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Journal of the History of Sexuality 15.3 (2006) 462-489

Police Professionalization and the Politics of San Francisco's Gay Bars, 1950–1968
Christopher Agee
University of California, Berkeley

John Mindermann entered the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) as a patrol officer in 1959. Born and raised in San Francisco, Mindermann was the son of a cop, and although he had graduated from college with the intention of becoming a teacher, he eventually followed in his father's footsteps. The hulking, six-foot-plus young man sought a life of adventure in the SFPD. Years later and after he had retired, Mindermann explained his attraction to police work: "I had interests in apprehending bad guys, in getting guns and knives off the street. Like a lot of police officers who were young and physically engaging, I enjoyed physical confrontations. I mean we used to kid among one another, I mean, physical confrontations could actually be good therapy."1

But when the young Mindermann was temporarily assigned to San Francisco's Polk Gulch neighborhood and he encountered his first gay bar, the Cable Car Village, the rookie officer smarted with confusion rather than excitement and pride. "I walk into the Cable Car Village," Mindermann remembered:

and I stopped as I go inside the front door. And I'm shocked because I see nothing but men down the bar, and in the back there's a jukebox, and there's I guess a small dance floor, because I never quite got back that way—it's maybe forty feet. And I see men dancing with each other back there, and whoa! and I stopped. I've never seen anything like this. I look in there and I go wha—could this be a-a-a, in the parlance of SFPD, could this be a "fruit joint"? Well maybe it is. And everything [End Page 462] stops when they see, when they see me. Everybody's apprehensive. They've never seen this guy before, you know. I look in, and I go, "I better not do anything because there's so many of them and there's just me and I have no radio." But I think it's a fruit joint, so I back out and I go about my diligent business.2

Although Mindermann's superiors recognized that Polk Gulch neighborhood contained one of the highest concentrations of gay bars in the city, they had done little to prepare the young patrol officer for his encounter with gay men. Mindermann related that he was only vaguely aware of the mayor's and police chief's various policies on homosexuality. And if the patrol officer had been attuned to his superiors' attitudes, it is unlikely he would have gained a clearer picture of the appropriate course of action. Officers throughout the department often competed with one another to realize different visions of law enforcement, particularly on the issue of gay bars. This interdepartmental tension forced policemen to constantly assess the professional standards of the officers around them. Mindermann's supervising sergeant regulated some gay drinking establishments by collecting payola (meaning police extortion and dubbed "gayola" by the local press in 1960), possibly behind the back of his lieutenant. The sergeant doubted that Mindermann would be willing to work within a payola regime, and when the young officer questioned him about the Cable Car Village, the sergeant nervously insisted that allowing the bar to operate enabled him to locate the city's gay men when he needed to solve violent, gay-related crimes. "My god," Mindermann recalled thinking, "this is police wisdom." The rookie cop's naïveté ensured that he would never again be assigned the Polk Gulch beat.3

John Mindermann's story of shock, ambivalence, personal prerogative, and collegial mistrust challenges academia's understanding of the policing of sexuality. In recent years historical studies by Nan Alamilla Boyd and John D'Emilio have revealed that the...


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