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For San Diego’s gay community, a high-profile 1974 restroom sting marked both a low point and a turning point.
Hidden behind a vent overlooking a department store’s basement restroom, cops watched men answer the call of nature. Their mission: Nab anyone who seemed to have sexual motives for being there.
Ultimately, they arrested more than 20 men on charges of “perversion” and lewdness, including an El Cajon obstetrician who’d been Richard Nixon’s national campaign director. Everyone’s name appeared in the newspaper along with his address and occupation.
“It was just an ugly thing,” recalled Superior Court Judge Frederic Link, a lawyer at the time who defended one of the men, in an interview. “San Diego was a very anti-gay town.”
Normally when this kind of thing happened, all the men would plead guilty to lesser charges and life would go on. Except it didn’t. The crackdown emboldened San Diego’s emerging gay community to unite in protest, and it sparked a court ruling that declared the search warrant that the police relied on to be illegal.
The protests marked “a very important beginning” for the local gay community, said historian Lillian Federman, who curated a new San Diego History Center exhibit chronicling the region’s LGBT past that includes details about the sting.
From Above, Cops Secretly Watched Men Below
San Diego crackdowns on vice dated back at least to 1912, when a newspaper headline about a downtown prostitution bust declared “138 Are Arrested in Stingaree Raid/136 Promise to Leave City; Two Agree to Reform.” Later, local judges would give male sex offenders a choice of jail or castration, and hundreds reportedly opted for the snip.
By the 1970s, it wasn’t unusual for San Diego cops to target men who sought sex with other men in the bushes and restrooms of Balboa Park.
But the 1974 sting stood out because of its location – in the men’s room of Mission Valley’s landmark May Company department store – and the police department’s elaborate spying set-up.
As Link recalled, the men’s room was just past a basement lunch counter and had an outer room that gave restroom users a heads-up if someone was coming in.
Police officers, who apparently received complaints from the store, constructed a space where they could secretly observe restroom activity through a vent. “You could sit in there and see everything that happened in the bathroom,” Link said.
The cops didn’t like what they saw. On Sept. 13, 1974, under the headline “8 Arrested on Felony Sex Counts,” the San Diego Union reported that eight men were charged with “felony sex perversion” in connection with a restroom sting, and another 15 faced misdemeanor charges.
Each of their names, ages (ranging from 25 to 56), addresses and occupations were listed. They included three teachers, a mail carrier, an optician, a salesman and two physicians.
Among those charged with a felony was a top Republican who was hardly a stranger to San Diego’s elite.
Public Shaming Sparks a Public Outcry
The name of Dr. Gaylord Parkinson, then 56, appeared hundreds of times in the San Diego Union during the 1950s and 1960s. He served as chairman of the state Republican Party and was such an influential ally of a future California governor and U.S. president that Gov. Pat Brown ripped him as “the front man” for “the takeover of the Republican Party by Ronald Reagan and his extremist supporters.”
Most famously, Parkinson came up with the GOP’s 11th Commandment, often touted if not necessarily followed by party leaders like Reagan: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
By 1974, Parkinson continued to practice as an obstetrician and serve as a county planning commissioner. Then came the arrest.
Many of the arrested men chose to plead guilty. This followed the usual storyline of similar situations, said Faderman, the historian. “They would pay their fine, hang their head in shame and that would be the end of it.” This time, things were different.
‘I Prefer Gay Company to the May Company!’
A few of the men, including Parkinson, decided to fight the charges. And different segments of the gay community decided to unite and fight back, Faderman said.
Local gay organizations, including a largely gay church and the city’s gay center, united with the San Diego chapter of the ACLU to decry the arrests.
Protesters rallied outside the department store and the Mission Valley offices of the Union and Tribune newspapers, according to a 2010 article in the Gay San Diego newspaper. They waved signs saying “SDPD Watches While You Pee!” and “I Prefer Gay Company to the May Company!”
“The May Company was scared to death,” one organizer later recalled, according to the article. “They were so afraid we were going to crash our way into the store and disrupt everything inside. The damn fools didn’t understand that half or a third of their staff was gay anyhow, and we had a steady flow of information from inside about what was going on.”
Federman, who’s written books on gay and lesbian history, said the organizers made a savvy decision to focus on police misconduct and public shaming.
“They pointed out that of course they’re opposed to public sex,” she said. “That’s not the point.”
Instead, she said, the issues were entrapment and the “erroneous identification of gay men” with “tearooms” – public restrooms where men seek sex.
“Frequently, the guys who went to tearooms didn’t see themselves as gay,” Faderman said. “They had no contact with the gay community and saw themselves as looking for relief. It was just convenient.”
Indeed, restroom sex stings have snared several prominent men who were married to women and led outwardly heterosexual lifestyles, including an aide to President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and then-Sen. Larry Craig in 2007.
Prosecutors Lose Their Case
Several men – including Parkinson – hired lawyers and fought the charges, specifically a search warrant that was issued in the case.
“You can’t use a peephole over people involved in some of the most intimate activities,” said Link, who successfully defended one of the men. “You’re not just involving people suspecting of a crime. It’s everyone in the community. The search warrant should never have been issued.”
Link and colleagues ultimately persuaded a judge to throw out the charges against 13 men on the grounds that a search warrant allowing the sting was too broad.
The law says “you might have probable cause to go to a certain house because you know certain activities took place,” Link said. “But can’t go down the street and say, ‘Let’s try that house, let’s try that house.’ You were spying on the public for no good reason, involving not just people suspected of a crime but everyone in the community. That was the crux of it.”
It was too late for the other men who’d pleaded guilty. Their pleas – and their criminal records – remained in place.
About 15 years later, Frank Noblietti, then a UCSD graduate student, interviewed Parkinson and several other arrested men for a project. Parkinson, who died in 2010, recalled a public shaming. “He had people calling and screaming horrible things at 3 in the morning,” Noblietti said. But the obstetrician couldn’t leave the phone off the hook because a woman in labor might need him.
“He kept his cool,” Noblietti said. “It struck me that he came out of this as a healthy man. That’s the whole thing: There’s an idea that oh, these poor people: ‘They’re so sick’ or ‘they’re such victims.’ Depending on the person’s perspective, that wasn’t the impression they had.”