Police bathroom stings driven by homophobia

The Baltimore Sun

BOSTON -- Well, that didn't take long. A mere five days from the Roll Call revelations to the presumed resignation. When Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho got caught in a sex sting in a Minneapolis airport restroom, Republican stalwarts broke the speed record turning him from the distinguished senator into the disgusting senator. Gay rights groups did not rise to the defense of their public enemy. The only politician expressing empathy for Mr. Craig was James E. McGreevey, the "outed" former governor of New Jersey who is now - you cannot make this stuff up - in divinity school.

By Tuesday, even Idahoans thought it was all over. The most popular news on the Idaho Statesman Web site was about a female rock climber who got her long hair caught in the ropes while rappelling.

Now what's happening? It looks like Mr. Craig's "intention to resign" left a loophole as wide as his stance. If he can fight off the charges to which he pleaded guilty, his spokesman and his lawyer now say, he might not resign.

I have no desire to throw myself between Mr. Craig and the madding crowd. He was never my kind of senator. I don't want to send my grandson into a public restroom used for assignations. Nor do I enjoy watching another humiliated wife standing by her husband.

But I have to agree with Sen. Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, in separating the law from the lewd, the criminal from the yucky. What law did this sad sack of a 62-year-old senator with his ludicrous explanations actually break?

Mr. Craig was charged with violating privacy under what is essentially a Peeping Tom law. The charge was dropped because it never would have held up. He then pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. But what exactly was the disorder or the conduct? Soliciting sex in a public place? In fact, all he did was tap his feet and put his hand under a stall. As Dale Carpenter at the University of Minnesota Law School notes, there was no specific sexual allegation, no indecent exposure, no money, no abuse, and the other man - the police officer - tapped back. "Can't you send ambiguous signals in Minnesota without it being a crime?" asks Mr. Carpenter.

The "stinger," lest you forget, was a 29-year-old officer with a master's degree. He must have been trained in gay codes before being assigned to sit in bathrooms waiting for a flirtatious shoe. Isn't there a murder to be solved in Minneapolis?

Sex stings to catch gays have been around for more than a century. Sodomy itself was illegal in Minnesota until 2001. It was a "crime against nature" in Idaho, punishable by five years to life in prison. Then, in 2003, the Supreme Court finally overturned all the laws against sodomy.

Today, the same people who couldn't legally have sex can get legally married in Massachusetts, and form civil unions or partnerships in six other states. In the midst of the Craig debacle, an Iowa court briefly allowed gay marriage. But last fall, Idaho joined the vast majority of states in voting to ban it.

What a time of duality. Leading Democratic candidates for president flocked to a gay forum and pledged allegiance to civil unions - but not marriage. Many Republican pols split between private acceptance and public hostility, welcoming Mary Cheney's baby and rousing the religious right.

Yet the stings go on. Mr. Craig was only one of 40 arrested since May in Minneapolis. There were 45 arrested in the Atlanta airport this year. How many elsewhere? There must be saner ways to keep a restroom from becoming a meeting ground, better than using a dubious law that shames men into pleading guilty for the same reason Mr. Craig did: humiliation and the fear of exposure. "I don't call media," said the police officer. But exposure often follows. So too, the loss of a license or a lifetime of registering as a sex offender.

Mr. Craig is trapped in the time warp of same-sex relationships that now run from anonymity to marriage, from the closet to the altar.

Whether he resigns or not, I hope Mr. Craig does fight the charge against him. "I am not gay," he insists. Indeed, he's fought gay rights at every turn. How perfect if his last public service is taking the anti-gay venom out of the sting?

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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