Arguing the Doctrine of Discovery’s Impact on LGBTQI Folk

During this last decade, the Doctrine of Discovery has become the underpinning on which to build an understanding of Indigenous history and modern reality.  Long in the coming—Vine Deloria Jr spoke to the need of academics and theologians to engage the Doctrine of Discovery nearly 50 years ago—the Doctrine of Discovery is a rubric to apprehend past genocidal practices and current Indigenous tragedy.

The full impact the Doctrine of Discovery (DoD) on the worlds Indigenous people is complex.  However, when it comes to the United States and Canada, the DoD caused a spectrum of hurt which effects Indigenous and non-indigenous people alike.  Recognizing the DoD impacts non-indigenous people raises the complexity of the DoD and alters the conversation.

While it is important to have a conversation on how the DoD has and does impact non-indigenous people in the United States (US) and Canada, it is equally important to say no group has known DoD caused hurt to the extent of Indigenous peoples.  Recognizing that reality is important to say when exploring DoD inflicted hurt upon non-indigenous people because some folk prefer to find arguments that might allow a community to ignore and forget past atrocities.  Developing such amnesia weakens and conceals the impact of the DoD in today’s context and ignores any though of Indigenous racism.  One such path toward forgetfulness is to create a construct where the DoD damages White non-indigenous people to the same extent of Indigenous peoples.  Therefore, it needs saying that while this writing explores the DoD’s damage to a community of people who are both Indigenous and non-indigenous, it is equally important to remember the genocidal impact inflicted by the DoD on the Indigenous people of the Americas is like nothing else.


Similar to how the Doctrine of Discovery developed US racism, so is it the foundation on which homophobic mindsets—policies and laws—were constructed against Native and non-native LGBTQI folk of the Americas.  Recognizing homophobia plays out a little different in each region of the Americas, this writing focuses on its advancement in the early US.  The core of this proposal is when US homophobia is stripped bare, the remaining causation is the Doctrine of Discovery.

A simple explanation as to how the Doctrine of Discovery caused LGBTQI suffering in the United States is recognizing it influenced the development of 18th century US laws and legislation to benefit a specific ruling class.  That class in simple terms were white, free, Christian, landowning men.  The 18th century assumption was those men were (at least publically) heterosexual.  To appreciate this premise, it is important to consider Christendom’s colonization efforts leading up to the American Revolution and the first 100 years afterward.

As a Christian construct the Doctrine of Discovery is birthed in Christendom Europe in the 15th century.  Developed in a time when there is little separation between Church and Empire, the ethics of the Church naturally become the DNA of the Doctrine of Discovery.  For example, Pope Nicholas V’s 1454 bull Romanus Pontifex was written on behalf of King Afonso V of Portugal.  In his bull, Nicholas V

bestow[s] suitable favors and special graces on those Catholic kings and princes, who, like athletes and intrepid champions of the Christian faith, as we know by the evidence of facts, not only restrain the savage excesses of the Saracens and of other infidels, enemies of the Christian name, but also for the defense and increase of the faith vanquish them and their kingdoms and habitations.

This bull gives King Afonso V’s empire a theological tool to know non-Christian people (Saracens/Muslims specifically in this case) as savage and less than human.  Thanks to Nicholas V’s Romanus Pontifex, 15th century Christian values become entrenched in Europe’s developing colonization effort.  The question therefore, is what Christen sexual values are embedded in those 15th century colonization efforts?

During the 13th century Thomas Aquinas writes his Summa Theologica.  As part of the Summa he writes about what he calls Natural Law, we he lays out and argument that becomes the Church’s normalized view on sexual ethics by the 15th century.  In Article 1 Of The Natural Law he writes, “that the natural law is something appointed by reason.”  On that base, he argues in Article 3,

“Therefore, since the rational soul is the proper form of man, there is in every man a natural inclination to act according to reason, and this is to act according to virtue.  Consequently…all acts of virtue are prescribed by natural law.”

The leading question then is, what is virtuous?  Aquinas answers, in part, by pondering what is not virtuous and non-natural (against nature).  For Aquinas, the “proper man” is one who is rational.  That being the case, sins are those acts which go “against reason [and] are also against nature.”  Taking that thought, Aquinas amps it up by reasoning there are a special set of sins that oppose nature—nature being that which are “common to man and other animals.”  Special sin(s), Aquinas argues, is that which is “contrary to sexual intercourse (male and female), which is natural to all animals, is unisexual lust, which has received the special name of the unnatural vice.”(1)  That sin which receives the special naming of being an “unnatural vice” is the polar opposite of virtuosity.  Aquinas’ unnatural vice, unisexual lust, becomes the Christian theological argument to condemn LGBTQI folk in the next century.  By the close of the Middle Ages this unnatural vice is the homophobic sexual value of Christendom.  Therefore, as Christian empires subjugate land and peoples, and develop new communities in those “new found” landscapes, the religious, political, and business mindset is based in a homophobic sexual ethic.

As American colonies develop in the landscape that will become the United States, they create laws which reflect Aquinas’ natural law construct.  Leaders of Massachusetts, for instance, asked the protestant Rev. John Cotton to consider what essential laws might govern the colony.  Cotton writes,

Unnatural filthiness, to be punished with death, whether sodomy, which is carnal fellowship of man with man, or woman with woman, or buggery, which is carnal fellowship of man or woman with beasts or fowls. (2)

His thoughts were not enacted as written at that time, but his death penalty thoughts are reflected when the Massachusetts legislature passes An Act for the Punishment of Buggery in 1697:

For avoiding of the detestable and abominable Sin of Buggery with Mankind or beast, which is contrary to the very Light of Nature;…That the same Offence be adjudged Felony…as in Cases of Felony: And that every Man, being duly convicted of lying with Mankind, as he lieth with a Woman: and every Man or Woman, that shall have carnal Copulation with any Beast or Brute Creature, the Offender and Offenders, in either of the Cases before mentioned, shall suffer the Pains of Death, and the Beast shall be slain and burnt.(3)


Laws threating the death of LGBTQI people continued after the American Revolution.  Virginia, who had not yet addressed homosexuality, did so with their 1792 Revised Code saying, “sodomy was made a capital offense ‘without benefit of clergy,’ that is, carrying a mandatory death sentence.”  These death penalty laws slowly went by the wayside over the next 81 years.  South Carolina has the distinction of being the last State to do so when in 1873 State law was changed to imprisoning the LGBTQI offender for up to five years.(4)

Recognizing the Doctrine of Discovery impacts many people and landscapes does not diminish the appalling impact it has had on Indigenous Tribes and people.  Rather, understanding this complexity helps for a better understanding of how government structure too often serves a few at the expense of many.  Delving into the complexity of the Doctrine of Discovery not only allows for a better understanding of the evil played out against Indigenous people, but also allows for thorough conversations that recognize the interconnected evils of US racism, misogyny, homophobia, and Indigenous genocide.   Should such conversations be risked, then the first steps on a path to end vile hurtful structures begins.

(1) The Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Volume II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 1952.
(2) Homosexuals and the Death Penalty in Colonial America by Louis Crompton, Ph.D, found and accessed on 3/17/17 at
(3) ibid.


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