Drawing on years of research, activism, and legal advocacy, Queer (In)Justice is a searing examination of queer experiences as “suspects,” defendants, prisoners, and survivors of crime. The authors unpack queer criminal archetypes—from “gleeful gay killers” and “lethal lesbians” to “disease spreaders” and “deceptive gender benders”—to illustrate the punishment of queer expression, regardless of whether a crime was ever committed. Tracing stories from the streets to the bench to behind prison bars, the authors prove that the policing of sex and gender both bolsters and reinforces racial and gender inequalities.
An eye-opening study of LGBTQ rights and equality, Queer (In)Justice illuminates and challenges the many ways in which queer lives are criminalized, policed, and punished.
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From Chapter 3
The Ghosts of Stonewall: Policing Gender, Policing Sex
On a hot August night in 1966, “drag queens” and gay “hustlers” at the Compton Cafeteria in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco rose up and fought back when police tried to arrest them for doing nothing more than being out. The late 1960s saw frequent police raids, often accompanied by brutality, on gay establishments across the country, which were meeting with increasing resistance. The previous five years had also seen uprisings in Watts, Detroit, Chicago, and Newark and dozens of other cities, in many cases sparked by incidents of widespread racial profiling and abuse of people of color by police.
It was against this backdrop that, in the early morning hours of Saturday, June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Claiming to be enforcing liquor laws, they began arresting employees and patrons of the private lesbian and gay establishment. Police action, which included striking patrons with billy clubs while spewing homophobic abuse, sparked outrage among those present. Led by people described by many as drag queens and butch lesbians, bar patrons, joined by street people, began yelling “Gay Power!” and throwing shoes, coins, and bricks at the officers. Over the next several nights, police and queers clashed repeatedly in the streets of the West Village. One report described the impacts of the police response to the uprising as follows:
At one point, Seventh Avenue . . . looked like a battlefield in Vietnam. Young people, many of them queens, were lying on the sidewalk bleeding from the head, face, mouth, and even the eyes. Others were nursing bruised and often bleeding arms, legs, backs, and necks.
The Stonewall Uprising, as the rebellion against the raids came to be known, has been mythically cast as the “birthplace” of the modern LGBT rights movement in the United States, although in reality it was but one of its primary catalysts. In the weeks that followed, the Gay Liberation Front, inspired by contemporaneous movements such as the women’s liberation movement, the Black Panthers, and the Young Lords, was formed. Spontaneous resistance to police raids on gay bars and bathhouses blossomed in the ensuing decade. The 1970 protest march commemorating the one-year anniversary of the raid on the Stonewall Inn grew into an annual worldwide celebration of gay pride.
Fast forward three decades to March 2003, when the Power Plant, a private club in the Highland Park area of Detroit, frequented primarily by African American gay men, lesbians, and transgender women, was filled to capacity. Around 3:00 a.m., between 50 and 100 officers from the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department dressed in black clothing, with guns drawn and laser sights on, suddenly cut the lights and stormed the premises, shouting orders for everyone to “hit the floor.” Over 350 people in the club at that time were handcuffed, forced to lie face down on the floor, and detained for up to twelve hours, left to “sit in their own and others’ urine and waste.” Some were kicked in the head and back, slammed into walls, and verbally abused. Officers on the scene were heard saying things like “it’s a bunch of fags” and “those fags in here make me sick.” As at Stonewall, the officers claimed to be enforcing building and liquor codes. The sheriff’s department said they were responding to complaints from neighbors and concerns for public safety. They had obtained a warrant to search the premises, but rather than execute it during the daytime against only the owner of the establishment, they chose to wait until the club was full, and then unjustifiably arrested over 300 people, citing them for “loitering inside a building,” an offense carrying a maximum fine of $500. Vehicles within a three-block radius of the club were also ticketed and towed, despite the fact that some of the car owners had never even entered the club that night.
The policing of queer sexualities has been arguably the most visible and recognized point of contact between LGBT people and the criminal legal system. From the images that form the opening sequence of Milk—the 2008 biopic about gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk—of groups of white gay men hiding from cameras as they are rounded up by police in the 1950s, to the historic clashes with police of the late 1960s and early 1970s, police repression and resistance to it are central themes of gay life in the United States. Groundbreaking gay rights organizations such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis have expressed strong concern about bar raids and police harassment. A study conducted by the National Gay Task Force (now the NGLTF) in the mid-eighties found that 23 percent of gay men and 13 percent of lesbians reported having been harassed, threatened with violence, or physically attacked by police because of their sexual orientation. It remains a daily occurrence for large numbers of LGBT people. According to reports made to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) in 2008, law enforcement officers were the third-largest category of perpetrators of anti-LGBT violence. Incidences of reported police violence against LGBT people increased by 150 percent between 2007 and 2008, and the number of law enforcement officers reported to have engaged in abusive treatment of LGBT people increased by 11 percent. In 2000, the NCAVP stated that 50 percent of bias-related violence reported by transgender women in San Francisco was committed by police and private security officers.
As demonstrated by the Power Plant incident, in many ways, policing of queers has not changed significantly since the days when it sparked outrage and resistance from LGBT communities, although its focus has narrowed to some degree. According to the New York City Anti-Violence Project, “Young queer people of color, transgender youth, homeless and street involved youth are more vulnerable to police violence . . . AVP’s data analysis also reveals that transgender individuals are at a greater risk of experiencing police violence Far from fading into the annals of LGBT history, police violence against queers is alive and well.
Yet with the exception of sodomy law enforcement, since the mid- 1970s resistance to abusive policing of LGBT people has largely been absent from the agendas of national mainstream LGBT organizations, particularly as police have increasingly narrowed their focus to segments of LGBT communities with little power or voice inside and outside such groups. Similarly, while mainstream police accountability and civil rights organizations have called for accountability in a limited number of cases involving LGBT individuals, policing of gender and queer sexualities has not been central to their analysis of the issue. It is essential to bring the persistent police violence experienced by LGBT people to the fore of these movements to ensure the ghosts of Stonewall do not continue to haunt for years to come.
Policing Social Order
In order to better understand the roots and forms of policing of LGBT communities, it is important to consider the power police possess and the role they play in society. Police and other law enforcement agents do not merely objectively enforce the letter of the law. Practically speaking, they also function as lawmakers in their own right. They are given considerable latitude in deciding which laws to enforce, how to enforce them, and which people to target for enforcement. And they often consciously and unconsciously exercise that broad discretion in ways that are anything but neutral. Far from being passive players just doing a job, law enforcement agents play a crucial role in manufacturing, acting on, and enforcing criminalizing archetypes.
The advent of “quality of life” policing in the 1990s further facilitated this process. This now predominant law enforcement paradigm is premised on maintaining social order through aggressive enforcement of quality of life regulations, rooted in age-old vagrancy laws, which prohibit an expanding spectrum of activities in public spaces, including standing (loitering), sitting, sleeping, eating, drinking, urinating, making noise, and approaching strangers. It is based on the theory that minor indications of “disorder”—a broken window, youth hanging out on the corner, public drinking—ultimately lead to more serious criminal activity. While such regulations may appear innocent at first blush, in reality, by criminalizing ordinary and otherwise lawful activities, this new paradigm has given police additional tools to stop, ticket, and arrest increasing numbers of people, most notably youth and homeless people. In 2006 alone, the NYPD stopped, questioned and/or frisked over half a million people, a 500 percent increase over the previous year. Over 80 percent were Black or Latina/o, even though these groups make up only 53.6 percent of the NYC population, while only approximately 10 percent were white, compared to 44 percent of the population. Quality of life stops also create additional opportunities for police officers to use force. While “quality of life” offenses are often low-level misdemeanors or violations (the equivalent of a speeding ticket), an accumulation of tickets or failure to appear in court often leads to more serious consequences.
Given their extensive reach and the common occurrence of the types of conduct they prohibit, it is virtually impossible to enforce all quality of life regulations against all people at all times and in all places. As Yale law professor Charles Reich notes, “Laws that are widely violated . . . especially lend themselves to selective and arbitrary enforcement.” Additionally, the language of quality of life regulations, such as those prohibiting “disorderly” or lewd conduct or loitering, is often vague and subject to multiple interpretations when determining what kinds of conduct to punish, and by whom. Ultimately, “zero tolerance” for quality of life violations means zero tolerance for undesirables, and quality of life can mean quality of life for property and business owners at the expense of quality of life for countless others.
Social constructions of deviance and criminality pervade the myriad routine practices and procedures through which law enforcement agents decide whom to stop on the streets or highways, whom to question, search, and arrest, and whom to subject to brutal force. The statistics reflecting persistent and pervasive racial profiling are as familiar as they are dizzying. Behind the numbers are the stories of daily harassment and arbitrary police action premised on presumptions of criminality that attach to some, but not others.
A Black gay man peacefully walking in a park in New York City was confronted by an officer pointing a gun at him, saying, “If you an arcade with friends in a gay neighborhood in Chicago when an officer passing by in a police car yelled at the young people to “move their ass.” The officer then pulled over to stop and search them, calling the young man a “nigger faggot” while telling him his “ass is not big enough to fuck.” The young man was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. The charges were later dismissed. Driving such seemingly routine incidents are undercurrents of archetypal narratives framing Black men as inherently up to no good, and gay men as individuals whose sexuality must be informally controlled, even where they have broken no law.
In addition to possessing the power to stop and arrest, police also have the ability to utilize force as a tool of order maintenance. Criminalizing archetypes framing particular individuals and groups as inherently dangerous, violent, mentally unstable, or disposable fuel and justify physical abuse by police. Statistics pointing to the disproportionate use of force against people of color—including LGBT people of color—abound, and there is no shortage of illustrations bringing the numbers to life.
A gay Latino man stopped for a traffic offense in Oakland, California, in 2001 was arrested and placed in a patrol car—but not until an officer who noticed his pink socks called them “faggot socks” and slammed his ankle in the car door so hard the man required medical treatment. Freddie Mason, a thirty-one-year-old Black gay nurse’s assistant with no prior criminal record, was arrested following a verbal altercation with his landlord and anally raped with a billy club covered in cleaning liquid by a Chicago police officer who called him a “nigger fag” and told him “I’m tired of you faggot . . . you sick mother fucker.” Two lesbians of color arrested outside a club hosting a women’s night in Brooklyn, New York, in 2009 were beaten by officers who called one a “bitch ass dyke.” In each of these cases, under the guise of responding to alleged minor, nonviolent offenses, officers used brute force to maintain raced, gendered, and heterosexual “order.”
Table of ContentsA Note from the Series Editor (Michael Bronski)
1 Setting the Historical Stage: Colonial Legacies
2 Gleeful Gay Killers, Lethal Lesbians, and Deceptive Gender Benders: Queer Criminal Archetypes
3 The Ghosts of Stonewall: Policing Gender, Policing Sex
4 Objection! Treatment of Queers in Criminal Courts
5 Caging Deviance: Prisons as Queer Spaces
6 False Promises: Criminal Legal Responses to Violence against LGBT People
7 Over the Rainbow: Where Do We Go from Here?
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