The Politics of Paper: Homosexuality, Criminal Records, and the “Shadow Carceral State” in Postwar America

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 9:10 AM
Murray Hill West (New York Hilton)
Dan Ewert, Princeton University
Americans in the mid-twentieth century were increasingly required to undergo routine criminal background checks for employment and civil benefits. Building on scholars’ increasing awareness of a “shadow carceral state” that extends the punitive features of criminal sanctions deep into the civil sphere, this paper explores how background checks linked to police surveillance often produced severe precarity in the lives of suspected homosexuals from the 1930s to the 1970s. Looking beyond explicit campaigns to identify and arrest homosexuals, I consider the ways that overlapping state authority and paper recordkeeping made people with past arrests for homosexual acts increasingly visible to employers and civil government.

The nature of pre-digital criminal records created a legal gray zone for homosexuals. Most arrestees’ fingerprint records were forwarded to local, state, and federal identification bureaus, which frequently failed to record the disposition of suspects’ cases. This meant that suspected homosexuals arrested on thin evidence or trumped-up charges acquired an arrest record even if their charges were eventually dismissed or they were acquitted at trial, leading to potentially severe economic and social consequences. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, gay people found themselves purged, sometimes deliberately and sometimes as collateral damage, from civil service and financial professions due to past arrests. I argue that the fight to end criminalization extended beyond campaigns against police surveillance and entrapment, as gay rights groups also began to contest how arrest records were stored, reported, and used by law enforcement and employers behind the scenes. In this fight, however, activists were cautious not to challenge the basic notion of criminal background checks, instead confining their campaign to narrow arguments about due process. I conclude with larger questions about how this narrow due process critique eventually reconciled itself to the law-and-order apparatus of routine background checks.