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Queer expertise: Urban policing and the construction of public knowledge about homosexuality, 1920–1970

Queer expertise: Urban policing and the construction of public knowledge about homosexuality, 1920–1970
Anna Lvovsky


History of American Civilization Program, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.


This dissertation tracks how urban police tactics against homosexuality participated in the construction, ratification, and dissemination of authoritative public knowledge about gay men in the United States in the twentieth century. Focusing on three prominent sites of anti-homosexual policing—the enforcement of state liquor regulations, plainclothes decoy campaigns to make solicitation arrests, and clandestine surveillance of public bathrooms—it examines how municipal police availed themselves of competing bodies of social scientific information about homosexuality in order to bolster their enforcement efforts, taking into account such variable factors as the statutes authorizing their arrests, the humors of the courts, and their need to maintain public legitimacy. Lending the authority of the state to their preferred paradigms for understanding sexual deviance, and attaching direct legal penalties to anyone who tried to disagree, the police influenced whether—and when—new scientific research about homosexual men reached the mainstream public and was embraced as authoritative. Even as vice squads’ anti-homosexual campaigns allowed them to amass increasingly sophisticated and rarefied insights into the urban gay world, however, police officers consistently denied their reliance on any “expert” knowledge about homosexuality in court, legitimating their tactics on the basis of public’s ostensibly shared knowledge about gay men. Tracking the history of urban vice policing alongside the shifting landscape of popular knowledge about homosexuality, this project examines both the ambivalent place of “expertise” in public debates about sexual deviance in the United States, and the multifaceted origins and repercussions of the lay public’s evolving knowledge about gay communities in the twentieth century.