Cops, Courts, and the Struggle over Urban Gay Life before Stonewall
by Anna Lvovsky
U. of Chicago Press. 360 pages, $35.
IN THIS deeply researched book, Harvard law professor Anna Lvovsky presents an illuminating and complex history of anti-homosexual vice raids in mid-20th-century America. With precise details and careful analysis, Vice Patrol tells a fascinating story about how the policing of homosexuality from the 1940s to the 1960s was far more contradictory and contested than we might think, and how courts of law played a crucial role in the emerging understanding and visibility of LGBT life.
The years after World War II witnessed new and “progressive” theories of homosexuality as a developmental rather than a biological condition. Kinsey’s research challenged prevailing theories that homosexuals constituted a small, mentally ill class of people. It was amid these shifting ideas that the early homophile groups debated the political realities of homosexuals as a social minority. Drawing on a wealth of documents from trial records, prosecutor notes, judges’ commentaries, and secondary interviews with detectives, Lvovsky situates the vice patrols and court cases within this cultural context.
Organized into three key areas of regulation and policing—bars and liquor laws, decoy surveillance in public spaces, and undercover surveillance of public restrooms—Lvovsky shows how the courtroom manifested competing ideologies and institutional concerns around the policing of sexuality. Her research reveals that the courtroom was both a microcosm of larger social concerns and a place where the contradictions and complexities around the issue of homosexuality were aired.
James Polchin is the author ofIndecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall.