Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Intro to Vice Patrol and the Rich Archives of Antigay Policing

[This is the first in a series of guest posts by Anna Lvovsky.] 

Thank you to the Legal History Blog for bringing me on board as a guest blogger! Pride month feels like an especially apt time for the invitation, since my recently published book, Vice Patrol, is a history of antigay policing before Stonewall. Curious about how undercover officers learned to imitate gay men in bars? Or why owners of gay bars retained football coaches and clothing boutique owners as expert witnesses at state liquor board proceedings? Or how trial judges secretly (and some not-so-secretly) dismissed solicitation charges brought by the vice squads? This is the book for you!

While working on the project, I was lucky to stumble on a number of extraordinary sources, from confidential American Bar Foundation interviews with trial judges in the 1950s to over 120 cases against LGBT-friendly bars in New Jersey to an extended correspondence with a former LAPD vice squad instructor. These sources raised some intriguing, and often painful, questions about both narrative economy and the ethics of historical representation, which I’ll be writing about in the coming weeks. What to do, for example, when archival confidentiality agreements give more protection to the officers who entrapped gay men than to those men themselves? Or how to showcase the richness of a forgotten queer social scene without losing the thread of your argument in anecdotes and asides?

First, though, I want to start with a quick introduction to the book. Vice Patrol began as an open question lingering around my favorite books in grad school. Histories of gay life typically focus on incredible grassroots stories of community-building and resistance.  Policing invariably hovers in the background of these stories, but it rarely enters the spotlight, and certainly not long enough to reveal its own internal politics and complications. I wanted to take a type of revised top-down approach to this story, examining the internal logic and daily operations of state regulation itself. Not least, I suspected that foregrounding the police might complicate some more familiar stories about gay history—suggesting, for example, that pockets of queer visibility often seen as relatively progressive might not be so progressive after all.

Taking a national lens, Vice Patrol focuses on three sites of enforcement: liquor charges brought against gay-friendly bars, entrapment by plainclothes officers, and clandestine surveillance in public bathrooms. A key goal of the book is to excavate the sheer complexity and sordidness of the police’s attempts to regulate queer life—the effort and ingenuity required to make an ostensibly “overt” urban subculture visible to the law to begin with. Much of the book, accordingly, examines how vice squads refined their most devastating methods, like enticement and peephole surveillance—as well as how they justified such practices to recruits who didn’t exactly see them as a model of intrepid crime-fighting.  But it also delves into the life of the courts, tracing the often-surprising battles that the police’s campaigns inspired in the legal system.

At heart, I see the book as making three core arguments, which I’ll briefly describe here. The first aims to disaggregate the law’s relationship with policed communities like gay men. The project of antigay policing often figures in histories as a monolithic site of repression, commanding the shared commitment of policemen, prosecutors, and judges alike. In fact, I argue, the vice squads’ campaigns inspired profound ambivalence and contestation, reflecting a range of personal, political, and institutional pressures from judicial impatience with petty cases to sympathy for individual defendants to qualms about sexual privacy to distaste for immoral police practices. These less visible disputes about the administration of the law, no less than legal actors’ shifting commitments to the regulation of sexual difference, shaped gay men’s legal rights and freedoms at midcentury.

The second argument looks at the link between policing and public understandings of gay life. Beyond disputes about the value of vice enforcement, the midcentury witnessed a live debate about the nature of homosexuality itself, with the public’s familiar presumptions often abutting against the wisdom of “expert” doctors, sociologists, and empirical researchers. I argue that legal battles around vice policing were a crucial arena for determining the relative power and ultimate legacy of these competing voices—both a site that brought the weight of the law to bear in choosing which bodies of knowledge were deemed authoritative, and one where their impact was often unexpected. Due to the unique pressures of the courts, especially, the political valence of these shifting paradigms was often different at trial than outside it, with developments celebrated as liberal redounding to have deeply repressive effects and vice versa. Shifting public understandings of sexual difference at midcentury, in short, cannot be fully understood without a history of the police.

Finally, the third argument has to do with the politics of knowledge in the criminal system. I argue that, amid these conflicting accounts of both the value of vice policing and the nature of homosexuality itself, the power of the police’s campaigns rested on the coexistence in the legal system of multiple competing understandings of gay life, dividing how policemen and judges understood the communities they regulated. Even as vice officers developed rarefied insights into gay cruising culture—and even as they used those insights to facilitate their arrests—officers defended those tactics in court by downplaying their insights, letting judges rely instead on their own (often-outdated) understandings of queer practice. These differences, in turn, repeatedly shielded controversial police practices from judicial scrutiny. In this sense, the rights and freedoms of gay individuals at midcentury did not just reflect the legal system’s disputes about the merits of antigay policing. They often reflected its deeper disagreements about the very thing being policed.

That’s a broad overview of the book’s core claims. Next time, something far more specific: the story of the lesbian bar that I had to cut from the book but am sure will haunt me to my dying days.