“Puritanical”has of late become a universal modifier to describe sexual repression. However, the Puritan community of seventeenth-century New England was far more complex in its understanding of sex and sexuality. In fact, Puritans did not conceive of same-sex relations as a singular, distinguishing factor in defining one’s role in the community and certainly did not refer to sex between men as homosexuality, a term not coined until the nineteenth century by Austrian-Hungarian humanitarian and journalist, Karl-Maria Kertbeny. Instead, Puritans feared the consequences of sex between men, worrying that these relationships would disrupt the social fabric of Plymouth by challenging the major social institutions, namely marriage and the nuclear family structure. The trial of John Allexander and Thomas Roberts in 1637 demonstrates the extent to which Puritans condemned sexual acts that challenged their established notions of gender, power, and the link between the two. After confessing that they had had sex, Allexander was lashed, branded, and banished while Roberts, who was an indentured servant, was whipped and returned to his master with no hope of ever acquiring land of his own. The court case is important because it illuminates several precepts of Puritan New England: the fixation on and damnation of sex purely for pleasure, the insistence on strict adherence to both sexual and social identities, and the fear that homosexuality would disrupt the balance of the Puritans’ insular community. Finally, its status as a court case suggests the disturbing extent to which normative sexual behavior has been codified in the American legal system.
The primary purpose of the Plymouth settlement, which was established in 1620, was religious freedom from the tyranny of the Anglican Church that dominated religious life in early seventeenth-century England. Although the pilgrims certainly sought liberty for themselves, their Puritan-centered society depended upon rigid social constructs that denied liberty to those who transgressed Puritan law. In order to understand how and for what reason magistrates condemned John Allexander and Thomas Roberts’ sexual relationship, we must first explore the nature of this orthodox community in the 1630s. After arriving in 1620 on the famous Mayflower ship, the original pilgrims established a Puritan church at the geographic and ideological center of their community. By 1643, the estimated population of Plymouth colony had swelled from a mere 102 in 1620 to nearly 2,000. Of those 2,000 inhabitants only39%were women. As a result, many men in the colonies could not fulfill their sexual desires within the context of marriage. In fact, not every man in Plymouth had the right to marry when he so pleased, even if there had been women to marry. During the seventeenth century, indentured servants, or “covenant servants,” constituted roughly 20% of New England’s population, playing an important role in the sexual dynamics of the Puritan community.; Most servants lived with their masters and could not marry without their masters’ consent, often forcing these young men to fulfill their sexual desires outside of wedlock. As a result, sexual “deviance” was not uncommon in Puritan Plymouth.
Sometimes, these sexual liaisons were between men. Although early historians have claimed that between 20 and 25% of sexual crimes were of a sodomitical nature, Robert F. Oaks, in his article “Things Fearful to Name: Sodomy and Buggery in Seventeenth-Century New England,”puts that percentage closer to 12%. Either way, the Puritan community felt the need to explicitly address sodomy through legislation, banning the act and going so far as to make sodomy punishable by death in 1636. Nicholas F. Radel explains that the Puritans defined a sodomite as “anyone who could not harness his/her sexual impulses to the norms and institutions of the social body,” most explicitly homosexuals. The Puritans’ definition demonstrates that sexuality was always considered in the context of the institutions that attempted to repress it. Along with murder and witchcraft, sodomy was made a capital offence on November 15, 1636, only a few months before Allexander and Roberts were convicted but not killed for their “lude behavior and uncleane carriage one w[ith] another, by often spendinge their seede one vpon another” on August 6, 1637.; The 1636 law reveals how strongly the magistrates condemned sodomy in an effort to discourage it. However, the sentence in Allexander and Roberts’ case suggests that this law was created more as a deterrent to reinforce social mores, as killing these men would have further disrupted the social order of Plymouth. Understanding Allexander and Roberts’ punishment, then, requires a fuller understanding of the community’s complexity in matters of sexuality.
Puritan law was as much based on scripture as it was on earthly experiences. Plymouth was a theocracy: God was the supreme authority and scripture was the law. The King James Version of the Bible, which the Puritans used, repeatedly references the sinfulness of male-male sexual relationships. Puritans held that the practice of sodomy had no place in, and was denounced by, Christian theology. In passing the Sodomy Law, the Puritans codified the rule promulgated in the Bible: “in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” The settlers, who had established Plymouth as a “godly society,” strove to preserve their holy image in God’s eyes to ensure salvation by proving that they were not the “God-haters” and “insolent, haughty, boastful inventors of evil” that the Bible said all sexual sinners were.; This goal required strict adherence to scripture, and therefore harsh secular legislation to curb sodomitical sin. The Puritans feared that because of the abomination of a man lying “with a male as with a woman,” God would decimate Plymouth as He had the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible, and deny them the chance to “inherit the kingdom of God.” Fear of God’s wrath, then, partially drove the magistrates to regulate sexuality in Plymouth. In their settlement, scripture was the point of reference for absolute truth and divine direction. They therefore transplanted their fear of divine punishment into the judicial arena, making sodomy a capital offense to warn sexual sinners of the far worse eternal damnation that surely awaited them in the afterlife. For the members of the Plymouth colony, sex was not a private matter. .
The Bible also alluded to the sexual conquest of women by men in the sacred union of marriage. Historian Saul M.Olyan argues that the “notions of gender sexual roles were apparently crucial in shaping…boundary constructions of licit and illicit sex acts.” Moreover, gender norms provided a clear structure through which men were meant to pass on the self-control that they allegedly naturally possessed. The prevalent ideology governing the social structure of Plymouth Colony was deeply rooted in restrictive notions of masculinity and femininity. According to Colin L. Talley, “there was a profound fear of aggressive female sexuality…women were thought easily beguiled by the devil and temptation and to be ‘easily aroused, quick to succumb to flattery.’”; Men and women were seen as intrinsically different: men were expected to be capable of controlling and suppressing their sexual desires, while women were considered innately prone to sexual promiscuity. In fact, William Prynne, a Puritan lawyer, in his 1633 book, Histriomastix, even criticized male actors who played female roles, for they became, in his opinion, “enfeebled in all [their] joynts, resolved into a more than womanish effeminacy…all the honour and vigour of their sex is effeminated with shame.” For Prynne, the fluidity of gender was a dangerous affront to the natural social order. Like homosexuality, acting had the ability to dissolve traditional gender identities and was therefore pernicious. This Biblical hierarchy is echoed throughout scripture which constantly subordinates women by drafting severe punishments for sexually promiscuous women, amplifying the gravity of the sin of childbirth for those who bore female children, and reducing women to commodities traded from father to husbandThe Bible offered guidance as to normative behavior for men and women: behavior that would not incur God’s wrath. The Bible made female inferiority natural: “the head of every woman is a man…for the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.”
In the male-dominated and largely male-populated Plymouth Colony, the religious leaders expressed their tacit anxieties over heterosocial relationships through denouncing homosexuality. William Bradford, the Governor of Plymouth from 1621 to 1657, articulated these very fears: “even sodomy and buggery (things fearful to name) have broken forth in this land oftener than once.” Bradford spent much of his time lamenting the prevalence of sodomy in Plymouth as if it were running rampant, despite evidence to the contrary. Part of Bradford’s anxiety stemmed from the simple fact that men outnumbered women, creating an environment in which men socialized with men much of the time. As a result, male-male friendships, at the core of Plymouth colony, had to prove that they were untouched by homosexuality. More surprising, perhaps, were the colonists’ fears about the nature of their relationship to God. Michael Wigglesworth, a preacher in Puritan Boston in the 1650s, immortalized his sexual lust for God in his journal. He wrote, “Ah Lord let me see thy face that will full up all my emptiness and the dissatisfaction I find in the creature.” According to Radel, Wigglesworth collapses the boundary between his devotion to God and his sexual lust, something that Radel points out was common in the language describing one’s relationship with God at the time. For Radel, “it is an image of the struggle to establish an intimate relationship with God that seems not to be erotic, to bond with Him without fear of penetration or emasculation.” Anxiety about homosexuality even permeated divine worship, demonstrating the extent to which these Puritans feared homosexuality’s power to disrupt their homosocial society.
Sex between men, as a distortion of these expectations about gender, provoked severe anxiety over the validity of Puritan society and its structure. Samuel Danforth, a popular preacher in the late 17th century, justified the execution of a convicted sodomite, Benjamin Goad, by claiming, “if we will not pronounce such a Villain Accursed, we must be content to bear the Curse ourselves. The Land cannot be cleansed, until it hath spewed out this Unclean Beast.” For Danforth, as for the Puritan magistrates in Allexander and Roberts’ community, sodomy threatened the community as a whole. Although Danforth was referencing the spiritual welfare of his peers, his allusions to the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah reveal his belief that sodomy would invite God’s wrath and cause the physical destruction of any place that harbored such “Abominable Uncleanness.” Similarly, homosexuality threatened the family structure, an integral and treasured social institution. Because men garnered power in part through the sexual conquest of women, the sexual conquest of men by other men deeply destabilized power dynamics in the community. Marriage was the most sacred institution in Plymouth, and homosexual relationships were necessarily outside of marriage. In fact, within marriage, sex was encouraged as healthy and natural, dispelling the myth that Puritans simply hated sex. The Puritans understood human weakness and desire, sanctifying marriage as the context in which to fulfill that desire. However, homosexuality was threatening precisely because it violated a variety of social codes and provoked God’s wrath.
Allexander and Roberts, two men with a long history of sodomy in Plymouth, were spared capital punishment as a result of these complex gender and power configurations. Allexander, a property owning man, and Roberts, an indentured servant, not only violated sexual mores, but also transgressed class distinctions in their affair. Their punishment, banishment for Allexander and the denial of future land ownership for Roberts, was approximately the same as that cast upon those who participated in illicit sexual acts between men and women. The relatively light punishment suggests that the community was less concerned with the physical act of sodomy and more concerned with the impact of public promiscuity on the community. As a result, the threat of capital punishment need not be applied here as its function was to discourage flagrant homosexuality. In fact, between 1607 and 1740, “there are only two known executions for sodomy in British North America, one in Jamestown in 1624 and one in New Haven in 1649.” This statistic demonstrates the relative toleration of illicit sexual acts, even between men, so long as those acts did not significantly disrupt the social fabric. In this case, the magistrates expelled Allexander because his sodomitical history suggested that he would continue to corrupt more young men in Plymouth. It also suggests that the magistrates felt that there was a sufficient supply of labor to compensate for Allexander’s expulsion. Roberts, on the other hand, while not banished, was arguably dealt a far harsher punishment, for he was stripped of his right to own property, and therefore, of his manliness.
Instead of killing Allexander and Roberts, the magistrates sought to undermine their masculine image, an arguably worse punishment in their small intimate patriarchal society. It seems odd in a society that so empowered masculinity that the judicial leaders would seek to feminize these men in place of killing them. Historian Robert F. Oaks wonders why such “leniency [was] extended to the two men.” The Allexander-Roberts ruling was, in fact, far from lenient. Colin L. Talley argues that for the Puritans, “hypermasculine sodomitical rakes posed a threat to other males because they might turn men into women symbolically.” By engaging in sodomy, these two men emasculated each other, fueling a preexisting fear of menacing female sexuality. By expelling Allexander and forbidding Roberts from ever owning land, the magistrates solidified their emasculation in the eyes of the public, explicitly warning the rest of the community about the dangers and humiliation that accompanied sodomitical behavior. Implicit in this punishment was a deep-seeded fear of women and disgust with their sexuality. Natalie Zemon Davis, in her book, Society and Culture in Early Modern France, says that European physicians believed a woman’s “womb was like a hungry animal: when not amply fed by sexual intercourse or reproduction, it was likely to wander about her body, overpowering her speech and senses.” Talley argues that these beliefs informed colonial anxieties about female sexuality and women in general. While killing these men may have incited fear in the colonists, stripping them of their manhood offered a far more tangible warning against sodomy.
Furthermore, Allexander and Roberts’ relationship threatened the Puritan ideal of the powerful heterosexual man and his submissive female counterpart. Sodomy required that one man sexually conquer another, creating its own hierarchy outside of the community’s. This threatened the power of heterosexual men who were only dominating women, the perceived weaker sex. Allexander and Roberts disrupted the long-standing dynamic between men and women in which a man derived his power through the sexual conquest of women. The feminization of these two men by the magistrates removed the possibility that one could be superior to the other. As such, they no longer threatened the heterosexual men who wished to preserve their masculine power. The magistrates’ decision simultaneously punished Allexander and Roberts and reinforced the patriarchal and heterosocial structure of their community.
The Puritans regulated sexuality through law because it was condemned by the Bible and posed serious threats to the social stability of their community. For the same reason, they convicted John Allexander and Thomas Roberts for sodomy in an effort to protect the social structures they believed these men’s sodomitical behavior threatened. Allexander and Roberts were feminine in the eyes of their Puritan community, as, like women, they were unable to control their sexual lusts for each other. The case of Allexander and Roberts illustrates the Puritan anxiety around fluid gender identity, and was more about condemning female sexuality. Because the Puritans discussed sex and sexuality far more freely than did many of their contemporaries and successors, they were not uncomfortable with heavily regulating it, leaving us with a legal legacy of 151 sex crime convictions.; Robert F. Oaks remarks that “the Plymouth colony seemed to have more homosexuality than other areas of New England, though this may simply indicate a greater willingness to prosecute such crimes.” It is remarkable that the Puritans acknowledged the existence of sodomy, even if only in the context of sin, especially given our contemporary use of the word.
From the Allexander-Roberts case, and, more generally, from all legal regulations of sexuality in seventeenth-century Puritan New England, we have inherited legal precedent for homophobic and misogynistic behavior in modern America. Repeatedly, men and women have been regulated and discriminated against by the American government for matters regarding sex and sexual orientation. On September 21, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which legally limited the definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman and said that one state need not recognize same-sex marriage made legal by and in another state. DOMA has affected over 35,000 gay couples in America since its passing fifteen years ago. A recent example of DOMA adversely affecting homosexuals in America is the case of Josh Vandiver and Henry Velandia. In 2008, President Obama promised to advocate for gay rights as part of his campaign platform. Although the Obama administration announced in 2011 that it deems DOMA unconstitutional, it will continue to be enforce DOMA as law until the courts or Congress formally repeal it. Anti-gay legislation is still very much present in the American legal and judicial arenas.
However, steps are being taken against homophobic behavior in the United States. Currently, anti-defamatory laws are aimed at uprooting the very attitudes anti-sodomy laws were designed to reinforce and legitimize. Unfortunately, homophobic language is still used to demean social standing, as evidenced in Kobe Bryant’s recent offensive tirade. The American government has made some progress in regards to its attitude towards homosexuality since the seventeenth century, decriminalizing sodomy in most, but not all, states. It is still illegal in fourteen states almost four hundred years after it was criminalized in Puritan Plymouth. The current movement to legalize same sex marriage is the next step in demoting sodomy’s status as sin. The case of John Allexander and Thomas Roberts marks the beginning of a four-hundred year legal legacy of the battle for sexual freedom.
1. Allexander, Roberts. PCR 1:64.
2. Bradford, William. “Wickedness Breaks Forth.” Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647. ed. Samuel Eliot Morison. New York, NY: Knopf, 1952.
3. Danforth, Samuel. “The Cry of Sodom.” An Almanac for the Year of Our Lord, 1674. ed. KB Murdock. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927.
4. Davis, Natalie Zemon. Society and Culture in Early Modern France. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1975.
5. “Defense of Marriage Act.” Statutes at Large. 104th Cong., 2nd Sess. 1995-1996.
6. Fone, Bryne. Homophobia: A History. New York, NY: Picador Reading Group, 2000.
7. Morgan, Edmund S. “The Puritans and Sex.” New England Quarterly, XV.Boston, MA: The New England Quarterly Inc, 1942.
8. New York Times, March-April 2011.
9. Oaks, Robert F. “Things Fearful to Name: Sodomy and Buggery in Seventeenth-Century New England.” Journal of Social History, vol. 12, no. 2. Washington DC: Peter N. Stearns, 1978.
10. Olyan, Saul M. “And With a Male You Shall Not Lie the Lying Down of a Woman: On the Meaning and Significance of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.” Journal of the History of Sexuality. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1994.
11. Peiss, Kathy. Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.
12. Prynne, William. Histriomastix. London, 1633.
13. Radel, Nicholas F. “A Sodom Within: Historicizing Puritan Homoerotics in the Diary of Michael Wigglesworth.” The Puritan Origins of American Sex: Religion, Sexuality, and National Identity in American Literature. New York, NY: Routledge, 2001.
14. Sodomy Law. Plymouth, MA: 1636.
15. Stratton, Eugene Aubrey. Plymouth Colony, Its History and People, 1620-1649. United States: Ancestry Incorporated, 1986.
16. Talley, Colin L. “Gender and Male Same-Sex Erotic Behavior in British North America.” Journal of the History of Sexuality. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1996.
17. Taylor, Alan. American Colonies: the Settling of North America. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2001.
18. The Diary of Michael Wigglesworth, 1653-1657. ed. Edmund S. Morgan. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1970.
19. Thompson, R. “Seventeenth Century English and Colonial Sex Ratios: A Postscript.” Population Studies. London, UK: Population Investigation Committee, 1974.
20. Vandiver, Josh and Velandia, Henry. Interviewed by Thomas Roberts. U.S. News, MSNBC, April 28, 2011.
21. Verduin, Kathleen. “Our Cursed Natures: Sexuality and the Puritan Conscience.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 2. Boston, MA: The New England Quarterly Inc., 1983.
22. Wald, Kenneth D. “The Other Minorities: Women and Gay People.” Religion and Politics in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2007.
 Byrne Fone, Homophobia: A History, (New York: Picador Reading Group, 2000), 4.
 Eugene Aubrey Stratton, Plymouth Colony, Its History and People, 1620-1649, (United States: Ancestry Incorporated, 1986), 72.
 R. Thompson, “Seventeenth Century English and Colonial Sex Ratios: A Postscript,” Population Studies, (London, UK: Population Investigation Committee, 1974), 153.
Emund S. Morgan, “The Puritans and Sex,” New England Quarterly, XV, (Boston, MA: The New England Quarterly Inc, 1942), 596.
 Morgan, 597.
 Alan Taylor, American Colonies: the Settling of North America, (New York, NY: Penguin Group: 2001), 169.
 Morgan, 597.
 Robert F. Oaks, “Things Fearful to Name: Sodomy and Buggery in Seventeenth-Century New England,” Journal of Social History, vol. 12, no. 2, (Washington DC: Peter N. Stearns, 1978), 271-272.
 Oaks, 268.
Nicholas F. Radel, “A Sodom Within: Historicizing Puritan Homoerotics in the Diary of Michael Wigglesworth,” The Puritan Origins of American Sex: Religion, Sexuality, and National Identity in American Literature, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2001), 44.
 Sodomy Law (Plymouth, MA: 1636).
 Allexander, Roberts, PCR 1:64.
Kenneth D. Wald, “The Other Minorities: Women and Gay People,” Religion and Politics in the United States, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2007), 334.
Rom. 1.27 King James Version.
 Kathy Peiss, Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002), 71.
Rom. 1.30 KJV.
Lev. 18.22, Gen. 18,19, 1 Cor. 6.9-10 KJV.
 1 Cor. 11.3, 8-9 KJV.
 Lev. 21.9, Deut. 22.28-29 KJV.
 Saul M. Olyan, “And With a Male You Shall Not Lie the Lying Down of a Woman: On the Meaning and Significance of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13,” (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1994), 188.
 Colin L. Talley, “Gender and Male Same-Sex Erotic Behavior in British North America,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1996), 403.
 Laurel Thatcher, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750, (New York, NY: Knopf, 1982), 97, quoted in Colin L. Talley, “Gender and Male Same-Sex Erotic Behavior in British North America,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1996), 403.
 William, Prynne, Histriomastix, (London, 1633), 168.
 William Bradford, “Wickedness Breaks Forth,” Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York, NY: Knopf, 1952), 316.
 Radel, 46.
 The Diary of Michael Wigglesworth, 1653-1657, ed. Edmund S. Morgan (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1970), 10.
 Radel, 47.
 Radel, 48.
 Samuel Danforth, “The Cry of Sodom,” An Almanac for the Year of Our Lord, 1674, ed. KB Murdock (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927), 101.
 Danforth, 102.
 Kathleen Verduin, “Our Cursed Natures: Sexuality and the Puritan Conscience,” The New England Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 2, (Boston, MA: The New England Quarterly Inc, 1983), 224.
 Morgan, 592.
 Oaks, 270.
 Talley, 389.
 Oaks, 270.
 Oaks, 270.
 Talley, 400.
 Natalie Zemon Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1975), 124.
 Verduin, 221.
 Oaks, 271.
 “Defense of Marriage Act,” Statutes at Large, 104th Cong., 2nd Sess. (1995-1996).
 Josh Vandiver and Henry Velandia, interviewed by Thomas Roberts, U.S. News, MSNBC, April 28, 2011.
Two gay men, Josh Vandiver and Henry Velandia were married in Connecticut, one of the few states that recognizes same-sex marriage, in August of 2010. Velandia, an immigrant from Venezuela, was denied a green card as his marriage to Vandiver is not recognized by the federal government under DOMA. The federal government is destroying their relationship by deporting Velandia, just as the Plymouth magistrates ripped apart that of Allexander and Roberts by expelling Allexander from the colony. Julia Preston, “Confusion Over Policy on Married Gay Immigrants,” New York Times, March 29, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/30/us/30immigration.html.
 In February of 2011, President Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. pronounced that the American government would cease to defend DOMA in courts, although it will continue to enforce it as law until it is formally repealed. This decision has been the source of much controversy and debate. Many marriage-equality proponents have appealed to the courts to stop deportation of men in same-sex relationships until a final decision has been made regarding the constitutionality of DOMA. Preston, 3.
 In a basketball game on April 12, 2011 featuring the Los Angeles Lakers versus the San Antonio Spurs, Lakers star Kobe Bryant lashed out at referee Bennie Adams, calling him a gay slur after being slapped with a technical foul. The National Basketball Association has fined Bryant $100,000, expressing their disapproval of Bryant’s “offensive and inexcusable” language. Jonathan Abrams, “Bryant Fined $100,000 by N.B.A for Gay Slur,” New York Times, April 13, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/14/sports/basketball/14lakers.html.
David Stern quoted in Jonathan Abrams, “Bryant Fined $100,000 by N.B.A for Gay Slur,” New York Times, April 13, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/14/sports/basketball/14lakers.html.
 Four of these fourteen states (Kansas, Oklahoma, Montana, and Texas) have made sodomy illegal only if it is committed by homosexuals.
Age 17, Grade 12