Arresting Behavior

RECENTLY, NEAR ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND, plainclothes police officers swooped into an adult video store, entered the video booths, and arrested those men deemed to be engaging in "lewd behavior." The Washington Blade newspaper reported that at least 48 men were taken into custody. One victim, Don Chandler, sat in a cell block with his hands and feet in cuffs from 9 pm until 5:30 am the following morning, charged with "indecent exposure" (behind the locked door of a video booth). When the Annapolis Capital newspaper published Chandler's name, address, and the charges against him, he was summarily fired from his job as director of music and organist at a local Episcopal Church. Chandler is now trying to make ends meet as a part-time piano tuner.

Sadly, his story is all too typical.

Many victims of police sex raids fare even worse. Outside the big cities, it's common for newspapers to publish the names of men taken into custody during police stings, making no distinction between those arrested in private commercial establishments (sex clubs, closed video booths in adult porn stores) and those arrested in public restrooms or public parks. One man committed suicide last January in Pulaski County, Ark., after the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock published his name among those arrested in a sex raid. The newspaper, by the way, did not report his suicide and ignored requests from five major gay organizations to discuss its policy of selective publication of the names of men arrested for misdemeanors.

The Fresno Bee in June reported that a sting of a restroom in a local park netted "five schoolteachers, some business executives and a high school football coach." In the case of the teachers and the coach, police were required by law to notify the supervisors of those arrested, ending their teaching careers. The paper noted that one teacher in an earlier raid asked for a court trial in which he was found not guilty. His lawyer argued successfully that an act wasn't lewd if it wasn't witnessed by someone near enough to be offended by it, and the activity in question took place at night, when the only people in that area of the park were police officers and men seeking sex.

Still, few arrestees are willing to take their cases to court and earn more publicity for themselves. Rock star George Michael (arrested in a Beverly Hills park restroom while alone with an officer who indicated an interest in some action) can survive being the center for a scandal; most working stiffs (ahem) can not.

It's been widely reported in the gay press that a slew of television stations from Miami to San Diego have run sensationalist news reports during "sweeps week," showing hidden camera footage of men cruising in parks and rest rooms. The news operations found these sites through listings on the web site The site is intended to inform about where quick, anonymous sex can be found, but it seems that many listed locales become subject to either police raids and/or local television hidden-camera news coverage. Yikes. Helpfully, the web site provides "alerts" of where recent raids have occurred. For example: At the Paradise Bookstore in Pomona, California, police entered video booths and made apparently random arrests. At the Adult Video store in Hallendale, Florida, undercover police entered booths and "grabbed themselves" before arresting the men unlucky enough to have fallen into their trap. At the Adult Superstore & Theater in Las Vegas, police left arcade doors ajar to invite in guests, who were then arrested. Come into my parlor, said the state-armed spider to the fly.

The alerts listed at the site go on and on -- a litany of entrapment. A report from Houston, Texas says that all over town the vice squad is actively monitoring and entrapping men in adult bookstore arcades and theaters. "They will grab their crotches and rub themselves to let people think they aren't cops. They dress sloppy to casual, wearing baseball caps sometimes, shorts and t-shirts, etc., straight looking to gay acting. Will stare at you, or just stand next to you watching the video acting as if they are getting off to it. Many guys are being busted every day."

The consequences can be devastating. One poor soul in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania left the following account: "Nine of us were arrested at Adult World for 'publicly masturbating while other men watched.' That's how it read in the paper with our names published for all to see. Official charges are public indecency and public lewdness. It has ruined my career and marriage. I have not been fired, but I am going to leave due to being either shunned or scorned. It is awful. My wife has thrown me out saying: 'I didn't know you were a queer!' I am without hope."

Finally, I should mention that in these self-reported accounts it is not unusual for the vice cops to extort money on the spot in lieu of arrest. Most men pay up and consider themselves lucky, given the alternative.

I've had my disagreements with the views advocated by the group Sex Panic! before, chiefly for its failure to distinguish between legitimate goals on the sexual privacy front and sexual "rights" that border on the absurd. However, among their aims that I agree with, on good libertarian grounds, are demands for an end to police raids on private sexual businesses, including adult theaters, book/video stores, and clubs. Humiliating and arresting consenting adult patrons and proprietors smacks of police state terror tactics that should not be accepted in a free society. Police entrapment -- often employing hot cops to elicit a solicitation -- also should not be tolerated. Ditto the frequent double standard -- cops will tell a straight couple going at it in a parked car to move on, but arrest a gay couple. The same is often true of those coupling in semi-private places -- such as the beach at night.

In fact, a convincing argument can be made generally against stings targeting sex in obscured outdoor spaces, hidden from public view during the day, or discernible only by flashlight-wielding officers at night. Again, if police would simply tell a straight couple to move on, they have no business treating same-sex couples as criminals, useful in upping their arrest quotas for the week. On the other hand, when Sex Panic! defends sex in public men's rooms as a "right," I still cringe. This is a fight that they will never win, even if (as its advocates claim) such activity takes place with extreme discretion, only when two partners indicate through time-tested ritual that each is interested, and often outside the sight of anyone who might intrude. In the court of public opinion, the majority will never countenance this activity in spaces that are officially public.

Moreover, a growing number of influential gay men (and lesbians) are speaking out against such behavior. Jeff Epperly, editor of the influential Bay Windows gay newspaper in Boston, ran a lacerating editorial last May (1998) against cruisers who want gay organizations to defend their public sexual activities, and the negative public images they generate. Wrote Epperly, "some guy who can't relate to other human beings on a mature level... wants you and me... to take time out from fighting violence and bias to protect his right to be a pig in public." Karen Boothe, president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, has said that the issue of public sex is not representative of the gay community because "as a lesbian, these stories have nothing to do with my life."

As I said, the "right" to restroom sex is not something that its adherents are going to win.

Let's make the fight one which we can, and should, win - the right to private, consensual behavior, and the rights of property owners to run sexually oriented businesses - including commercial establishments set up with the intent to provide private space for sexual encounters. I suspect that more gay men have been harmed by vice cop persecutions than by workplace discrimination. That the well-funded national lesbigay political groups have all but ignored this situation is appalling, and they should be called to account.

In addition, we should not hesitate to lambaste the sleazy slew of TV news reports on restroom sex - often, like the police, employing decoys to start the action and then, sometimes, turning their tapes over to the police so that those captured on film can be arrested. Nice to know the journalistic trade is attracting such public spirited citizens. These journalistic vermin should slither back to the holes in the ground from which they emerged. The same goes for their bubble-headed pseudo-reporters who like to imply that "your children are at risk."

When I was in college (many years ago), I was jolted by John Rechy's The Sexual Outlaw, a searing indictment of the criminalization of homosexuality. "You're making out in a car - and you're sentenced to prison for eight years," Rechy wrote. "Not merely told to move on - but sentenced to prison for eight years... And you keep wondering, why?" Don Chandler, the church director arrested in a video booth, kept in a cell with hands and feet in cuffs for over eight hours, and then fired after the self-righteous local paper printed his name, must be wondering the same thing.

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