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Vice Patrol

Cops, Courts, and the Struggle over Urban Gay Life before Stonewall

Vice Patrol

Cops, Courts, and the Struggle over Urban Gay Life before Stonewall

In the mid-twentieth century, gay life flourished in American cities even as the state repression of queer communities reached its peak. Liquor investigators infiltrated and shut down gay-friendly bars. Plainclothes decoys enticed men in parks and clubs. Vice officers surveilled public bathrooms through peepholes and two-way mirrors.
In Vice Patrol, Anna Lvovsky chronicles this painful story, tracing the tactics used to criminalize, profile, and suppress gay life from the 1930s through the 1960s, and the surprising controversies those tactics often inspired in court. Lvovsky shows that the vice squads’ campaigns stood at the center of live debates about not only the law’s treatment of queer people, but also the limits of ethical policing, the authority of experts, and the nature of sexual difference itself—debates that had often unexpected effects on the gay community’s rights and freedoms. Examining those battles, Vice Patrol enriches understandings of the regulation of queer life in the twentieth century and disputes about police power that continue today.

See the author’s website.

360 pages | 16 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2021

Gay and Lesbian Studies

History: American History

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Society, Legal History

Sociology: Criminology, Delinquency, Social Control


"With precise details and careful analysis, Vice Patrol tells a fascinating story about how the policing of homosexuality from the 1940s to the 1960s was far more contradictory and contested than we might think, and how courts of law played a crucial role in the emerging understanding and visibility of LGBT life."

The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide

"In Vice Patrol: Cops, Courts, and the Struggle Over Urban Gay Life Before Stonewall, Anna Lvovsky examines with both precision and breadth a time period during which litigants in queer society encountered considerably greater difficulty in the justice system... This important book casts new light on the legal intricacies and political realities of anti-gay legislation several generations before courts began looking with disfavor on laws stigmatizing or even criminalizing members of the queer community."

Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books

“Lvovsky has done incredible detective work to take us deep inside the machinery of antigay policing during its peak years. Focusing on three distinct sites—the regulation of gay bars by state liquor agencies, the work of plainclothes decoys, and the policing of public restrooms through ‘peepholes’—Lvovsky shows that a legal system we assumed to be monolithically repressive was in fact internally divided about these practices. This subtle and smart book not only illuminates the boundaries around sexual difference but criminal justice as well. Revelatory in every sense of the word.”

Margot Canaday, Princeton University

"Lvovsky takes the vice patrolman—the villain who lurks at the edges of virtually every work of the queer communities that flourished in twentieth-century U.S. cities—and insistently pulls him into the spotlight. Vice Patrol is ambitious, meticulously researched, exceptionally well-conceived, and startlingly original. It deserves a wide readership among historians of law and legal history, LGBTQ history, urban history, and the history of policing and punishment. It is, in fact, a tour de force that will be read and reread by every scholar in the field and will lead us to ask new questions of our sources in the years to come."

Timothy Stewart-Winter, Rutgers University

“Lvovsky has written a splendid, insightful history of anti-gay policing in mid-twentieth century America. Vice Patrol shows how investigatory tactics evolved and how they prompted and were in turn shaped by debates about the nature and prevalence of same-sex desire, the appropriate limits on law enforcement, and the kinds of authority and expertise that should matter in answering those questions. It's a gripping read, combining rich, ground-level detail with sober assessments of what those decades-old struggles signified and what lessons they hold for us today.”

David Sklansky, Stanford Law School

“’The 'police’ and ‘the gay community’ are often portrayed as monolithic entities. In Vice Patrol, Lvovsky shows how each entity revealed the extraordinary diversity of the other through their interactions in the pre-Stonewall United States. This is the debut of an important new scholar, who can etch a legal world in scrimshaw with strokes that are both bold and sure.”

Kenji Yoshino, New York University School of Law

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


ONE / When Anyone Can Tell

TWO / Expert Witnesses on Trial

THREE / Plainclothes Decoys and the Limits of Criminal Justice

FOUR / The Rise of Ethnographic Policing

FIVE / Peepholes and Perverts

SIX / The Popular Press and the Gay World


List of Abbreviations

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