LGBT History Month: Twenty years ago our love was illegal

New community archive includes sad history of legal oppression

As qnotes staff finished final preparations to send this Oct. 10 print edition to press, breaking news stunned LGBT equality advocates. The U.S. Supreme Court had declined to hear several marriage appeals, opening legal marriage in Virginia and four other states while paving the way for legal marriage here in North Carolina. We report more on that at goqnotes.com/31546/, with continuing updates on this fast-moving story online at goqnotes.com/to/marriagenc/.

Quite fittingly, though, we’d also planned to run a local LGBT history feature this issue. The week before the breaking marriage news, I’d taken a trip up to the new LGBTQ Community Archives in the Special Collections at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte’s J. Murray Atkins Library. I took a gander through materials in collections submitted by longtime community organizers Sue Henry and Darryl Logsdon and came across a surprising trove of news clippings and other documents from the early 1990s. They detailed the efforts community activists were taking to improve relations with local law enforcement. At the top of the agenda: the end of police stings and entrapment of gay men.

For as much as marriage takes the center stage in advocacy today, it’s easy to forget there was a time not so long ago — indeed, just a little over two decades ago — when even the basic act and expression of our love toward our partners was considered a prosecutable felony.

Activists in Charlotte had ramped up against police entrapment and stings in the late 1980s. Don King, qnotes’ first editor, wrote several articles warning gay men about undercover cops soliciting men for sex.

“ENTICING — Vice Officers Waging War at Bookstores, Parks,” reads a March 1987 headline.

The police were enticing gay men, not merely arresting those “caught in the act.” Arrested men who’d done nothing more than respond positively to an undercover cop’s flirtations were slapped with charges of soliciting a “crime against nature.”

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Men were arrested for simply walking and talking with undercover cops in public parks or for asking an undercover cop to go back home with them. Some were arrested for simply talking about sex, but never really taking any action to initiate it. Some were charged with assault for innocently touching an undercover cop’s shoulder or arm and others were charged with indecent exposure when there had been none. And, after arrest — if it hadn’t already been reported by mainstream media — men’s families or employers were called in an effort to embarrass or intimidate the accused.

 

This graphic appeared on the front page of the March 1987 issue of qnotes above a list of tips and warnings for gay men to avoid arrest.

This graphic appeared on the front page of the March 1987 issue of qnotes above a list of tips and warnings for gay men to avoid arrest.

In September 1987, a full quarter of qnotes’ eight-page issue that month was devoted to the topic of police entrapment. That’s when King formed a support and information task force for gay men arrested at public parks and bookstores.

“I contend that the police are deliberately arresting not only people who break the law, but also people who have committed no crime but are too scared to pursue their case. We must stop that,” King said in an article about the new task force.

The arrests never stopped and King continued to find difficulties in identifying those willing to file complaints, the risk of losing family and employment too high.

First Tuesday, one of the first successful activist and political groups in Charlotte, took on the issue in 1992 after several months of work from King and attorneys Anita Hodgkiss and Lila Bellar. King and the attorneys had labored to get the topic of entrapment before the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee’s Discrimination Subcommittee. They met several times with the committee, including meetings where arrested men were able to share their stories. The committee, apparently, seemed sympathetic. King, the attorneys and the arrested men had had their concerns heard, but nothing seemed to stop the continuing arrests.

Then a breakthrough happened. On the morning of April 2, 1992, a man who had been arrested three days prior filed a false arrest report with the Community Relations Committee. That afternoon, officials with the Charlotte Police Department finally agreed to dialogue, but it would take three more filed complaints — two against Charlotte city officers and one against a Mecklenburg County Police officer — before officials finally agreed to meet publicly to hear concerns.

The meeting was scheduled for June 3, 1992. More than 80 community members attended. It did not go well.

Charlotte Police Major Piper Charles compared the entrapment of gay men to police efforts to deter drug dealers.

“I’ve heard a couple of you make allusions to drug dealers and drug users,” a man said during the meeting, his name unreported by The Charlotte Observer. “Homosexuals are not drug dealers. I’m not a drug dealer. I’m not a criminal.”

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The man’s comments “brought 20 seconds of sustained applause and an apology from Charles,” The Observer reported.

A second meeting was scheduled the next month. Like the first, this meeting didn’t go well, either.

Mecklenburg County District Attorney Peter Gilchrist related the finer points of what exactly constituted legal and illegal same-sex love, stating, according to qnotes: “You can tell another man you love him; that’s not unlawful. You can hold hands with another man; that is not unlawful. To kiss another man; that is not unlawful.”

The crowd of 60 or so community members weren’t having it. Both qnotes and The Observer reported the crowd “hissed” at Gilchrist when he drew on biblical prohibitions to justify the crimes against nature laws and police entrapment efforts.

“You are apparently engaging in something that is in violation of N.C. law for which there are biblical proscriptions,” Gilchrist said.

Two days later, Gilchrist was apologizing.

“I think I meant to say it is proscribed by most of the world religions,” he told The Observer.

He added, oblivious to his own bigotry: “I hope no one thought I was making a religious condemnation of them. As a Christian, I think the Lord loves all of us.”

It’d be years more before arrests and the purposeful targeting of gay men would end in Charlotte. The two meetings and pressure brought by activists, though, began to make change nearly immediately. The same month as the second meeting, Gilchrist dropped two charges against men arrested in local parks in the preceding months.

But, not until 2003, a mere 11 years ago, would most anti-gay police targeting come to an end — stopped by the landmark Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court ruling overturning invasive and discriminatory prohibitions against our acts of love. Even still, unfair police harassment and the legal control over our bodies continued. In June 2007, qnotes ran this headline: “N.C. sodomy law still destroying lives.” In the story, a report of an Episcopal priest arrested for a solicitation of a crime against nature after asking to go to an undercover officer’s home for sexual activities — something clearly and unequivocally not against the law.

Still today, sadly, it’s occasionally possible to land on the “wrong side” of an unjust sex crimes law that destroyed the lives of generations of gay and bisexual men. North Carolina’s crimes against nature law is still on the books. With marriage moving forward — and our relationships ever more recognized in law and society — perhaps the embarrassing era of policing gay sex and love will slip quietly into the pages of history. : :

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer is a staff writer for QNotes. He previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015.

One Reply to “LGBT History Month: Twenty years ago our love was illegal”

  1. Here is a shocking excerpt from Charlotte Magazine in which Peter Gilchrist admits threatening defendants with sodomy if they did not plea guilty and cooperate:

    The DA’s office worked out a strategy with police. An undercover officer would purchase illicit material from a store clerk, and then turn the material over to Gilchrist for potential prosecution. Upon arrest, the store clerk in question would be presented with a letter that outlined a plea: a suspended sentence in return for testimony about the out-of-state crime bosses. Lawyers for those bosses rushed in to post bond for and represent the clerks, discouraging them from accepting the plea bargain while assuring them that the First Amendment would shield essentially any criminality. Knowing that the lawyers were interested in protecting not the clerks but the criminal organization that was paying them, the DA’s office drove a wedge between the lawyers and the clerks by threatening the clerks. “We had to break that relationship between employers and employees,” recalls Gilchrist. “We squeezed ’em,” he says today of the blunt language the prosecutors used with the clerks. “Now you are going to get to experience all this stuff that you’ve been seeing on these videos first hand in the Department of Corrections. Wait till you meet your 300-pound, six-foot-five roommate who’s going to decide you’re going to be a sex toy.” Some clerks caved, and turned against their bosses. Most clerks who stood trial rather than accepted the plea bargain were convicted.

    https://www.charlottemagazine.com/Charlotte-Magazine/December-2010/Being-District-Attorney-Peter-Gilchrist-Looks-Back/index.php?requiressl=true#comments

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