. Simon’s actions in Torso demonstrate that, as in ancient Greece, it doesn’t matter to whom one is attracted, but rather which inner qualities and characteristics of personality one exhibits.
Bendis, Brian M., and Marc Andreyko. Torso. Third ed. Orange: Image Comics, 2003. Print.
Chauncey, George. “Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era.” Sexual Borderlands: Constructing an American Sexual Past. Ed. Kathleen Kennedy and Sharon Ullman. Columbus: Ohio State University, 2003. 187-218. Print.
Chauncey, George, Nancy F. Cott, John D’Emilio, Estelle B. Freedman, Thomas C. Holt, John Howard, Lynn Hunt, Mark D. Jordan, Elizabeth L. Kennedy, and Linda P. Kerber. “The Historians’ Case Against Gay Discrimination.” History News Network. George Mason University, 2 July 2003. Web.
Chemerinsky, Erwin. “Lawrence v. Texas.” Duke Law. Duke University, n.d. Web.
“Compendium of Bible Truth on Fags (first Published in 1991).” God Hates Fags. Westboro Baptist Church, n.d. Web.
Fitzgerald, F. S. The Great Gatsby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925. Print.
Pickett, Brent. “Homosexuality.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 6 Aug. 2002. Web.
Strauss, Lehman. “Homosexuality: The Christian Perspective.” Bible.org. N.p., n.d. Web.
Twain, Mark.The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1884. Print.