Vice, Vice, Baby: Anna Lvovsky's History of Policing Sex

Historians in the News
tags: legal history, Police, LGBTQ history, history of sexuality


AN AWFUL DISCOURSE now heralds spring. It goes by “no kink at Pride.” Seemingly concocted on 4chan as one of their loosely coordinated Operations, it has been propelled for the past few years beyond the imageboard by earnest young queers and crypto-religious moralists, both keen to prevent the nonconsensual sight of leathermen. In 2020, arguments about parade logistics reached a fever pitch. The fact that, due to the coronavirus, parades were more likely to be canceled that year was no consolation. There was a more abstract problem: the question of sexuality in public life was at stake.

Another newly seasonal discourse circulates as “no cops at Pride.” This one grew out of a successful Black Lives Matter action undertaken in Toronto in 2016 for community self-determination of parade programming. Their demands to remove police floats and bar uniformed officers from marching have since been adopted in cities elsewhere in the spirit of abolition. Pride celebrations ritually commemorate the defeat of the NYPD over the right to be queer in public; the two discourses address the same concern. The vestiges of the pre-Stonewall police regime persist in laws across the country like the “walking while trans” ban, an anti-loitering statute that places trans women at risk of a prostitution charge simply by stepping outside. It was repealed in New York State only this February. During the twentieth century, police departments nationwide wielded a stubborn jurisprudence that ran on their expert ability to identify sex criminals by sight, and have been slow to give it up. In New York City, the belief in their centrality to public order was on display in the Gay Officers Action League’s howls at its exclusion from this year’s official Pride programming. Instead, GOAL held its own ceremony, honoring the outgoing NYC Department of Corrections Chief, in whose custody the trans ballroom performer Layleen Polanco had died in 2019, with the 2021 Ally Award.

The “shifting public understandings of homosexuality in the twentieth century,” the legal historian Anna Lvovsky argues, “cannot be fully understood without a history of policing.” Her new book, Vice Patrol, is a useful examination of the legal struggle over the sexual character of the public in the middle of the last century. In particular she illuminates a shadowy figure, the vice cop. Though a central antagonist in queer history, he has mostly escaped devoted scrutiny. Lvovsky draws primarily from judicial rulings and courtroom testimony for her material, but is sensitive to the multidimensional nature of the law. One welcome aspect of her study is its attention to this history as a battle over jurisdiction, with liquor boards, psychiatrists, sociologists, and the popular press all vying for legitimacy as arbiters of public behavior. This choice of object somewhat obscures from view the experiences of those people whose right to the public was already more or less categorically barred. The period Lvovsky examines coincides with legal segregation (one judge reasons that an interracial conversation is itself evidence of guilty motives), and she finds an LAPD officer who explains that the law’s relative disinterest in lesbians was because they were less “innately abhorrent” and women tend to be “more discreet.” Thus the book is a roundabout history of how attempts at erecting a heterosexual public by policing vice gave birth to a new type of public homosexual.

Sodomy was consistently proscribed in the United States from the colonial era until 1961, when Illinois became the first state to decriminalize it. But the charge was neither strictly associated with homosexuality nor regularly pursued until modern policing adopted tools from sexology to apprehend newly visible social types. Lvovsky begins her study of antigay policing in 1933, at the close of Prohibition. In the public understanding, gender-nonconforming people known as fairies populated working-class spaces. An early-’30s vogue called the pansy craze brought strangers to this culture into bars to see the “antics and gestures of the fags.” It was this public intimacy with queer culture, Lvovsky notes, that guided its subsequent legal repression. By the early ’50s, departments in most large cities had formed divisions solely for enforcing vice or sex-related prohibitions.

Read entire article at Bookforum