monthly column from gay author/activist Charles-Gene McDaniel


The 50s Redux

Nationwide the crime rate is going down so the police are making criminals of gay men to keep their jobs. Racial profiling has become taboo and there no longer are subversive commies to harass. Gay men are easy targets and are easily arrested on specious charges.

Notably first came the arrest of George Michael in a public toilet in a California park where he took the bait of a hunky young vice cop in tight jeans -- the typical uniform of gay-chasers. More recently a number of men were arrested in a health club in Schaumburg, Ill., a Chicago suburb, where putatively straight men, who have no compunction about hitting on straight women and lesbians, were offended because they were hit on by gay men in the steam room. They did not know how to say no.

Other gay men were arrested for cruising a mountaintop toilet in the Hot Springs, Ark., national forest, and men were arrested for cruising in a remote wooded canyon outside Ithaca, N.Y.

However unwarranted these sting arrests were, they have become more serious and involve more men.

In Geneva, Ill., in Kane County outside Chicago, 10 men were arrested in a forest preserve for soliciting sex from police decoys and their names were published in the Elgin Courier News, the major newspaper in the county. It does not matter that they had not been tried and convicted. Even had they been, the names of men and women who make out in parked cars are not published. Whether they are convicted or not, because of the opprobrium that still attaches to being gay, especially in Republican suburbs, the lives of these men have been damaged and some or all will lose their jobs, as they did in the 1950s when the arrests of gay men on misdemeanor charges were routinely published.

In Chicago, two young vice cops "dressed gay" in jeans and leather vests arrested two men for engaging in sexual activity in the backroom of a bar, arguably a private place. The cops offered the usual excuse -- a complaint from an unidentified person. Gay men often are arrested because of anonymous complaints, if indeed a complaint has been received, and are unable to confront their accusers. This is the type of raid that was carried out regularly under the reign of Mayor Daley the Previous, usually just before an election. At other times, though, the bars, many said to be owned by the crime syndicate, were safe because the cops appeared with their bags for regular payoffs.

Between February and mid-July 2001, Detroit cops arrested 776 people in a sting in Rouge Park, the Detroit Free Press reported. Gay activists told the City Council during questioning of a police official that the sting was not only gay harassment but also a means of making money for the police department. The cars of dozens of people were impounded when they were arrested. It costs at least $900 for the suspects to reclaim their cars, a third of which goes to the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office and two-thirds to the police department. The Prosecutor has used his share, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, to give raises to his employees.

Dozens of the men were arrested for soliciting sex from hunky police decoys lurking in the park, while the gay activists say that in most cases all they did was flirt or simply walk away. Many men have been arrested on charges of soliciting prostitution and others have been charged with being "an annoying person" under a 1964 city ordinance aimed at curbing obnoxious behavior such as swearing in public and harassment.

Often the arresting cops argue that children may come upon men engaged in sexual activity in secluded woods, without ever explaining what children would be doing in the woods alone, especially at night. And when persons unidentified by "gaydar" walk through the area, the men know to zip up and disappear.

Vice cops are, as one defense attorney described them to me, the "scum of the earth." Often they are genitally challenged and even have been known to have sex with the person they are arresting before bringing out the handcuffs, just as they often do with female prostitutes in motel rooms. With the advent of the Internet, officers have an easy way to target their prey. They simply look at the sites where gay places are listed. So do gay bashers. They also find and arrest men who advertise sexual services.

After the Stonewall riots in 1969, most of this nonsense abated. There were fewer raids on gay bars, saunas and sex clubs. The cops also had more urgent business to take care of in the suppression of civil rights and anti-war demonstrators. The militancy among gay men and lesbians was followed, as is frequently the case, by complacency. The progressive movement, to the extent it existed, has ceded its agenda to militant conservatives who not only hold sway in the White House but around the country.

The ascendancy of the militant right-wing is in large part a reaction to the gains that have been made toward equality under the law for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons. Throughout the country they are trying to repeal legislation that they deem to grant "special rights" to this segment of the population and in Washington they have introduced a proposed amendment to the Constitution designed to outlaw same-sex marriages. Much of their animosity is moralistic stemming from a selective reading of the scriptures. But some of it is envy because they perceive queers to be having more sex and more fun. And some of it represents a reaction to the perceived threat to the masculinity of closeted men.

The destruction of the lives of men arrested after being cruised by agents provocateurs is of no concern to the perpetrators of injustice. The men are charged but frequently not convicted. Even so, their arrests are public knowledge and, as in Elgin, their names published.

The consequences tragically sometimes go beyond disgrace and loss of jobs. Some men commit suicide, an act of official murder. One such suicide is recorded in the book The Scarlet Professor by Barry Werth (Doubleday, 2001). That is but a thread in a skein of dire consequences to three gay faculty members at prestigious Smith College in 1960 who were accused of possessing pornography.

The principal professor, Newton Arvin, was a distinguished literary scholar and critic who won the National Book Award for his biography of Herman Melville. He was tenured but two younger faculty members were not.

During the somnolent administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, he appointed Arthur Summerfield, a Detroit car dealer, as postmaster general in gratitude for his having raised huge sums of money for the Republican Party. Summerfield started a war on pornography and authorized postal workers to open the mail of anyone suspected of receiving pornography, which could be something as innocent as photographs of naked men in posing straps.

This inspired John Regan, a zealot in the Massachusetts State Police, to carry out his own campaign and in doing so he uncovered what he called a pornography ring at Smith. He raided the men’s apartments without a warrant and seized even the volumes of the personal journals of Arvin, who was the lover of Truman Capote. Arvin lost his teaching job so he would not corrupt the young Smith ladies but was given half-pay and allowed to keep his office and do research. The young faculty members did not get their contracts renewed. Both got prestigious appointments at other institutions, but one became depressed and suicidal and had to enter a mental hospital.

These unwarranted arrests caused great pain and suffering. However, the two younger men appealed their convictions all the way to the Supreme Court and won. The court held that the warrantless searches were illegal and that pictures of naked men are not pornographic.

There is some small comfort in that. Not a lot, though, since the police are finding other ways to harass and destroy gay men and other queers. The 1950s not only can happen again. They are happening.