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Timothy Stewart-Winter: Queer Law and Order

DSC_9900Timothy Stewart-Winter is an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark. His first book Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics, will be published in January 2016 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Stewart-Winter was educated at Swarthmore College and the University of Chicago and has taught at Yale University. His writing has appeared in Gender & History, the Journal of the History of Sexuality, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times.

His article “Queer Law and Order: Sex, Criminality, and Policing in the Late Twentieth-Century United States” appears in the June 2015 special issue of the Journal of American History on “Historians and the Carceral State.”

Could you briefly describe your article?

My article argues that historians need to think more deeply about the decline of routine police raids on gay bars in the 1970s. First, we need to look at how it happened in different cities. In New York and San Francisco gay communities had more influence because of their size and militancy, but in other cities they often had to latch onto liberal allies and others who were fighting for a voice in city hall, and who were critical of a whole range of types of overpolicing. White gay men who objected to the entrapment of gay men in restrooms, for example, found that the journalists and politicians and activists most sympathetic to their cause were others who had a beef with the police. In Chicago they often allied with African Americans who were increasingly challenging police brutality in courtrooms and city halls, and with critics of police spying on leftists and black power activists. Just as important, reformers exposed corruption in many urban police departments, and curtailed the extortionate practices of vice squads that targeted gay establishments.

But second, we need to look at the impact of this change for the gay movement, being as precise as we can about what was gained and also about what possibilities were foreclosed. It offers a lesson in how and why certain white liberals didn’t challenge the turn toward harsher policing and punishment in the 1970s. Getting the police out of gay bars was a huge victory. It made gays and lesbians less afraid to socialize with each other, come out to friends and relatives, and even—beginning in four cities where in 1970 they commemorated the one-year anniversary of New York City’s Stonewall uprising—march in the streets. But it also mattered in a different way: it changed the movement’s priorities and meant that white, middle-class gays and lesbians were no longer all that concerned about what the police were doing. (The gay movement was more white, middle-class, and male than LGBT communities as a whole, partly because people of color and white women often mobilized around other causes besides their gayness.) As the movement grew rapidly, it also turned away from its longtime primary focus on police harassment, and instead addressed other issues. And so one potential voice against the rapid growth of the carceral state in the late twentieth century was lost.

How does your topic fit into the larger history of the carceral state?

Part of my point is to say that it wasn’t inevitable that harsher policing would focus on communities of color. Mass incarceration was made possible not only because its advocates were effective but also because its critics weren’t able to put together a coalition. Who might have spoken out against harsher policing and punishment—but did not? The gay movement, during the years when it came into its own as a constituency in big-city municipal politics, was one such voice. The decline of routine police raids on gay bars between the late 1960s and early 1980s had a lot of benefits for gay people, but it had an unintended consequence: it denied critics of harsher policing an important potential ally.

I wanted to ask not just who was drawn to harsh policing and punishment as policy tools, but who might have criticized those measures yet failed to do so.


At an April 1970 gay-liberation rally in Chicago’s Grant Park, a protester holds a handmade sign reading “Stop Police Entrapment.” Photograph: Margaret Olin.

How can other historians best incorporate your work (and that of other historians of the carceral state) into their teaching?

Too often, incorporating LGBT life into modern U.S. history courses means dropping in references to the couple of episodes that have gotten traction in popular culture—the Stonewall uprising and Harvey Milk’s brief career, both of which were local and exceptional stories. By contrast, the history of antigay policing represents a new way to bring in sexuality as a category of analysis – and connects gay politics to the texture of everyday life for queer people.

The first two photographs that appear in my article illustrate the way that police harassment shaped queer life in the post-World War II decades: it shaped our social lives, our intimate lives, and our politics. I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to publish a photograph of a pre-Stonewall police raid on a drag ball in the Journal of American History (see p. 64 of the article). Such raids epitomized the reasons why being associated with queer life was so risky. The queen in that photo maintains such dignity in the face of that danger.

The second photo, by Margaret Olin, is a rare gem because, even though police entrapment was so fundamental an aspect of gay male life in the 1960s and 1970s, very few dared to make it the focus of protest – even in the post-Stonewall period. There was so much shame surrounding it. Lyndon B. Johnson’s top aide Walter Jenkins, for example, was banished from public life in October 1964 after being caught in a sting in a Washington, D.C. YMCA. The lucky ones were those who were eased out of a job quietly.

How does your project speak to contemporary concerns about the carceral state?

I recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed that the gay movement has an obligation to remember that our movement began as a struggle against police harassment, and thus that “Black Lives Matter” is our cause, too. My point wasn’t that the gay movement has some transhistorical moral core. Rather, history shows there is much at stake for LGBT people in the configuring of policing and punishment. Gay bar raids ended later than many people realize. As I point out in my forthcoming book Queer Clout, Chicago had series of spectacular raids at the turn of the 1980s, and another in 1985 that led to damages awarded to patrons present. While factors besides gay activism contributed to the decline of gay bar raids, the fight against such raids shaped the gay present. The gay critique—and transformation—of police practices is part of what the gay-rights movement gave America.