NYC “False Arrests” & White Gay Innocence

NOTE: I have made some changes to this entry based on some feedback I got from Duncan Osborne, reporter for Gay City News. Gay City News, a NYC-focused weekly newspaper that focuses on the LGBT community, recently published a series of stories about the false arrests made of older white gay men at porn shops, under the charge of “prostitution” and the New York Times has, as usual, been the Johhny-Come-Lately and published a story as well. It seems as though the NYPD has been sending really hot Black and/or Latino Asian male undercover cops into these porn shops, they tell these men they wanna have sex, and then on the way out, the hot younger undercover offers to pay the men. Whether or not they agree to the exchange of cash or not, the men exit the store and are arrested for prostitution.

While I think this is a terrible abuse of power and the police should not be setting up traps like this for people, and I am glad Robert Pinter chose come to forward, as many people live in shame when they are arrested–and in many states, are charged with the hugely stigmatizing “sex offender” statute, which increases the amount of community surveillance, inability to get work or live in certain places, etc. So while I think it is valuable to actively resist forms of sexual criminalization, I also have a problem with this campaign. First of all, if you read the news stories or watch the video below, notice the use of “innocence” as the framework for the reason why the arrests are wrong (which, to be fair, may be attributed to the legal strategy). It is interesting though, when you look at the history of queer activism about police harassment and public space, “innocence” was rarely used as the way the issue was framed in the pre/post Stonewall Era.

From an organizing perspective, people have often talked about sexual freedom, self determination, sexual liberation, or the right of people to freely associate with whomever they wanted, as long as it was consensual. But the activists in this case, led by Queer Justice League and the NYC Anti-Violence Project, are falling back on notions of “innocence” and the arrests of men with “no prior arrest record.” This is such a racist and elitist discourse, because it throws people under the bus (even in a queer context), uses the spectre of the Black or Latino criminal, in this case hustlers, who may be turning tricks to eat, or to feed a drug habit (for which there is often no access to treatment without passing thru the hands of law enforcement and the courts), or because they’d rather do that than work mininum wage. It says, “we don’t care if you arrest, harass, or ‘stop & frisk’ those people, but we’re not doing anything wrong.” Duncan also let me know in an email last week that ” I spent yet another day at the Midtown Community Court this past Tuesday and I am pleased to say that among the prostitution cases that were dismissed were those against a white man in his 40s who was busted in Blue Door Video and a 42-year-old, straight, African-American man who was busted on the street in the West Village. Additionally, the prostitution case against a young female, Asian immigrant who worked in a massage parlor was tossed out as well. All three were busted by undercover officer 3371 who made at least half of the porn shop busts.”

In addition, its interesting to note that this campaign has held a public forum at the LGBT Center, had one public rally, has scheduled another for this Saturday, and has lobbied out-lesbian Council Speaker Christine Quinn to call Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD on this issue. With all this activity, my organization, Queers for Economic Justice has not received one call or email asking to co-sponsor or otherwise be engaged in this work. And I wonder if FIERCE (which has been doing work on policing of queer youth and public space since 2000), Ali Forney Center, Audre Lorde Project, or many of the organizations that have a track record of doing work around police harassment of queer folks (especially when Black & Latinos queer spaces in NYC are hyper-policed) have been asked to weigh in on this issue. And given the way this has become a campaign about protecting the freedom of white gay men (to the implicit exclusion of people of color, sex workers, and poor people in commercial sex venues) I am not sure that I’d want to be a part of this, frankly. (According to Duncan, FIERCE and ALP played some role in this work, and that QEJ was contacted but did not return the call–though we discussed it as a staff months ago and none of us received such a call).