Pam Spaulding

Tennessee: public gay sex sting results in lawsuit over bias

Filed By Pam Spaulding | September 30, 2008 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Bob Allen, Family Research Council, homophobic behavior, Johnson City, Kenneth Giles, Larry Craig, law and order, Peter Sprigg, public sex, sex toy ban, Tennessee

A recent police public sex sting in Johnson City, TN netted 40 men -- all of whom had their photos released to the public, something not the norm for Johnson City's PD in other similar situations. The reason these men were hung out to dry is because they were engaging in same-sex (albeit, illegal) activity. BTW, I've been to Johnson City, and let's just say it's not exactly a welcoming place to be queer or a person of color. It's not far from the Western NC border, but it's worlds away from anywhere I have called home.

Here's the view of the sting from the Johnson City Press:

The undercover investigation, conducted primarily in Winged Deer and Buffalo Mountain parks, is just the beginning for authorities, who say homosexual activities there have become a "serious problem."

..."Part of this took place off the paved trails. There's a thing out there (at Winged Deer Park) they've evidently termed the 'Man Cave,' " Lowry said. "It's a good way off the paved trail. It's underbrush that's grown up and resembles a cave." According to investigators, men frequent the Man Cave at all times of day specifically to take part in sexual activities with other men.

During their investigation, undercover officers often would strike up a conversation with a man who was approaching the trail leading to the Man Cave. The conversation quickly would turn sexual and, many times, led to proposals for sex, police said.

...At least two of the men hold positions of trust within a community. Brent T. Leach, 52, of Johnson City, reportedly works as a teacher within the Johnson City school system while police said Robert E. Riley, 55, of Rogersville, is a pastor at a Rogersville church.

And, given the conservative communities in this region, it's likely most of these men identify as heterosexual. In the case of Kenneth Giles, 54, he was swept up in the sting and his life has fallen apart:

"I just thought I was in trouble for urinating in public," he said.

Police allege that Giles exposed himself to an undercover officer. They charged him with indecent exposure and disorderly conduct but did more than just arrest him. Before Giles and the other men were convicted, police released the names, photos and addresses of everyone who had been arrested.

On his way to court, Giles saw his picture in the newspaper and front page headlines. "I was horrified," he said. He says he was told to plead guilty and did so to avoid a harsher punishment that would have come had Giles pled innocent and then been found guilty. Afterward, his employer fired him. "When I lost my job over it my wife was so upset and distraught and distressed that she had a major heart attack," said Giles, whose wife died shortly after ABC News interviewed him. "Right now, it's just about destroyed my life."

Another man, also named by the police, committed suicide.

Look at the Christian response of Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council.

Peter Sprigg, senior director of policy studies at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., agreed. "Anybody who's arrested for any crime, that becomes a matter of public record," he said. "We don't grant privacy to people who have been arrested for and charged with crimes."

I pointed out that some people lost their jobs in Johnson City and that one man killed himself.

"That's very unfortunate," Sprigg said. "But we don't make arrest records confidential just in order to protect people's feelings."

Kenneth Giles, however, was not going to let his grief get in the way of righting a wrong due to bias. Lambda Legal has filed a federal lawsuit against the Johnson City Police Department (JCPD). (Lambda Legal release [no link]):

"In America, the police do not get to add an extra punishment to people they don't like," said Greg Nevins, Supervising Senior Staff Attorney in Lambda Legal's Southern Regional Office based in Atlanta. "They also do not get to ignore the principle of innocent until proven guilty. The JCPD went out of its way to humiliate Mr. Giles and caused irreparable damage."

On October 1, 2007 the JCPD issued a press release, personally approved by the police chief, that included photos that were taken at the scene where 40 men, including Mr. Giles, were arrested in a public sex sting. The local news ran the story prominently along with the pictures and addresses of the men involved. Lambda Legal reviewed the police department's press releases for over a period of a year and found that out of approximately 600 other releases, none pertaining to arrests was accompanied by photos or personally approved by the chief. Of the 40 arrested, one man has committed suicide, and several others have lost their jobs, including Kenneth Giles, who was fired from his job as a nurse at the VA hospital.

"I don't understand how the police department can release photos of one group and not any others," said Kenneth Giles. "I lost my livelihood because my arrest was treated differently."

Lambda Legal argues that the JCPD violated federal equal protection law by singling out these men for harsher treatment by making their images available to the media. Indeed, the actions of the JCPD are the latest in a long history of the police going beyond legitimate law enforcement measures to take extraordinary action designed to target gay men for humiliation and harassment.

We've been in this Larry Craig/Bob Allen territory before. This always seems to bring up a certain amount of contentious debate about "the right" to engage in illegal public sex vs. the rights of people who expect these places to be free of it.

Personally, I don't want to see sex going on in public view, het or homo. That doesn't mean, however, that I believe law enforcement should spend precious time and resources enforcing public indecency laws regarding same-sex public encounters any differently than they would heterosexual ones, and that's what this lawsuit is about.


I also want to call your attention to this ABC News article, When Sex Is Not as Private as You Expect. It discusses the ethical and legal dilemmas that have an impact on how communities try to regulate/adjudicate private and public sexual behavior. One section focuses on the infamous ban on sex toys in Alabama. Read what FRC's Sprigg was asked about the ban -- he is all for peeping into everyone's bedrooms and is proud of it. Big Daddy wants to protect you from that dildo in the store:

"The government is protecting actually the people who patronize those shops because I don't think it's in their interest to use pornography and sex toys," he said.

But don't adults get to choose what's in their interest?

"We have to look at society's interest as well," Sprigg said. "Society does have an interest in people's private sexual behavior."

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I grew up in east Tennessee and got out of there as fast as I could. It sounds like things haven't changed that much.

I don't encourage or condone public sex. It sounds like the "Man Cave" was quite remote, and not likely for children or non-sex-seeking adults to wander into. Better, but still technically illegal.

Personally, I think that the men should go to a private home ("My place or yours?") and have at each other legally. "Want to [do such-and-such] with me right here?" might be an illegal proposition, but "Feel like coming home with me?" almost certainly isn't.

I do not blame these men for getting arrested, in the sense that I would not say that they got what they deserved. However, I will say that (1) Yes, they were breaking the law, and (2) they were being rather stupid about it. Had they known more about a few fine points of law, they could have avoided getting arrested (if the law enforcement officer plays by the book --- and if he doesn't, that alone constitutes grounds for a false arrest lawsuit.)

There is one thing you should always ask a stranger before suggesting anything even marginally illegal. Be direct about it and ask, "Are you any type of law enforcement agent?" The courts have ruled that they can evade this question if you let them, but they cannot lie outright. Do not let them evade. Ask the question again and again if you need to, or withdraw from the situation if you don't get a direct answer.

And don't show your private parts without asking that question first. In the US, it is that simple. (You would think that George Michael could remember such simple rules, but apparently he can't.)

Unfortunately, closeted men who seek sex in this manner tend not to read blogs like Bilerico. But they have to find out about the "Man Cave" somehow, and if they would pass these words of advice along when they tell a new guy about the Man Cave, a sting like this could become very difficult to conduct. Sadly, my bet is that some of these men felt either consciously or unconsciously guilty, and did things that precipitated the arrest upon themselves. As we've seen so many times before, one of the most important reasons for coming out is so that one can more stridently nurture one's own mental health.

Now we have been over this territory before, men having sex with other men in public places is not only stupid, it is illegal. Hell anyone having sex with anyone else in public places is illegal, and more often than not stupid as well.

But for men, it goes a whole step beyond stupid. This society is out to get you, even more so than they are out to get men picking up hookers and having sex in public with them. I mean we could get into the whole "blame society" bit, for creating an atmosphere that forces men to closet their feelings and their orientation so that they feel the need to go out and find partners in such a fashion, but that is just a cop out in the end. Two wrongs do not make a right.

Men are horndogs, straight or gay, they are just big horndogs who too often let their dicks do their thinking for them. They just make it too easy for some redneck jerk with an authority complex to set up a sting to catch them. For that, I have little sympathy for them. They deserve to get caught and have to pay whatever fine that the local system wants to throw at them.

However, this does go beyond the usual little games that the police like to play. Busting the local hook up spot is all well and good, it pays the expenses and provides some needed funds for the local constablary in these tough times.

This added twist of publically shaming them is going a step too far though. The police chief and the city should be hung out to dry for it. Not only is it discriminatory and creates the atmosphere of a witch hunt, it destroys a source of local revenue! I mean the chance of them being able to pull this sting ever again is pretty much gone now that they have exposed the players.

Yeah the city manager should fire the police chief for such gross stupidity. Now all they have left is the speed trap!

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | October 1, 2008 11:01 AM

Men are horndogs? That is as much of a generalization and stereotype as suggesting that all Lesbians are butch, all gay men are florists, homosexuality is a choice, or all transvestites wish to be trans sexuals.

I have to agree with AJ. But I would also add that if you don't think I am worth half a hotel room fee because your wife might find out, good bye.

Okay Mr. "I am Not A Horndog" riddle me this;

How many women, besides working girls, since they are, umm, working, get picked up in these type of stings?

How often do you hear of parks and other such places being infested with "cruising" ladies just looking for a little 'afternoon delight'.

Of course it is a generalization, and a bit of a stereotype, that is what is fun about such things, there is usually at least a smidgen of truth and fact to them.

When writing a nice tongue in cheek bit about these sort of things it adds a nice touch to throw something like that out there, since many guys can look at it and go; "Oh yeah, I remember that time following my dick got me in soo much trouble."

I bet you love to critique the Three Stooges too!


Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | October 1, 2008 11:13 PM

Gosh, I would have to know more about such things. Ummm, the fact that I have tried to live my life honestly puts me at something of a disadvantage.

Are you really meaning to critique to the level of the stooges? Zzzzzzzz, zzzzzzzz!

This whole thing reeks of stupidity and smalltown prejudice. I hope he sues them for untold millions.