PALM SPRINGS, CALIFORNIA – Palm Springs has been a welcoming oasis for gays and lesbians ever since the days of Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter.
But new frictions have arisen between the city’s Police Department and its sizable gay population – estimated to be as high as 30 to 40 percent – over a police sting of gay public sex.
Last summer, Palm Springs police used undercover officers to arrest 24 men in a gay neighborhood for allegedly trying to engage the officers in sex. While few in the gay community defend anyone having public sex – whether gay or straight – the anger is over the unusual charges in the case: The men are charged under Section 290(c) of the California Penal Code, making those who are convicted register as sex offenders for life, their names added to a police database.
That charge is essentially a life sentence, defense lawyers say, and has never been used against straight couples arrested for similar activity in Palm Springs.
Adding fuel to the community anger is surveillance tape shot inside a patrol car during the sting. One officer can be heard using an anti-gay slur, while another officer laughs. All of this flies in the face of city’s reputation as a welcoming place for gays, says longtime gay rights pioneer Cleve Jones, who relocated to Palm Springs from San Francisco 10 years ago.
“They’re really shooting themselves in the foot,” Jones says. “Gay dollars are keeping this city afloat. Let’s get real. The gay events are the largest events in the valley. The gay tourist dollar is crucial to the economic survival of Palm Springs. And this story has spread far and wide across the world, and it will have an impact because people are angry. It’s ridiculous.”
The new scrutiny of the Palm Springs Police Department also reveals that there isn’t a single openly gay male police officer among the 99 officers on the force (there is only one open lesbian), despite the city’s reputation as a gay mecca. Reacting to anger in the gay community, the Palm Springs police chief now finds himself in the position of damage control. Last week, he met with gay leaders, and he brought in an openly gay Los Angeles sheriff’s sergeant to help conduct sensitivity training on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in the Palm Springs force.
The training comes as welcome news to Andy Linsky, a prominent gay rights activist and a member of the LGBT Police Outreach Committee. “It’s definitely necessary because if they’ve done it before, then it hasn’t necessarily taken root. So it’s good they’re doing it again,” Linsky says, noting that he speaks for himself, not the board.
But another member of the police advisory board, Thomas Van Etten, is calling for the chief’s ouster.
“I’ve called for his resignation because the police chief is using tactics that we have not seen since Stonewall. For the Palm Springs police to pull something like this is incomprehensible,” he said.
The chief is also reaching out to several LGBT publications to stress that the police do not discriminate against gays.
Discrimination, however, is the basis of the defense’s case, because straight couples arrested in similar cases have never been charged as lifelong sex offenders, says attorney Roger Tansey, who is representing several of the men arrested.
He maintains that it was the police who instigated any encounters in the sting.
“A typical scenario,” Tansey says, “would be a couple of cops, who were dressed in tank tops, would walk around grabbing their crotches and staring at the defendants’ crotches saying, ‘Show me what you got. Show me what you got.’ In no case did they come upon any man already having sex.” Tansey adds that “in many cases the defendants were reluctant to participate and wanted to go back to a room or someplace more private and were coaxed to stay and allegedly expose themselves by the officers.”
The economic fallout on the city is not lost on City Manager David Ready, who says, “Palm Springs is very concerned and spends a significant amount of resources on tourism as our driving economic factor. So anything that affects tourism is of great concern to the city. That being said, the chief is doing his internal review of this sting operation, and he will be making recommendations on our policy going forward.”
The chief will make those recommendations this month to the City Council, three members of which are openly gay, as repercussions from the sting make this desert summer even hotter.
from The San Francisco Chronicle