Understanding the Gay World: Antihomosexual Policing and the Politics of the Courtroom

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 8:50 AM
Murray Hill West (New York Hilton)
Anna Lvovsky, Harvard Law School
In the mid-twentieth century, the state expanded its power over the lives of gay men and women by amassing and sharing information about those individuals, rendering them increasingly susceptible to regulation. Local police agencies participated in this dynamic: vice squads kept arrest records, stayed abreast of sex offender registries, and held joint training sessions to share techniques. Especially when it came to the criminal law, however, there was no “state” to speak of but rather a collection of interlocking government agencies, many of whom had different institutional preferences and policies on the rigor of anti-homosexual enforcement. In that context, the law’s practical reach over gay men and women did not necessarily depend on the distribution of knowledge about queer communities within the criminal justice system; it often depended on its selective distribution, creating gaps that weakened potential checks on police power on the ground.

Focusing on municipal policing campaigns against gay men in the 1950s and 1960s, including in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York, my paper examines the institutional and epistemological politics of vice enforcement in the mid-twentieth century. Exposed to the intricacies of gay men’s social and sexual practices, vice officers developed insights into the gay world and used them to implement more robust anti-homosexual campaigns. Yet in court, however, those campaigns ran against both constitutional limits on police power and some judges’ personal qualms about the value and morality of vice policing, officers frequently found it more useful to downplay rather than advertise the cultural insight that characterized police work on the ground. From arrest to conviction, the success of the police’s decoy campaigns thus depended less on epistemic coordination within the criminal justice system than on persisting disruptions and discontinuities between what the police and what the judiciary knew regarding the nature of gay life.