Pride Month Special: “One True Pervert In the Courtroom” – The Trial of Dale Jennings

Here at Lawyers & Liquor we tend to dedicate the third Friday of every month to the discussion of a fetish.  But June has five Fridays, and, as a quick glance at my calendar just informed me, we’re about halfway through this month.  So I thought it may be neat, given that this is a month bedecked in the rainbow vomit and glitter-cannon parades that is Pride, to talk about something more on point with that shit:  Let’s talk about the history of the LGBTQ+ treatment at law in the United States.

That’s right, Boozy’s sticking on the way-too-tight tank top and trimming his beard to make this website the legal version of Growlr for one day only as we dive into the historical treatment of the LGBTQ+ community within the United States.  So smear on your best body paint, cuddle up with the spouse you previously couldn’t marry, and call that one homophobic Aunt that everyone has just to tell them to fuck right off as we talk about Dale Jennings, and how the LAPD totally George Michael’d the fuck out of him…and in doing so helped kick off the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement as we know it today.

…Fucking talk about some shit backfiring, eh?

Things Aren’t Perfect, But 60 Years Ago They REALLY Sucked.

Alright, so we gotta take a moment and inform the younger readers among us that, although they’re certainly aware that America hasn’t always been the greatest at that whole “respecting the rights of people who may want to do the dirty then cuddle up to watch Absolutely Fabulous with someone of the same gender” thing, it seriously wasn’t that long ago that this shit was an active persecution  And it was totally fucking okay.  I mean, dudes, dudettes, and non-binary babes in the woods, you need to understand that the old guy sitting at the end of the bar you were in last week that you poked fun at behind his back because you’re young and don’t realize the creeping perils of age and death come for all of us eventually and your looks will soon burn away under the heat of the years like ashes, leaving you a husk of the person you used to be, weathered and lined but wiser….wait…what was I saying?  Right, right, you guys need to understand and really accept that that old dude at the end of the bar you referred to as a troll likely grew up in an era where it wasn’t like “if we get the chance, we’ll totally arrest a gay guy.”  They grew up in an era where the police said “Let’s go out and actively hunt down the gay guys.”

One of the ways they did this shit was by putting on their very, very best set of clothing, trimming their hair short, and going to the local city parks and various other dark places to cruise for men in the public restrooms.  There old Richard Puller would be, walking into the men’s room at midnight with a little taboo loving on his mind, wanting to wash away the pressures of a world that he existed in but which had loudly and repeatedly announced he could not be a part of.  Some guy at the sink would wink at him, maybe pose suggestively, and motion to some empty stall where they could get to know each other a bit better, and off the two of them would go!  Then, in the stall, fumbling as old Dick Puller attempted to live up to his name for a fleeting few moments of escape and relief at finally being able to be himself, that young man would whip out the biggest, thickest badge Dick had ever seen, and all of the sudden, after an announcement of “LAPD!” he’d find himself being carted off to the nearest station house, completely certain that his life was absolutely fucking over.

“Boozy,” You Say, “You’re Being Hyperbolic!”

Fuck you, no I’m not, it completely was absolutely fucking over.  In the 1950’s, the acts that old Dick Puller may be engaged in were terribly illegal ones.  Also, they were terribly public ones.  If a person contested the charges against them, there would be a trial, and then there would be public scrutiny, and considering that there were public safety films like this piece of shit right here being spread about making sure the public perception of the LGBTQ+ community was they were apparently all pedophilic John Waters impersonators, challenging those charges would have absolutely been out of the question if you wanted to have any sort of social or professional life afterwards.

You’ll also note that film we just linked?  It was from the Inglewood School District.  Inglewood, as in Inglewood, Los Angeles County, California.  So, you know, we’re not just grabbing some random shit from out of nowhere.

Hell, in some places it was patently fucking illegal to serve alcohol to LGBTQ+ people, laws which were explicitly designed to silence and prevent such folks from being able to…you know…form a fucking community.  Liquor authorities all over the country (though most notoriously in New York) would flat-out refuse to issue liquor licenses to any establishment that sought to cater exclusively or predominantly to the LGBTQ+ community.  My assumption is that a liquor commissioner got drunk in college once and cracked open the closet door for his roommate, and was head over heels in love…but then Steve (a jock, but soooooo handsome you guys) found a girlfriend and poor old Commissioner Hyma-man decided he should never be tempted again with the threats of liquor leading him to accept his true nature.  Or some shit.  Look, these asides are written on the fly.

Because even opening a goddamn bar for LGBTQ+ people could get you in trouble, the workaround forced LGBTQ+ bars into a shady connection with the mob in many places…but some more on that in a couple minutes, because we need to get back to Dale Jennings, and how he got arrested for rocking out with his cock out in a bathroom.

MacArthur Park Was Sexy In The Dark.

In the early 1950’s, and before (and really after) them as well, the local public park scene was a gathering place for the LGBTQ+ community.  From Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, to Cherokee Park in Louisville, to MacArthur (then Westlake) Park in Los Angeles.  These family-friendly spaces of picnics and playgrounds became, after the big burning ball of gas in the sky went the fuck to sleep, places the people that couldn’t just…be themselves…anywhere else would gather among the bushes and benches to form a community.  And, you know, other things.  Because other things definitely fucking happened.  Normally in the privacy of the public bathrooms, however.

Which was the situation when Dale Jennings, a decorated World War II combat veteran, respected playwright, and very gay man, went into Westlake Park on a Spring evening in 1952.  While the details of the encounter are lost to time, what is indisputable is that Jennings left the park in handcuffs and the custody of a member of the LAPD, who had arrested him on charges of “Lewd Vagrancy,” the early 1950’s way of saying “cruising for a blowie in front of the urinals.”  Jennings, however, put up a different version of events: that there was no propositioning of the undercover officer and, instead, the officer had attempted – very aggressively – to get Jennings to try and bend him over the toilet specifically to make the arrest.

If some part of your brain is saying “That’s entrapment!” then…well…I mean…in this case you’re probably right.  Because that was essentially Jennings’s defense:  Not only did he not proposition the officer, but the officer was trying actively to make him proposition him for sex.

Now, like we talked about a second ago, a lot of the times when this shit happened gay men would just plead guilty, pay the fucking fine, and go about their merry way to living a life of isolation and fear from ever seeking a human connection because they couldn’t stand the thought of the public embarrassment and professional and personal blowback from being the gay man.  Such is the Hollywood Dream, right?  Muscular guy from the country moves out west, breaks into movies, becomes a star, and lives in absolute goddamn fear of ever being outed because it would destroy him personally and professionally – so he spends decades living in secrecy, never truly free to be himself.

I know.  I hear you saying, as you watch the amazing Neil Patrick Harris tapdance his merry (not Mary) way into the hearts of the American public, “Boozy!  That would never happen.”

Maybe you’re right.

Jennings, however, wasn’t the typical arrestee for the bathroom trick.

Because Jennings?  Jennings had a fucking bone to pick, and rightfully so.

The LAPD Arrested The Wrong Gay Dude That Day.

Dale Jennings was not living his life in some secret shroud of solitude when he walked into Westlake Park in the Spring of 1952.  He had been out and loud since at least 1950, when he and his then-boyfriend attended a meeting of gay men in the Hollywood hills that would become known as the Mattachine Society.  This group, which had become subversively active in the years before as a sort of “Fraternal Organization” of bachelors (definitely a widely-used euphemism of the time), was just starting to spread its wings into being vocal about being gay and demanding attention for the causes closely related to them.

And when Jennings was arrested in 1952, both he and the society saw it as a way to challenge the laws that were being applied to roust and harass the LGBTQ+ community and the outward hostility of the LAPD towards them.  Officers, for many years, had viewed the men of the park as being easy targets – plead out to avoid the taint of gay  in the public eye, never challenge the conduct of the officers who were blatantly preying on repressed men forced into hiding, excuse the entrapment of so many into a guilty plea.  So Jennings decided, with the full force of well-heeled homosexuals behind him, to challenge the goddamn conviction.  The group publicized the living shit out of the trial, too.

As Jennings himself said about the decision to not go quietly away:

 “[T]he moment I was arrested my name was no longer ‘good’ and this incident will stand on record for all to see for the rest of my life. In a situation where to be accused is to be guilty, a person’s good name is worthless and meaningless.”

“One True Pervert”

And what a trial it was.  The case was essentially a he said/he said matter, with the word of Jennings, a known gay man, against the word of the LAPD officer who arrested him.  The officer was under the microscope from the start as Jennings’s attorney, George Shibley, went on the offensive from the beginning.  Here, I’ll let Jennings describe it:

“The attorney, engaged by the Mattachine Foundation,” Jennings explained, “made a brilliant opening statement to the jury in which he pointed out that homosexuality and lasciviousness are not identical after stating that his client was admittedly homosexual, that no fine line separates the variations of sexual inclinations and the only true pervert in the courtroom was the arresting officer.”

Holy fuck did that take some goddamn balls.

And even then, the case kept pounding on the facts and the state of the law at the time, and how the police were being given a free fucking pass to violate civil liberties simply because the victims of the violations were being persecuted socially.  It was, for one of the first times, a political argument that whether or not you liked the life the LGBTQ+ community led, restricting their rights and allowing them to be treated as “less than” the rest of society  was a threat to fucking everyone in the world.  Because, the underlying current went, it wasn’t that being LGBTQ+ was wrong.  It was only deemed that way because society had hysterically decided it was wrong.  And society’s disapproval shouldn’t relegate people to a lower class undeserving of protection.

And they did it after Shibley explained to the jury exactly what it was like to live as an LGBTQ+ person in the 1950’s of America.  Detailing every slight, every persecution, every time the very systems that are supposed to make Americans feel safe and secure are turned against these people simply because of who they love.

You know what happened?

…Jennings won.

In a manner of speaking, at least.

The jury spent 40 hours deliberating on the charges, and came down 11-to-1 for acquittal.  The jury, much like Jennings I imagine, was hung.  A mistrial was declared, and the case ordered for retrial…and then the District Attorney, not wanting to take a risk next time there wouldn’t be a lone homophobic holdout on the jury, dismissed the charges.

“Why Have We Never Heard Of This, Boozy?”

Because prior to 1969, LGBTQ+ rights, events, and victories weren’t publicized.  Period.  While the Mattachine Society sent out press releases fucking everywhere, not a single paper, even locally, covered the trial and outcome.  It was groundbreaking, but it dealt with those dirty gays, so it wasn’t something polite society should hear about.  But the victory helped build momentum for other groups that did hear about it to form and made it clear that, even underground, the LGBTQ+ rights movement was a thing that was fucking happening, whether you liked it or not.

This pattern of silence would continue.  In 1962 Philadelphia’s Janus Society was formed, essentially the East Coast version of the Mattachine Society.  In 1965, when a group of gender non-conforming teens held a sit-in at a local Philadelphia burger joint to protest the management policy of not serving anyone they deemed to be LGBTQ+ and were arrested, the protests surrounding it drew no news.  Neither did the Annual Reminder, a march around Independence Hall on July 4th from 1965-1969.  But whether or not the groups were getting press, they were organizing and building inroads into the LGBTQ+ community, garnering support and resources.

So, on June 28, 1969, when a group of NYPD police officers raided the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City – and without warning because they hadn’t received their motnhly $1,200 payout from the local mafioso “Fat” Tony Lauria that owned the club – the patrons, led by transgender icons and comprised of all forms of the LGBTQ+ community, fought the fuck back for once.  The organizations – Janus, Mattachine, Daughters of Bilitis – which had been formed in the growing gay rights movement of the 1950’s and had organized on the backs of people like Jennings, saw the future lay not in persuading people to look at them as human but rather to demand they do so.  And threw their decade of organizing and funding behind the first Pride Parade in 1970 to celebrate the birth of a new era of LGBTQ+ rights.

Conclusion

Have a good Pride Month, folks.  I got nothing witty here.  Be safe, be you, and above all, be proud.

-BB

 

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