A few weeks ago, at a campground in southeastern Missouri, I eavesdropped on a group of middle-aged gay men reminiscing about their criminal pasts.
They told of plainclothes police officers in parks, highway rest areas, and public restrooms, masquerading as gay men looking for sex with other men. Often chosen because they were handsome or conventionally masculine, these undercover cops would exchange suggestive glances, initiate conversation, and even display their genitals in attempts to get other men to make sexual advances. One cop even attempted to get a guy to point out in a gay porn magazine which (at the time, illegal) sex acts he preferred.
If a guy was unlucky enough to encounter one of these cops, he would be arrested on charges of “lewdness,” “public indecency,” or “soliciting a police officer.” Then his photograph, name, age, address, and place of employment would be published in the local newspaper. Publicly shamed, their lives in ruins, these often-married men would rarely contest the charges, which ensured a criminal record would follow them for the rest of their lives.
These stories offer a small window into the long, often personal, history of police profiling, harassment, and violence towards LGBTQ people in America. During the Cold War homosexuals were dishonorably discharged from the military and purged from government employment. Until the 1960s, postal inspectors could (and did) seize “obscene” homoerotic images and writings about homosexuality sent through the U. S. mail. Throughout the twentieth century, the FBI and state law enforcement agencies monitored mid-twentieth century homophile organizations, gay liberation groups, ACT UP and Queer Nation.
Long before the bar raid that precipitated the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, police used state liquor laws to justify sweeps of lesbian and gay bars, beating patrons and arresting them for even minor offenses. The criminalization of gay sex (i.e. “sodomy laws”) underpinned raids on gay bathhouses and even private homes.
Laws outlawing “lewdness,” “vagrancy,” and “disorderly conduct” were used to target public and private gatherings of homosexuals. Those prohibiting the wearing of clothes of the “opposite” sex allowed drag queens, transgender and gender non-binary people to be harassed or arrested.
Those arrested were often paraded in front of reporters and news photographers who had been notified in advance of raids. Their mugshots were annotated with their (presumed) sexual orientations and alleged offenses. Newspapers prominently published their photographs, names, addresses, and employers of those arrested — often with tragic consequences. (Sadly, such spectacles are commonplace in countries where homosexuality is still illegal.)
There is a long and well-documented history of hostility, verbal and physical assault, sexual harassment, rape, beatings, torture, and murder of LGBT people in police custody which, predictably, goes largely unprosecuted and unpunished. Our complaints to police are routinely dismissed or ignored; victims of hate crimes are arrested and further victimized while their assailants walk free; violent crimes go undocumented, uninvestigated, and unpunished. We are incarcerated at three times the rate of the general population.
There is increasing evidence that transgender people are special targets of police harassment; regularly misgendered, sexually assaulted, and, when arrested, housed with populations that make them vulnerable to rape, sexual assault, and murder. Perhaps most telling, police officers are over-represented among perpetrators of violence against LGBT people. All these forms of police brutality are experienced more often by LGBT people of color.
If you think dubiously-legal police tactics are a relic of the ‘dark ages’ before Stonewall and queer liberation, you’d be wrong. Police entrapment of bisexual and gay men is still a regular feature of modern American life — as seen here, here, here, and here. Not coincidentally, police “stings” are often staged during television “sweeps” months — when viewership numbers are measured and those arrested can be paraded before a judgmental public.
For longer than there have been “gay” people or the word “homosexual” has existed, police and other law enforcement have operated as agents of the heteronormative state, ensuring conformity to narrow sexual, gender, and relationship norms. As self-appointed enforcers of some hypocritical notion of ‘morality,’ their actions have created a climate of fear and distrust among LGBTQ people. Far from “protect and serve,” for far too many of us, it is the police we need to be protected from.
Though the New York City police recently apologized for their behavior during the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, that apology didn’t redress the decades of abusive policing prior (or since), nor did it redress the physical, spiritual, emotional, and financial damage homophobic law enforcement has inflicted on the LGBTQ+ community.
Until that happens, the inclusion of armed and uniformed police in Pride parades and festivals (beyond their minimum presence required for security) represents a kind of historic amnesia and complicity in our own oppression.
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Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.