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.
Read: The forgotten history of gay entrapment
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.