Longtime district attorney made sodomy prosecution a priority
The Dallas Police Department’s war on public lewdness has raged for a half-century, leaving lives in ruin for thousands of men who paid a tragic price for soliciting sex in public with other men.
In the early 1950s news stories started appearing with increasing frequency in The Dallas Morning News about men being arrested in police raids on public restrooms in hotels and theaters in Downtown Dallas and in public parks. In 1955 the number of arrests crested as dozens of men were arrested, indicted and tried on sodomy charges every month, according to a survey of the newspaper’s historical archives.
In a Sept. 10, 1955, story, the reporter referred to “the almost daily filing of sodomy charges by city police” against men who were apprehended by undercover policemen.
The penalty for consenting adults who were caught engaging in public sodomy which is known as public lewdness today could range from two to 15 years in prison. For first-time offenders, the most common sentence appears to have been five-year suspended sentences, but some convicted defendants received prison sentences of years. Their fate rested with the judge or the jury hearing their cases, after their names and addresses had been reported in the newspaper.
The stepped-up prosecution of public sodomy appears to have coincided with the ascension of longtime Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade in 1951 to the office he would hold for the next 36 years. A former special agent with the FBI, it is probable Wade shared the philosophy of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who is widely rumored to have been a closeted homosexual and crossdresser, and supported the hunt led by Sen. Joe McCarthy to identify and punish homosexuals along with Communists.
In an Aug. 30, 1955, story, the newspaper reported the arrests of 17 men in the restroom of the Fox Theater and the arrest of three other men in an unidentified downtown hotel restroom.
The police department’s pursuit of gay sodomy violations continued through the 1960s and was expanded to include the surveillance of nightclubs where gay men and lesbians met to socialize. In a July 14, 1965, story, the newspaper story reported that the Zoo Bar downtown almost lost its beer license after it was learned police had arrested 43 men in the bar’s restroom on sodomy charges in one year. The judge in the case renewed the license after the owner’s lawyer testified he had always cooperated with police in assisting with the “undesirable” customers’ arrests.
A raid by the vice squad on an unnamed nightclub on the edge of Downtown Dallas in 1964 resulted in 47 people being arrested, according to a Nov. 1, 1964, story. Det. Pat Gannaway told reporters the police had received complaints that the club was a “sex den” and that the majority of the people arrested were “sex deviates.”
Some of the men were dressed as women, and some of the women were dressed as men, he said. Twenty were charged with disorderly conduct, and 25 were charged with suspicion of vagrancy and sodomy.
As the police department’s pursuit of homosexual activity continued in the early 1960s, gay men apparently sought various venues to meet where they were less likely to encounter any unsuspecting straight residents or the police. In an April 9, 1963, story, the newspaper reported that City Councilman Joe Moody wanted the old Dallas Love Field terminal razed immediately because of complaints about “homosexuals gathering for parties in the building.”
Even private residences were not safe from police raids.
In an Oct. 29, 1961, story, the newspaper reported that Lt. Frank Dyson, second in command of the special services bureau, who would become chief of police in 1970, led a raid on an East Dallas apartment with an assistant district attorney to arrest 29 men on sodomy and other morals charges. An undercover police spy had enabled the raid by infiltrating the group.
In 1961, police had estimated the number of homosexuals living in Dallas at about 5,000 when they discovered a “homosexual clan” in Oak Cliff, and by 1967 police officials were referring to the large number of gay and lesbian people living in Dallas as a “sex pervert problem,” according to a May 13, 1967, story.
Lt. Tony Ingargiola, a member of the special services bureau, estimated that as many as 25,000 homosexuals lived in Dallas. He noted that 396 “perverts” had been arrested in the previous year. Police regularly monitored 18 Dallas nightspots where gay and lesbian people were known to socialize, he added.
It wasn’t until 1969, the year of the Stonewall Riots in New York, that anyone targeted in Dallas fought back in court against sodomy law prosecutions.
In a May 29, 1969, story, the newspaper reported that Alvin Leon Buchanan, a Dallas man who had been arrested twice on sodomy charges, filed a lawsuit against the Dallas police vice squad, claiming it had violated his rights under the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, 9th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Buchanan was sentenced in 1969 to two five-year concurrent jail terms for his offenses, which occurred in the restrooms of a Dallas park and a retail store.
Buchanan’s lawyer, Henry J. McCluskey Jr., contended in the federal lawsuit that the state law declaring homosexual acts unlawful was unconstitutional. It noted that undercover police officers had hid in the attics, ventilator shafts and woodwork of restrooms in Lee Park, Turtle Creek Park and the Sears Roebuck store on Ross Avenue to make arrests.
A married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Michael C. Gibson, joined the lawsuit against the sodomy law, claiming they feared the city’s war on sodomy could be extended to straight couples engaged in private acts.
At first Wade claimed the law had never been used in Dallas to prosecute a married couple, but his office later acknowledged that it had once.
A three-judge federal panel seated by Judges Irving Goldberg, Sarah T. Hughes and William M. Taylor Jr., all of Dallas, struck down the state’s sodomy law in 1970 which also prohibited sodomy between a man and his wife saying the state had “no right to dictate the private sex practices of consenting adults,” including homosexuals.
But State District Judge Ed Gossett, in whose court Buchanan was convicted, refused to free Buchanan from prison, referring to him as a “confessed and convicted homosexual.” He condemned the federal panel as liberal judges and accused them of “aiding and abetting” a crime wave.
The federal panel refused to reconsider its decision and Wade appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, writing in his appeal, “Throughout history society has considered sodomy with distaste and revulsion and has passed statutes which outlaw its commission.”
Wade added that sodomy in marriage leads to “revulsion and divorce” and warned that legalizing sodomy would “open Pandora’s box.” He predicted the legalization of sodomy in private settings would set the stage for illegal drug use and even violent crimes to be sanctioned in private relationships.
In the meantime, the Dallas City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting sodomy in public places.
In March 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Texas sodomy law and ordered the lower courts to reconsider rulings striking it down, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the sodomy law.
The police department resumed sodomy arrests after the ruling, and Wade soon announced he would renew prosecutions of sodomy.
In 1973 the Texas Legislature rewrote the state’s sodomy law to exclude straight people, renaming it the “homosexual conduct” law. It called for a $500 fine and a maximum of one-year imprisonment.
It would take two more lawsuits and 30 years before the sodomy law was finally struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Sexual relations between consenting same-sex adults in private became legal in 2003, but sexual activity in public places of any kind remains illegal and a pitfall that can quickly ruin a life. An arrest could mean the loss of a job, reputation or even more.
Anyone who engages in sex in a public place runs the danger of being arrested, tried, and having their name and picture published on the Dallas Police Department’s Web site and in the local media.
A lot has changed in Dallas during the past 50 years. Wade left office and died in 2001, but the vice squad has lived on. It may function a little differently today, but the vice squad’s agenda is much the same as it was 50 years ago.
And with Dallas police recruiting gay and lesbian officers today, it could be a gay vice squad officer making the arrests if that wasn’t the case already before.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 3, 2007