How Stonewall Reversed a Long History of Justifying Police Surveillance

Entrapment schemes targeting gay men continue across the country, but the Stonewall resistance changed their meaning.

Grey Villet / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series about the gay-rights movement and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.

In early June, during an otherwise unremarkable safety briefing at New York Police Department headquarters in Lower Manhattan, Police Commissioner James O’Neill stood in front of a crowd and apologized for his department’s behavior during the Stonewall riots, some 50 years ago. “The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive,” he said, “and for that, I apologize.”

The apology was surprising after a long legacy of “broken windows” policing and “cleaning up the streets” initiatives targeted at LGBTQ New Yorkers. Before the riots at the Stonewall Inn, queer people across the country were sacrificed to these initiatives, marked as criminals. But because they were breaking the law—no matter how unjust—surveilling them was, in that era, a sign of a safe community. Now the laws are gone, but the surveillance continues.

New York City imposed anti-sodomy laws on its residents until 1980 and cross-dressing bans until 2011. For decades, the city selectively enforced liquor regulations to discriminate against gay bars. Those policies all served as pretense for continual police surveillance and frequent raids. It was never the individual homophobia of police officers that caused the Stonewall riots, but the homophobia enshrined in the law.

By the 1960s, every state in the U.S. had anti-sodomy laws on the books. As many gay men moved to metropolitan areas such as New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., police in these cities endeavored to look tough on gay life. Each city created positions for “vice officers” or “morality officers,” who used decoy and entrapment techniques to arrest gay men. The intense surveillance of gay bars for such routine behavior as kissing has been likened by contemporary legal scholars to apartheid.

Homophobic laws and political tactics forced LGBTQ people to hide themselves—while at the same time, police agencies and conservative groups spread fears that predatory gays were hidden among upstanding citizens. As queer folks receded into the closet to survive, police developed concealed tactics to find them.

In 1962, police in Mansfield, Ohio, received complaints that men were cruising in a public bathroom late at night. With no warrant, no witnesses, and certainly no victims, police installed hidden cameras behind the bathroom mirror. Officers angled the lenses so as to see the faces of all the men who entered, arresting the men they found having sex and spying on dozens who simply stopped to use the restroom. This wasn’t an entirely uncommon practice. In Toronto in 1979, a vice officer was assigned to peer through grates in the bathroom of the Parkside Tavern, a well-known gay bar and cruising site. Police could see everyone using the bathroom and arrested anyone they wanted.

Years earlier, in late-spring 1952, Dale Jennings, a World War II veteran and playwright, had stopped to use a bathroom in a D.C. public park. There, another man at the stalls made eye contact. Jennings claimed the stranger had grabbed his hand and placed it down the front of his pants. When Jennings left, the man followed him home, making small talk about the Navy. Once they arrived, the stranger revealed himself as a police officer and arrested Jennings for lewd misconduct.

Jennings made history by fighting his charge in court, a rarity for a lewd-conduct arrest in that age. Many men caught in these entrapment schemes were closeted and accepted fines and plea deals rather than fighting charges in a public trial, where they could be outed and harassed.

The jury deadlocked 11 to one in favor of acquittal, and Jennings was released. Soon after, he formed the Mattachine Society, an early “homophile” organization, and the Citizens’ Committee to Outlaw Entrapment, which offered legal advice to other men similarly arrested by decoy officers.

The irony of the decoy arrest is that police officers were engaging in the very behavior they claimed to be preventing: loitering in bathrooms, indecent exposure, and making sexual advances to strangers. But because so few men contested the charges, entrapment schemes became an easy way to arrest and charge dozens of gay men with fines, thereby proving that officers were doing their jobs and keeping the streets safe. This continued for decades, even after Stonewall.

In March 1978, Boston police sent plainclothes officers to the Boston Public Library’s bathroom to stop cruising at the site. Over a two-week period, 103 men were arrested and accused of lewd conduct, public indecency, or prostitution. Among the arrests, only one man was actually found guilty, and his conviction was overturned in court. Another man, arrested and charged with prostitution but later found not guilty, sued the library and Boston police officials, ultimately winning a settlement.

While the harassment and over-policing of queer men was meant to signal a healthy community and robust police force for much of the 20th century, Stonewall brought visibility to the injustices of overzealous police. Fifty years later, cities no longer presume that police are innocent, or that LGBTQ people are criminals. But that doesn’t mean everything has changed. Entrapment tactics still continue.

In 2007, the NYPD and New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene sent undercover agents to gay bars to document the age, race, and appearance of each person they alleged engaged in sex. In 2014, a judge rebuked the police department in Long Beach, California, after it admitted to using plainclothes officers and sting operations to arrest gay men for lewd-conduct charges. In 2017, a group of gay men filed a class-action suit against the Port Authority Police Department for allegedly using decoy officers to entrap and arrest gay men for lewd conduct and exposure. The lawsuit is still pending.

Stonewall was not a drag brunch. It was a riot against police intrusion, surveillance, and the feedback loops that kept LGBTQ people in the closet and out of politics. It marked the start of a long march to invert the logic of law enforcement as harassment: Attacking and arresting queer people is a sign not of a city under control, but of corruption, corrosion, and a force that lacks integrity.