A recent police public sex sting in Johnson City, TN netted 40 men — all of whom had their photos released to the public, something not the norm for Johnson City’s PD in other similar situations. The reason these men were hung out to dry is because they were engaging in same-sex (albeit, illegal) activity. BTW, I’ve been to Johnson City, and let’s just say it’s not exactly a welcoming place to be queer or a person of color. It’s not far from the Western NC border, but it’s worlds away from anywhere I have called home.

Here’s the view of the sting from the Johnson City Press:

The undercover investigation, conducted primarily in Winged Deer and Buffalo Mountain parks, is just the beginning for authorities, who say homosexual activities there have become a “serious problem.”

…”Part of this took place off the paved trails. There’s a thing out there (at Winged Deer Park) they’ve evidently termed the ‘Man Cave,’ ” Lowry said. “It’s a good way off the paved trail. It’s underbrush that’s grown up and resembles a cave.” According to investigators, men frequent the Man Cave at all times of day specifically to take part in sexual activities with other men.

During their investigation, undercover officers often would strike up a conversation with a man who was approaching the trail leading to the Man Cave. The conversation quickly would turn sexual and, many times, led to proposals for sex, police said.

…At least two of the men hold positions of trust within a community. Brent T. Leach, 52, of Johnson City, reportedly works as a teacher within the Johnson City school system while police said Robert E. Riley, 55, of Rogersville, is a pastor at a Rogersville church.

And, given this conservative communities in this region, it’s likely most of these men identify as heterosexual. In the case of Kenneth Giles, 54, he was swept up in the sting and his life has fallen apart:

“I just thought I was in trouble for urinating in public,” he said.

Police allege that Giles exposed himself to an undercover officer. They charged him with indecent exposure and disorderly conduct but did more than just arrest him. Before Giles and the other men were convicted, police released the names, photos and addresses of everyone who had been arrested.

On his way to court, Giles saw his picture in the newspaper and front page headlines. “I was horrified,” he said. He says he was told to plead guilty and did so to avoid a harsher punishment that would have come had Giles pled innocent and then been found guilty. Afterward, his employer fired him. “When I lost my job over it my wife was so upset and distraught and distressed that she had a major heart attack,” said Giles, whose wife died shortly after ABC News interviewed him. “Right now, it’s just about destroyed my life.”

Another man, also named by the police, committed suicide.

Look at the Christian response of Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council below the fold.

Peter Sprigg, senior director of policy studies at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., agreed. “Anybody who’s arrested for any crime, that becomes a matter of public record,” he said. “We don’t grant privacy to people who have been arrested for and charged with crimes.”

I pointed out that some people lost their jobs in Johnson City and that one man killed himself.

That’s very unfortunate,” Sprigg said. “But we don’t make arrest records confidential just in order to protect people’s feelings.”

Kenneth Giles, however, was not going to let his grief get in the way of righting a wrong due to bias. Lambda Legal has filed a federal lawsuit against the Johnson City Police Department (JCPD). (Lambda Legal release [no link]):

“In America, the police do not get to add an extra punishment to people they don’t like,” said Greg Nevins, Supervising Senior Staff Attorney in Lambda Legal’s Southern Regional Office based in Atlanta. “They also do not get to ignore the principle of innocent until proven guilty. The JCPD went out of its way to humiliate Mr. Giles and caused irreparable damage.”

On October 1, 2007 the JCPD issued a press release, personally approved by the police chief, that included photos that were taken at the scene where 40 men, including Mr. Giles, were arrested in a public sex sting. The local news ran the story prominently along with the pictures and addresses of the men involved. Lambda Legal reviewed the police department’s press releases for over a period of a year and found that out of approximately 600 other releases, none pertaining to arrests was accompanied by photos or personally approved by the chief.  Of the 40 arrested, one man has committed suicide, and several others have lost their jobs, including Kenneth Giles, who was fired from his job as a nurse at the VA hospital.

“I don’t understand how the police department can release photos of one group and not any others,” said Kenneth Giles. “I lost my livelihood because my arrest was treated differently.”

Lambda Legal argues that the JCPD violated federal equal protection law by singling out these men for harsher treatment by making their images available to the media.  Indeed, the actions of the JCPD are the latest in a long history of the police going beyond legitimate law enforcement measures to take extraordinary action designed to target gay men for humiliation and harassment.

We’ve been in this Larry Craig/Bob Allen territory before. This always seems to bring up a certain amount of contentious debate about “the right” to engage in illegal public sex vs. the rights of people who expect these places to be free of it.

Personally, I don’t want to see sex going on in public view, het or homo. That doesn’t mean, however, that I believe law enforcement should spend precious time and resources enforcing public indecency laws regarding same-sex public encounters any differently than they would heterosexual ones, and that’s what this lawsuit is about.

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I also want to call your attention to this ABC News article, When Sex Is Not as Private as You Expect. It discusses the ethical and legal dilemmas that have an impact on how communities try to regulate/adjudicate private and public sexual behavior. One section focuses on the infamous ban on sex toys in Alabama. Read what FRC’s Sprigg was asked about the ban — he is all for peeping into everyone’s bedrooms and is proud of it. Big Daddy wants to protect you from that dildo in the store:

“The government is protecting actually the people who patronize those shops because I don’t think it’s in their interest to use pornography and sex toys,” he said.

But don’t adults get to choose what’s in their interest?

“We have to look at society’s interest as well,” Sprigg said. “Society does have an interest in people’s private sexual behavior.

Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding

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