By Yasmin Nair
In 1977, Anita Bryant launched her crusade against a recently passed Dade County, Fla., ordinance that banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. As the leader of a coalition named "Save Our Children," Bryant and her supporters tapped into an old perception of gays as sexual predators of children.
In a now-famous statement, she declared, "As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children." Bryant's campaign led to the repeal of the ordinance but paradoxically also became the beginning of the end of her career, alienating her from some conservatives and liberals alike.
In the years since Bryant's campaign, there has been a palpable shift in cultural responses to gay and lesbian issues, with several polls indicating greater support for issues such as marriage equality. But the figure of the gay man in particular as a sexual predator still haunts culture and continues to re-emerge.
In 1955, Boise, Idaho, erupted in a sex scandal where nearly 1,500 men were questioned about allegedly having coerced underage young men into sexual acts. There was no such sex ring, but countless lives were scarred forever.
This April, as the gay marriage debate reached the U.S. Supreme Court, two married gay men in Connecticut, George Harasz and Douglas Wirth, decided to fight charges that they had sexually abused children in their care. In a sign of how differently such cases are still treated in the mainstream press, the website Gay Star News' headline stated, "Gay couple accused of child abuse go to trial to clear their names." New York's Daily New headline ran, "Gay Connecticut couple accused of raping adopted children will face trial."
Since 1977, sex offender registries (SORs) have been instituted in every U.S. state, ostensibly to prevent sexual abuse of minors and others by tracking everyone convicted of sexual abuse.
But according to a growing number of critics across the political spectrum, SORs have also increased so much in scope, by including even acts like public urination in the category of sex crime, that they've become virtually meaningless. In addition, SORs place so many residential and vocational restrictions on offenders that larger numbers are unable to return to society with places to live and stable systems of support.
In Illinois, registered sex offenders cannot live within 500 feet of any school buildings or have trade licenses. Illinois also mandated in 2011 that the licenses of medical and health professionals convicted of sex offenses can be permanently revoked without a hearing. Increasingly, many offenders across the country simply end up homeless.
The term "sex offender" is rarely uttered at gay and lesbian public events, raising as it does an old and timeworn stereotype that still causes fear because of its automatic association with terms such as "pedophile" and "sodomite." To date, none of the major gay and lesbian organizations has explicitly taken a position on issues concerning sex offender registries.
But there are in fact gay sex offenders on the registry, and there have always been widely sensationalized cases of alleged and real sexual abuse of children by men who also identify as gay.
Tracing the specific effects of sex offender registries on LGBTQ people reveals that both terms, "LGBTQ" and "sex offender," are fraught with multiple tensions and definitions. For instance, not all people convicted for sex offenses are LGBTQ, but the sexual acts, such as oral and anal sex, which place them on the registries are defined as "crimes against nature" in certain states.
The circumstances in which LGBTQs find themselves on sex offender registries both challenge the applications of such terms and hark back to older and still-prevalent ideas about sexual minorities.
The fact both sex offenses and sex offenders fall into such diverse and disparate categories also explains why it has been hard to mobilize a concerted political movement against the prevalence of SORs.