Now that Pride month is over and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising has come and gone, the marking of this milestone year will now be written into the history books. The most significant—perhaps “remarkable” is the better word—legacy of this year’s celebration is the official apology issued by the NYPD. Commenting on the raid that helped spark the modern LGBT+ rights movement, Commissioner James O’Neill publicly stated, “I do know what happened should not have happened. The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong — plain and simple. The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive, and for that, I apologize.”
Better late than never. But there is much more to apologize for. Especially in New Orleans.
Police raids of gay and lesbian bars were de rigueur in New Orleans until the 1980s. In the 1930s, the Wonder Bar had to move out of the French Quarter because of incessant police raids. Owner Emile Morlet sought an injunction against the police; when it was denied, he moved his club to the Lakefront, which in the 1940s became the Club My-O-My!
In the 1950s, the city officially adopted a “climate of hostility” toward gays and lesbians and Police Chief Provosty Dayries actively and aggressively sought to rid the city of gays and lesbians.
1958 witnessed multiple raids of Tony Bacino’s bar, which resulted in an unsuccessful civil suit filed against the city. The infamous raid of the Krewe of Yuga Ball occurred in 1962. In 1971, Lynn Frank and her short-lived Gay Liberation Front marched on City Hall demanding an end to police harassment. Throughout the 1970s, the vice squad regularly entrapped gay men at the public restrooms at the swanky department stores on Canal Street as well as at the bathroom at the French Market near the intersection of Dumaine and Decatur Streets. And the NOPD’s response, or lack thereof, to the arson at the Up Stairs Lounge in 1973 was unconscionable.
Things began to change in the early 1980s. In the summer of 1980, a political action group called LAGPAC (Louisiana Lesbian and Gay Political Action Caucus) was formed and one of its first orders of business was dealing with police harassment.
In October of 1980, LAGPAC officials met with New Orleans Police Chief James Parsons to discuss the issue of police harassment. In an effort to foster understanding and develop relationships, the group also participated in a softball game organized by Skip Thibodeaux between police officers and members of the gay community. LAGPAC was successful in ending the routine procedure of asking new hires if they were gay and in the creation of a police liaison to the gay community. Despite these efforts, attitudes on “the Force” toward gays and lesbians were slow to change.
On the weekend of April 24, 1981, the New Orleans police conducted a massive “sidewalk sweep” outside several gay bars, including the notorious Jewels (on Decatur street) on Friday night and two lesbian bars—Diane’s and the Grog (both on N. Rampart Street)—on Saturday night, and arrested close to 100 people and charged them with “Obstruction of Free Passage.” In other words, they were standing on the sidewalk.
The mass arrests aroused the ire of the gay community and a protest rally was held at the Catholic Community Center, of all places. The Director of the Center at the time was a gay man. The arrests also led to the creation of the Crescent City Coalition. On May 4, LAGPAC leaders John Ognibene, Rich Sacher, and others met with Mayor “Dutch” Morial with questions and six demands:
1) that all the charges against those arrested be dropped,
2) that an independent investigation be conducted into the motivation of the arrests,
3) that disciplinary action be taken against the arresting officers for harassment,
4) that regular meetings be held between the police, the mayor’s office, and the gay community,
5) that sensitivity training be included in the Police Academy, and
6) that the mayor make a statement regarding non-discrimination in his administration.
Most of the demands were met; however, an independent investigation was never completed, and no officers were disciplined. The meeting also led to a police training program. At LAGPAC’s urging, the City Council authorized the establishment of the Office of Municipal Investigation to examine allegations of police misconduct.
Another complaint against the NOPD in the early 1980s involved the use of Field Interrogation Cards. These were index cards that beat officers would use in the field to gather information about individuals in an effort to fight crime. Several gay men complained that they had been detained by police at random while the cards were filled out. The cards had been used in New Orleans, and other cities, for years. According to Superintendent of Police Henry Morris, the cards had helped reduced crime in the French Quarter significantly and that homosexuals were not being targeted. LAGPAC disagreed.
By the 1990s, police raids of gay bars in New Orleans were a thing of the past, but bigotry and prejudice lingered. Today, the NOPD has a contingent in the Pride Parade. While great progress has been made, police attitudes toward transgender folk are still behind the times. And just last month, when the NOPD debuted rainbow Pride badges, the backlash from the trans and queer community was swift and, from some, severe. This reaction demonstrates that while some progress has been made, there is still much to make. An official apology from the NOPD would be a step in that direction.