Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

1.4: Criminal Justice

  • Page ID
    68359
  • AT THE END OF PROHIBITION in 1933, state liquor authorities formed to regulate the dispersal of alcohol. These authorities used their power to revoke the licenses of bars that served gay and lesbian clientele. Police enforced the regulation by raiding and shutting down bars that served gay and lesbian people. Purposefully vague local morals, lewd conduct, and disorderly conduct statues permitted police to harass and arrest gay and lesbian patrons with impunity. Because bars were the primary public places where gay and lesbian people congregated, the raids created an atmosphere of fear that permeated the community. Police canvassed and ran entrapment schemes at public areas frequented by gay men. Police selectively arrested gay, lesbian, and transgender people for such transgressions as wearing clothing of the opposite sex, behaving as someone of the opposite sex, or even holding hands with a member of the same sex. Those arrested were vulnerable to violence from police and, if jailed, from inmates. If their arrest became known, they faced the loss of their jobs, eviction from their homes, and social ostracization. Arrestees often had little choice but to quietly pay their fines, rather than contest their arrest in court and have their sexual orientation publicly exposed in local newspapers.

    LGBTQ people were particularly vulnerable to extortion and violence. Victimized LGBTQ people rarely filed charges out of fear of exposure or that they would be the ones arrested. Perpetrators of violence against gay, lesbian, and transgender people could even claim what become known as a “gay panic" or "trans panic" defenses which justified any violence, including murder, in the name of protecting oneself against a same-sex advance. California became the first state to ban the use of such a defense in 2006, and as of 2019, has been joined by six other states.

    Fears of homosexuality led to gay purges in local communities and universities. In Boise, Idaho, fear of an underground homosexual ring led to the questioning of roughly 1,500 people, of which fifteen were sentenced to prison, including one for life. In Florida, a years-long state funded task force successfully removed scores of gay and lesbian educators from public schools. Universities across the country saw an escalation of the expulsion of gay and lesbian students and professors.

    clipboard_e0b68d610882c697e37ad57d0c6a30946.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Pearl M. Hart 1890-1975

    THE FIFTH DAUGHTER OF IMMIGRANTS, Pearl M. Hart left school at fourteen to earn a living. However, she soon returned and earned a law degree from the John Marshall Law School in Chicago in 1914. Hart was the first woman lawyer to practice criminal law in that city, where she became a champion for social justice. As a public defender, she successfully defended women unfairly accused of prostitution and gay men arrested on dubious morals charges. In the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, she defended naturalized citizens accused of subversive activities whom the federal government acted to deport. Hart helped to found and served on boards of many social justice groups, including the National Lawyers Guild and Mattachine Midwest. She taught law at her alma mater and worked pro bono for causes close to her heart. She sympathized with the needs of the most vulnerable in society and actively fought for the rights of children. She lived with her same-sex partner for thirty years and died leaving a meager financial estate and a huge legacy.

    clipboard_e6f60e04bb971bb8ee126795b772ff7c1.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): In 1924 Chicago, Henry Gerber launched the first known homosexual rights organization in America, The Society for Human Rights (SRH). Police arrested Gerber and shut down the organization a few months after its founding. The police confiscated and never returned papers associated with the SRH publication, Friendship and Freedom, as well as Gerber’s typewriter.
    • Was this article helpful?