All Politics is Loco: Sex witch hunts

By Sean Kosofsky

It's time to set the record straight and clear up some public misconceptions about entrapment, public sex and the work of Triangle Foundation. Having worked at Triangle for nearly nine years, I have a unique role and responsibility to clarify this issue for folks, once and for all.

Triangle doesn't just help individual clients when they face discrimination and violence. We look at the broader anti-gay climate in our society and work to eradicate those systems of prejudice. Whether we like it or not there are many people in the law enforcement community who are homophobic and who want to use their immense power to harass and arrest GLBT people, especially gay men. Not all police are like this, but it only takes one bad apple to spoil the bushel. Unfortunately the number of bad apples could fill an orchard.

Police used to serve different functions and in many communities they served as peace officers, keeping things running smoothly and building relationships with neighbors and community groups. Nowadays, in most places, people are afraid of police. We hear about excessive use of force, profiling, illegal searches, corruption and entrapment, and understandably the public trust in police has plummeted. Minorities have a very strained relationship with law enforcement because of a dramatic lack of exposure to our communities, lack of diversity training and lack of empathy for the diverse populations police serve.

The issue is entrapment and police misconduct, not public sex. Nine times out of ten, the cases you hear Triangle working on do not involve sex at all. They involve cruising, which is legal, healthy, and done all the time by men and women of all sexual orientations.

This is what police do: They dress up their youngest, cutest officers and set them loose in the cruisy area with explicit instructions on how to make an arrest. They will stare seductively and make gestures to men that suggest they are interested in sex. Even straight men would take the bait if a young pretty woman flirted this way with him in a public place.

Police sometimes characterize the arrests they make at parks and rest areas as curbing "public sex" or use more inflammatory charges like "indecent exposure," "gross indecency," or "lewd conduct." Most often men who are arrested in these cases did nothing illegal. They may have had a conversation about sex with an undercover officer whose job it was to seduce men to break the law. Conversations about sex are not illegal unless they involve a minor or money.

Police know that being charged with such crimes is humiliating and so most gay men don't fight the charge. They plead guilty just to make it go away faster. That is why many police keep doing it. We have seen some police agencies unnecessarily offer the names of these men for publication in the media or call their employers or homes about the arrest. This is blatant bigotry and harassment that has led to ruined careers, families, and even some men taking their lives. The American Family Association supports these witch hunts, which should tell you more about what is going on here. Some police even affectionately call these sting operations "Bag a Fag" campaigns. One group of police even printed "Bag a Fag" T-shirts.

Triangle does not encourage or endorse "public sex." But what is public sex? Kissing? Making out behind a tree? A one-minute indiscretion in the car? Most people in polite company would say they think public sex is tacky and they would not support it, but realistically most people really don't care as long as they don't have to see it or as long as it is not too blatant. Triangle's position is in line with the public on this. We recognize public sex is against the law but we also believe police frequently enforce the law differently based on the sex and sexuality of the "offender." Straight couples usually get sent home, lesbian couples frequently get met with curiosity and voyeurism, while gay couples are regarded with disgust. Hence, people are more likely to support a crackdown on any gay sexual expressions in public. Uniformed officers should be able to catch public sex, but many police outfits are not interested in deterrence, they are interested in busting queers. They claim to receive public complaints, but every time we ask for copies under the Freedom of Information Act, they never can seem to find them.

Entrapment is illegal and should be punished. Police may say they are deterring crime but there is no evidence to back this up. I have trained over 700 police officers and several have told me directly that they know that undercover operations do not deter crime. But they do help to raise money and instill terror in the hearts of gay men. Any time police initiate the conversation or work to get someone to break the law, they are acting illegally and unethically. All they prove is that good people will break the law if enticed to do so. How is this making communities safer?

"They shouldn't be there in the first place." Triangle Foundation offers our services to anyone and everyone regardless of how messy the details are. We don't turn away clients because they used poor judgment or because they live their lives in a way that others would disapprove of. If we did that, we would serve no one. We cannot turn our backs on people in our community when they need us the most, because they might "give our community a bad name." Our community began its struggle in 1969 against rogue police, and that work continues to this day. Triangle is making our community safer every day for everyone by challenging police every time they target our community for harassment. If we allow even one portion of our community to be left out in the cold, then who is next?

We should all be opposed to police entrapment, period. With no qualifiers. If you disapprove of cruising, fine. But you must also disapprove of rogue police who break the law in order to target vulnerable populations. Triangle Foundation doesn't apologize for taking cases that aren't neat and clean. We neither shame nor shun clients. That is exactly why people should be proud of Triangle's work.

Sean Kosofsky is director of policy for Triangle Foundation.

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