Think gay sex stings are a thing of the past? A remnant of the Stonewall era? Stories that gay oldsters tell younger generations so they’ll appreciate how far we’ve come? You’d be wrong. Cops have never stopped their classic sting tactics. All over the United States, undercover cops entice men to proposition them for sex, then arrest them on bogus charges. Recent news stories demonstrate that while the phenomenon may be fading, it’s far from gone.
I grew up watching Happy Days, starring Ron Howard.
The 1970s sitcom sweetly idealized 1950s America, rendering teen life in rosy, optimistic colors. Everyone was white and straight, girls wore poodle skirts, and boys wanted nothing more than than to take them parking and steam up car windows at “Lookout Point.”
Richie, Potsie, and the Fonz dreamed of sexual fulfillment while singing the lyrics to Fats Domino’s, I Found My Thrill on Blueberry Hill.
Even in the 1970s, Americans seemed to take the idea of male/female semi-public sex with an amused grain of salt. Then as today, straight couples were rarely if ever arrested for “making out.” Gay men, however, were targeted relentlessly for nearly identical behavior and continue to be targeted to this day.
26 men arrested in D.C. over the past year
According to original reporting in the The Washington Blade, U.S. Park Police have arrested at least 26 men since August 7, 2018 in Washington D.C.’s Meridian Hill Park. A Park Police spokesman told the Blade the arrests involved men soliciting officers for sex and that charges include Disorderly Conduct, Lewd Acts, Unlawful Entry, and Simple Assault (Sexual).
The Blade uncovered the little-noticed development after a D.C. defense attorney reached out with data about a spike in sex-sting defendants. Meridian Park, known informally as Malcolm X Park, has been a well known gay “cruising” area for at least 50 years, especially popular with Black gay men.
“It seems pathetic to be trying to pick up people in a bathroom or park. Don’t do sleazy stuff in public and you don’t have to worry about being arrested.”
Men who frequent the park to seek other men for sexual encounters have told the Washington Post that cruising often takes place late at night in secluded areas of the park covered by shrubs, bushes and trees.
Similar to other cruising locations in the city, the men interviewed by the Post have said they sometimes invited the person they met at the park to their homes or other private locations and did not engage in sex in the park.
While the Park Police spokesman would not confirm if sting tactics had been involved, the Blade’s source confirmed that undercover officers had propositioned men for sex and arrested them on various charges if they consented.
Stings and ’name and shame’ operations are common
All over the United States, police departments emulate the Park Police in D.C., targeting gay and bisexual men for arrest in cases of alleged semi-public sex, while ignoring straight couples involved in similar activity.
18 men named and shamed in Florida
According to NBC News, a four-day sex sting in Florida’s Volusia County resulted in the arrest of 17 men for lewd activity in June of 2017. But LGBTQ civil rights group Lambda Legal calls the arrests bogus and discriminatory.
Police distributed the men’s full names and mug shots to local news media, outing some of the men and causing serious problems for all of them. This shaming operation fits a nationwide pattern.
Dozens named and shamed in San Jose, California
According to CBS news, more than two dozen men were arrested in San Jose, California during a one-year period, targets of an undercover sting. The men were charged, among other things, with loitering near a bathroom, known as a gay “cruising” area, with the ‘intent to commit a lewd act.’
Gabrielle Antolovich, president of the San Jose LGBTQ Community Center, said, “It’s like a flashback to the 1980s.”
At least 55 men named and shamed in Long Beach, California
In a case that eventually cost the city of Long Beach, California big money in legal damages, police targeted at least 55 men for outdoor cruising, arresting them on trumped up charges and releasing their names and photos to local news outlets.
Lawsuit filed for false arrests in New York and New Jersey
According to the New York Post, Port Authority police have been targeting and falsely arresting “effeminate” and “non-masculine” men for years in train stations and bus stations. The practice goes back to at least 2004, when Port Authority cops arrested Alejandro Martinez, accusing him of masturbating in public. Martinez was found not guilty and was awarded “substantial damages,” but the cops still continue the practice of arresting men for lewdness without probable cause.
13 men arrested for public sex in a private space in Hollywood, Florida
According to LGBTQ Nation, a judge has dismissed charges involving a sting of an adult store in July of 2018. Police in Hollywood, Florida mounted an undercover operation after an anonymous complaint about gay sex in the backroom of the Pleasure Emporium
Two officers went to the establishment, paid $25 each to enter the backroom, walked under a giant neon sign that read “PRIVATE VIEWING,” spied on gay men having sex in private cubicles behind closed doors, then arrested 13 of them.
The men were charged with indecent exposure in a public place, but Broward County Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren threw the cases out, ruling that the backroom of the Pleasure Emporium is not public.
Police practices constitute discriminatory entrapment
According to Mark Joseph Stern, reporting in Slate, all of these cases represent a pattern of targeted, anti-gay discrimination. Writing about the Long Beach case, he notes that the police always ignored complaints of heterosexual “lewdness” while specifically enticing gay and bisexual men to “cruise” undercover decoys.
For years, the Long Beach Police have insisted that its policies do not target gay men, but simply respond to complaints of lewdness — which, it asserts, disproportionately involve homosexual acts. The department’s records tell a different story. Officers routinely receive complaints about lewd conduct involving men and women engaged in heterosexual acts at parks and beaches within the city. For at least the past six years, the vice detail has followed up on exactly zero of these complaints; by its own admission, the detail does not even utilize undercover investigations in responding to complaints of heterosexual lewdness. In fact, none of the officers involved in the unconstitutional sting scheme ever arrested a single woman, despite the uncontested fact that many women were reported to be engaged in lewd public behavior.
Stern cites data provided by Bruce Nickerson, an attorney who has made a name for himself over the past 30 years defending gay and bisexual men caught in decoy operations where undercover police officers solicit sex acts in public places.
According to Nickerson, police departments across the country arrest and shame men who solicit sex with other men, while completely ignoring men who solicit sex with women.
Homophobia is the root of the problem
The public usually romanticize mixed-sex couples who “make out” in parks or on beaches. Just like Lookout Point in Happy Days once evoked nostalgic pleasure, people continue to think fondly of love al fresco.
So long as it’s straight love
When two men are involved, indignation seems to be the common response. Police get called, then people get arrested and find their mug shots in local newspapers.
Homophobia is the reason, and the homophobia isn’t restricted to straight people. Even gay men get in on the act, as evidenced by the following comment to the Washington Blade article about the D.C. arrests:
There are so many ways to hook up now it seems pathetic to be trying to pick up people in a bathroom or park. Don’t do sleazy stuff in public and you don’t have to worry about being arrested.
That comment was made by a self-identified gay man, and it echoes similar sentiment expressed by others responding to the same story. Note how the comment defines sexual liaison as sleazy and cruising as pathetic.
Setting aside privilege that assumes all men can afford devices and apps for meeting other men, the comment oozes self loathing. Although it comes from a gay man, the homophobia at its core is standard-issue American.
Homophobia whispers that men and women seeking one another out is desirable and romantic, while men seeking men is sleazy and dirty. Anyone sensing that it might be happening should call the cops and have those men arrested.
No Blueberry Hill for us gay and bisexual men
We’re supposed to be ashamed of ourselves. And if we aren’t? Undercover cops will see to some attitude adjustment.
Gay sex stings are a symptom of pervasive, institutional homophobia. Even though police departments keeping losing sex sting cases, they keep bringing them.