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 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 (then illegal) sex acts he preferred. If a gay man 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.

 Murphy head shot
These Missouri gay men’s stories offer a small window into the long, often personal, history of police profiling, harassment, and violence towards LGBT 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”) justified 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 gender variant 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 newspapers prominently published the photographs, names, addresses, and employers of those arrested—often with tragic consequences.


There is a long and well-documented history of hostility, verbal and physical assault, sexual harassment, rape, beatings, torture, even 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 gay men is still a regular feature of modern American life—even in St. Louis. Coincidentally, it often occurs during “sweeps” months—when television viewership numbers are measured as seen here, here and here.


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 state, enforcing 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.


Given this history, I’ve been struck by the very mixed response of the St. Louis LGBTQ community to the patently erroneous and unjust verdict in the Jason Stockley trial. So much of that case and the subsequent police treatment of protesters should feel familiar to LGBTQ people: an indifferent criminal justice system; an obviously biased judge; unconscionable and sadistic police treatment of protesters; complicit ‘liberal’ politicians; and the publishing of arrestees’ names and home addresses in the media (‘doxxing’).

 StockleyWindow
To be fair, some of the most visible activists and ardent supporters in the police accountability movement identify as LGBTQ and a handful of local LGBTQ organizations have published statements. But where are the rest? Where are the statements of outrage from the rest or the owners of the region’s numerous gay bars and businesses? There has been unflattering national and international news reporting but where are the statements from our national orgs.?


On Monday, the Washington University Pride Alliance—a student organization—issued a public statement decrying police violence against Blacks and transgender people of color, against a troubling backdrop of political rhetoric that vilifies women, Latinos, immigrants, and Muslims. The statement especially lamented last weekend’s campus-police shooting of Scout Schultz, a transgender leader of the LGBTQ community at Georgia Tech University. It also cited the recent St. Louis Police killing of Kiwi Herring, a Black transwoman. In doing so, Pride Alliance exhibited an understanding that issues of over-policing, police brutality, and the criminalization of everyday life for people of color are also issues for LGBTQ people. And that’s because some people of color identify as LGBT. In fact higher percentages of people of color (compared to whites) identify as LGBT. If for no other reason, police violence against communities of color will always ALSO be police violence against LGBTQ communities. And when it happens, they should expect LGBTQ community organizations to express moral outrage and stand in solidarity.


I understand that some St. Louis LGBTQ social, community and business groups might not feel comfortable “being political.” But as Pride Alliance astutely observed, “It’s important to realize the interconnectedness of these recent events. Any marginalized group cannot afford vain attempts to remain apolitical.” Other local LGBTQ organizations need to start demonstrating that they understand this, too.


Because their silence will not protect them. History has shown it never has.


Mike Murphy is an Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is a graduate of Washington University and has lived in St. Louis since 1995.

 

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