A recent lawsuit filed by a Baltimore lesbian-feminist against a San Francisco lesbian-feminist, two high-profile heterosexual underage sex cases, and the raid on the male escort advertising website Rentboys.com by Federal Homeland Security agents and the NYPD has gotten us thinking about the use of state power to address community grievances and enforce moralistic sex codes. It’s our belief that sexual minority peoples and communities should be extremely suspicious of state power.
In August, Baltimore lesbian-feminist Cathy Brennan filed suit against San Francisco lesbian-feminist Joey Stevenson and a company that owns a website geared to lesbian and bisexual women, alleging defamation. (See Article in Baltimore OUTloud, September 4, 2015 issue.) Brennan is a prominent and controversial lesbian-feminist who opposes gender-identity protections that she fears come at the expense of women and girls. She claims in her lawsuit that Stevenson and the website criticized her positions on gender issues in a defamatory way. Brennan is seeking at least $70,000 in damages and an injunction. Stevenson and the website denied the allegations.
Also in August, the newspapers ran two stories of underage sex by high-profile people, one national the other local. Jared Fogle of Indiana, longtime spokesperson for the Subway sandwich shop chain, is expected to plead guilty to possessing child pornography and crossing state lines to pay for sex with at least two underage 16- and 17-year-old girls. Locally, Molly Shattuck, a prominent woman and onetime Baltimore Ravens cheerleader who is the ex-wife of a prominent utility company executive, pled guilty to performing oral sex on a 15-year-old youth who was a high school classmate of her son. And on August 25, Federal Homeland Security agents and the NYPD raided the office of Rentboy.com and arrested seven people, including the CEO. Federal prosecutors called the website an Internet brothel promoting illegal prostitution.
While the lawsuit and these criminal cases may appear unrelated, it is precisely their juxtaposition that makes our case: namely, that government power can be dangerous for LGBT people and our communities. We believe that LGBT people should always be vigilant about how the government uses its power and take care when asking for state intervention.
We at Baltimore OUTloud are no stranger to lawsuits intended to settle disputes within our communities. We have been on the receiving and giving end in this regard. In 2003, we were sued by the GLCCB within a week of our initial issue. Several years later, we returned the favor and sued the Community Center. At the time, our lawsuit against the Center made sense to us, but in retrospect, we now view it as a misguided distraction from the real battles facing our communities.
Men who grew up in the pre-Stonewall 50s, 60s, and even afterward, knew all too well that contacting the police could be a disaster and to only do that in a life or death emergency. In those days, interactions with the authorities by gay people were almost always negative. Although we have gained increased visibility and acceptance in the last five decades, and there are out police officers and police liaisons, the fundamental nature of police power is a scary thing and we should avoid invoking it and encountering it except in the most extreme circumstances.
Back in those prehistoric times, a 15-year-old boy receiving oral sex from an older woman would bring bragging rights and celebration. Also back then, a teenaged boy having sex with a man – sometimes for money, sometime not – was, at least in some working-class communities, an accepted rite of passage and something to enjoy. Now experiences like this bring harsh penalties, with the youths being seen as abused and victimized. This is a new construct arising in part from the emasculation of boys and the victimization narrative that is the central justification for state intervention. Everyone must wait for the magic legal age to have sex. How does that work in the real world of teen desire? Yes, rapes occurs and other coercive sexual relationships happen. However, it should not be the age difference between sex partners that defines a relationship.
Certainly, in this current age where sex abuse is seen everywhere, where all sex between a teenager and an older person is labeled pejoratively as “pedophilia,” and where sex-offender registries, civil confinement and other so-called protection tools of the state proliferate, sexual liberation and sex affirming communities are on the run. Although the onset of AIDS clearly put an exclamation point on the emergence of a virulently sex-negative antidote to the liberation of the late 60s and early 70s, some place the beginning of the backlash to the alliance of some radical feminist with the right-wing anti-pornography movement churning in the mid-70s. Certainty the state has taken advantage of all opportunities to insert itself into matters of private sexual conduct and this oppressive trend keeps growing. The new buzzwords are sex trafficking and campus sexual assaults, but it is the same anti-sex narrative that allows the coercive arm of the state to intrude with devastating consequences
There is a bright spot in this sad tale, where liberation has been replaced by assimilation, where we look to the state to protect us with hate-crime laws and we file suit to address private wrongs, and that is the public outcry over the Rentboy.com raid and arrests. We are heartened by the outrage and demonstrations that it has triggered in the LGBT and allied communities and among civil-liberties groups. We had feared that this type of response to something that is so sexual was beyond the capacity of the organized movement. How uplifting to see a community response to this sexual oppression: something more than the constant drum-roll about marriage equality, military service, and lesbian and gay families coming from the Human Rights Campaign and the various groups with “Equality” in their names.
The use of the courts to address a dispute among individuals may not appear to be in anyway connected with the collective enforcement by “The People” of the criminal laws with the devastating effects prosecutions can have on all who are caught up in them. But it is when our communities look unquestionably and uncritically to the state as an ally, that we find troubling. We certainly understand that not all laws are bad, that some such as anti-discrimination laws protect us, but we should not look to the government for solutions. Before we go off dancing with the state, we should realize that it could be a very bad date indeed!
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