This Halloween many of our American children will dress up as witches. And we’ll hear their laughter and see their smiles as they joyfully go door-to-door trick-or-treating.
But not all of our children will.
Due to homophobic bullying some of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) children feel like they are looked upon as today’s witches. And in some places across the globe children would never pretend to be witches because the consequences are too deadly. For example, organizations like the United Nations Children’s Fund, Africa Unite Against Child Abuse, and Save the Children have stepped in where they could to stop the witch-hunting of children. But the phenomenon of “witch children” is so widespread throughout Africa these organizations have set up “witch camps” as shelters for children who cannot be safely placed with a relative.
Throughout history people described as witches have been tortured, persecuted, and even murdered. And it is usually society’s most vulnerable who are targeted as we see with bullying. Many would argue that anti-gay bullying is our present-day form of witch-hunting. And let us not forget the role religion has and continues to play in both witch hunts and anti-gay bullying.
“Hell Houses” are today’s contemporary form of both anti-gay bullying and witch-hunting. Created in the late 1970’s by deceased fundamentalist pastor, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, “Hell Houses” are religious alternatives to traditional haunted houses. They are tours given by evangelical churches across the country designed to scare and bully people away from sin. And one of those sins is homosexuality.
In 2006 the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) put out a report titled “Homophobia at ‘Hell House’: Literally Demonizing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth” explaining how Hell Houses specifically targets youth. “Instead of spooking youth with ghosts and monsters, Hell House tour guides direct them through rooms where violent scenes of damnation for a variety of “sins” are performed, including scenes where a teenage lesbian is brought to hell after committing suicide and a gay man dying of AIDS is taunted by a demon who screams that the man will be separated from God forever in hell,” the NGLTF stated. A study published in the Journal of Psychology stated that a strong belief in Satan is directly related to intolerance of l (LGBTQ) people.
Religious leaders who support Hell Houses believe that by scaring LGBTQ youth into “heterosexual” behavior they are saving their souls. However, the message that “homosexuals” are going to hell can have a deleterious impact on our youth. For example, the NGLTF report tells the story of Bobby Griffith, a gay teen who wrote in his journal that he was afraid he was going to hell and committed suicide.
Residing just a stone’s throw from Salem, Massachusetts, as the nation gears up for Halloween this weekend, I am reminded of one of this nation’s earliest examples of witch-hunting – the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
This haunting history of the Puritans’ execution of innocent women, and certain men too, is a window into how their bullying of religious fanaticism, misogyny, and homophobia destroyed not only the moral fiber of their town, but how it also decimated its own Christian zeal to become a “city on the hill.”
While today new light is being shed on the Salem Witch Trials little is still known about the first women accused of witchcraft who sparked the trials – Tituba, a black slave. Born in Barbados, early white historians depict Tituba as Carib Indian. However, African American feminist historians depict Tituba as black. With Tituba married to a man named John Indian, at the time the trans-Altantic slave trade was transporting Africans throughout and among the Caribbean islands, also known as the West Indies, Tituba’s racial identity is only obscured to those who erase the history of slavery. Although a slave, Tituba was nonetheless subjected to the same gender restrictions placed on Puritan women. And Puritan men had only two views of women: the good wife and the bad witch.
Clerics’ sanctioning of Exodus 22:18 “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” not only gave men biblical legitimacy to control women, but it also gave them a legal license to kill them. Homosocial circles of women threatened the Puritans’ paradigm of male dominance, giving rise to the charges of witchcraft, because of the theological belief that women ought not be in the company of each other without the presence of a man. And without the presence of a man, of course, women could not help but engage in sorcery, paganism, and lesbianism.
Witch-hunts have always created moral panic, mass hysteria, and public lynching of society’s most vulnerable and marginalized. This Halloween, as I think of the children in Africa and of the recent death of our LGBTQ children here to anti-gay bullying, I am reminded of our present and past witch-hunts.