A brief history of Kentucky anti-LGBTQ police harassment

by Kathryn de la Rosa

New York’s second annual Queer Liberation March, a protest march against NYC Pride organized by the Reclaim Pride Coalition, came to an early end last month when NYPD officers started making arrests and brutalizing protesters with pepper spray and blunt force. This year’s march specified liberation for trans and queer Black lives, in solidarity with Black-led movements to defund and abolish the NYPD.

The cop- and corporation-free march moves in the opposite direction of NYC Pride, physically and ideologically. “We March in our communities’ tradition of resistance against police, state, and societal oppression,” the coalition’s website says. “We March against the exploitation of our communities for profit and against corporate and state pinkwashing, as displayed in Pride celebrations worldwide, including the NYC Pride Parade.”

The Stonewall riots of 1969 were, of course, in response to a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, and an explosion after decades of police harassment of queer community gathering spaces in New York City. That legacy spans the whole of the United States and isn’t restricted to white, cis gay men arrested for sodomy and crossdressing.

The Movement for Black Lives has platformed prison abolition, an end to cash bail, and the diversion of public funds away from policing since 2016—policy proposals that have gained traction throughout this summer of ongoing protest. 

When Reclaim Pride describes a “tradition of resistance,” this is it. We take our cues from Black revolutionaries who’ve acted against the carceral state and state violence for decades. We can talk in circles on mythmaking around who threw the first brick at Stonewall, but what matters is Black trans women were the vanguard of this uprising, and queer and specifically trans Black folk experience police harassment and violence on a frankly genocidal level that non-Black queers do not.

With the LMPD under increasing scrutiny for the murder of Breonna Taylor, its treatment of protesters, its role in gentrification, and a 2020-21 metro budget that doesn’t touch the agency’s funding, it’s worth learning how racist and homophobic police harassment intersects in queer Kentucky history.

These accounts are all drawn from the Kentucky LGBTQ+ Context Narrative, a 2016 project of the UofL Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research. It was principally authored by Dr. Cate Fosl and presented in partnership with the Fairness Campaign, the National Parks Service, and various state heritage offices. It’s a very comprehensive history from a combination of interview subjects and archival sources, available to download in full here

June 1889: Two Black men are arrested for cross-dressing in Louisville

A Courier-Journal brief from June 7, 1889 is titled “‘Female Impersonators’ Arrested.” It’s a short, two-sentence account, and per Dr. Fosl, the eventual fate of these two is unknown.

“John Phillips and Hiram Belt, colored, were arrested at 1 o’clock this morning on Green Street, between Sixth and Seventh, by Officers O’Brien and Hickney,” it reads. “They were dressed in women’s clothes, wore wigs, bustiers, pads, and all the numberless unmentionables, which they considered ‘attractive’ in their characters of ‘female impersonators.’”

Green Street is now Louisville’s Liberty Street, adjacent to Muhammad Ali Boulevard—the former Old Walnut Street. Phillips and Belt were arrested in what, at the start of the 20th century, would be a thriving Black business district spanned 6th to 13th Street along Walnut Street. It was effectively decimated by Urban Renewal initiatives in the 1960s, and displaced Black families and businesses to the West End. Police history of monitoring and clearing out Louisville’s Black communities is well over a century old.

1909: Two Black men successfully challenge the state’s sodomy law in western Kentucky

Kentucky’s state code has prohibited consensual sodomy (KY Rev Stat § 510.100) since 1860, and while the Kentucky Supreme Court struck it down in 1992, it’s still on the books, for some reason. it was even revised as recently as 1975 to specify that oral sex counts as sodomy.

That increased restriction came several decades after two Black men in Caldwell County successfully appealed sodomy charges against them for that exact reason. In 1909, C.H. Poindexter and Frank Moore were caught having oral sex and charged with sodomy. They were each sentenced to two years for this felony conviction, and on the advice of their lawyer, appealed on the grounds of the law’s vague definition of sodomy. The Circuit Court judge raged and called for the criminalization of oral sex, but he reluctantly overturned their convictions because “only penile-anal penetration constituted sodomy,” legally speaking.

1960s–1980s: Entrapment by Lexington, Louisville and northern Kentucky police

In 1961, police raided the men’s bathroom of a Greyhound bus station in Lexington, apparently after 10 men solicited an undercover cop. Interviewed sources told Dr. Fosl the Lexington police “often employed attractive male criminal justice students from Eastern Kentucky University to entrap gay bar patrons.”

Police used similar entrapment tactics to sweep gay meeting spots like “rest areas along I-75 in Florence and Covington” in the mid-1980s. And in Louisville, plainclothes police officers posed as gay and solicited men for sex in Cherokee Park, arresting 24 men in September of 1986.

It was the 1985 arrest of Jeffery Wasson and 18 other gay men in a Lexington PD sting operation, and Wasson’s subsequent appeal, that led to the Kentucky Supreme Court to rule against the state’s sodomy statute in 1992.

1971: Louisville police raid the Gay Liberation Front house

15 women and two men—including lesbian marriage pioneers Marjorie Jones and Tracy Knight—founded the Louisville Gay Liberation Front in July 1970, a local answer to New York’s Gay Liberation Front. Founders identified it as a leftist group named in honor of socialist Black and women’s liberation fronts. A house they used for meetings colloquially known as “the Gay Lib house” was raided by Louisville police in late 1971. They made 30 arrests, and while most charges were dropped, the Louisville GLF dissolved by 1972, and its members would disperse as near and far as Lexington and California.

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