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On December 14, 1982, the Reverend James Santo, pastor of the Mizpah United Church of Christ in Hopkins, Minnesota, went into his church’s basement and lit himself on fire. He suffered third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body and died just days later. His death, and the subsequent investigation, made the front page of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. Its coverage focused on the tragedy. But the reporter buried the lede. Only once did the newspaper mention that “the fire, which police said may have been caused by Santo pouring gasoline on himself, was preceded 12 hours earlier by his arrest on indecent conduct charges in an adult-oriented bookstore in Minneapolis.”1 By the early 1980s, such a charge could only mean one thing: Santo was caught seeking sex with another man.2

The Reverend’s suicide was extraordinary, but his arrest was not. Between November 1979 and March 1985, the Minneapolis vice squad entrapped and arrested thousands of men for using the city’s pornographic bookstores as sites to engage in sex with other men.3 In this regard, Minneapolis was not unique. By the early 1980s, acts of so-called “public sex” between consenting males—and corresponding police campaigns to stamp it out—were common occurrences.4 In Minneapolis, that police harassment did not go unchecked. The end of vice squad entrapment—brought about by openly gay politicians working alongside community activists—demonstrated the rise of a powerful queer political caucus. While local activism certainly predates the 1980s, its increasingly politicized nature as the decade progressed makes the city stand apart. Indeed, when the Minneapolis chief of police made the “decision to diminish police presence [End Page 1] in bookstores” it not only represented “growing gay political power,” but also put Minneapolis at the forefront in the national battle for gay sexual liberation.5 The fight over bookstore sex marks the first time that gay politicians in the American Midwest effectively leveraged their political power to explicitly protect the ability of men to have sex with other men.6

The forced cessation of vice squad entrapment is certainly notable in and of itself. Yet it is also inextricable from the complicated interactions between geography, sexual identity, and power. The spaces these men chose to “cruise” were just as contentious as the sexual act itself. The varied—and often competing—interests of gay sexual liberation, lesbian rights, antipornography feminism, neighborhood activism, and a heteronormative police force, all collided in Minneapolis’s pornographic bookstores. In this contested space, queer men shifted the perception of sexual acts between men from being a municipal “problem” to an act defined by those who participated, and as equally protected as straight sex under Minneapolis law. That decision, in turn, signaled a turning point within the state’s Democratic Farmer Labor (dfl) party. These men—battling in City Hall as well as the city’s bookstores—won their first political victory for gay sexual expression.

Such a victory coming from Minneapolis, however, runs against the grain of the established historiography of gay liberation in the United States. Scholars have traditionally focused on the formation and visibility of queer identities in the country’s coastal cities, often at the expense of the country’s interior. While there is a growing interest in the queer histories of Middle America, the field has traditionally been dominated by municipal narratives centered on the coasts. As scholar Bill Johnson Gonzalez puts it, places like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are simply seen as more “historically important to the formation of US gay identity than those in Middle America.”7 Kale Fajardo notes the parallels between Asian American studies and queer sexualities and the dominance of coastal cities in determining “gay and lesbian spaces, identities, politics and practices.”8 The result is what some academics refer to as the problem of “metronormativity.”9 Gonzalez argues that there is a need to “question and problematize the ubiquity of those narratives in queer culture, both popular and academic, that fetishize such cultural formations, or that treat traveling to or living in the coastal metropolises as a prerequisite for living an ‘authentic’ queer life.”10

The coastal cities’ reputations for more openness regarding sexuality often derive from comparisons with the county’s interior. Introducing [End Page 2] a recent special issue of glq on the queer Midwest, scholars Martin Manalansan, Chantal Nadeau, Richard Rodriguez, and Siobhan Somerville observe, “when imagined in relation to other regions in the United States, the Midwest is often positioned as the ‘norm,’ the uncontested site of middle-class white American heteronormativity.”11 In this framework, the Midwest serves as the thing to be reacted against. Harvey Milk’s gay liberation requires a foil of gay repression. Gay activist Carl Wittman’s take on San Francisco in the early 1970s illustrates this brand of regional bias. He describes the city as a “refugee camp for homosexuals,” before going on to explain that “we came not because it was so great here, but because it was so bad there.”12

The battle over queer sexual expression that took place in Minneapolis’s pornographic theaters and bookstores complicates this regional and spatial binary of sexual liberation and repression. Indeed, the last few years has seen a new wave of scholarly interest in queer lives, identities, and structures, which exist outside of the coastal metropolis. Colin Johnson’s Just Queer Folks examines instances of queer sexuality in rural and smalltown contexts and finds these communities often had “spaces that could accommodate cultures of same-sex sexual activity among men.”13 Brock Thompson uses the concept of “alternative modernity,” to examine queer Arkansans’ ability to “construct enabling spaces in which to negotiate sexuality and desire.”14 In this schema, it is visibility—not authenticity—that grounds the difference between the queer cultures of the “privileged metropolis” and the country’s interior. These cultures existed just as much in small towns like Mansfield, Ohio, as they did in Manhattan.15 Nor was the latter necessarily more tolerant of men having sex with other men. Even in ostensibly progressive cities such as New York, entrapment campaigns were common during the 1970s and 1980s.16 Wittman insists that “cops in most cities have harassed our meeting places: bars and baths and parks. They set up entrapment squads.”17 What makes Minneapolis unique was not that same-sex desire was targeted, but rather, that the city’s queer community leveraged their political muscle to stop this harassment.

For years, men had been using the Minneapolis bookstores—most owned by local pornography magnate Ferris Alexander—as sites for queer sex. During the 1970s and early 1980s, many desired sex with other men yet refused to publicly (or even privately) identify as gay. Here, Michel Foucault’s argument that sexual identity—homosexual or otherwise—is a social construction, matters.18 The connotations surrounding the modern [End Page 3]

Fig. 1. This map shows the locations of pornographic bookstores and theaters operating in Minneapolis during the 1970s and 1980s.
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Fig. 1.

This map shows the locations of pornographic bookstores and theaters operating in Minneapolis during the 1970s and 1980s.

[End Page 4]

notion of “homosexuality” are not biological constants. The influential sexologist Alfred Kinsey also noted this distinction. He argued that there “were no homosexual persons, only homosexual acts.”19 While that may be true, more recently American culture has validated—if not created—the existence of the “homosexual person.” That heavily politicized process is interrogated in Margot Canaday’s The Straight State, which examines the development of homosexuality as a distinct social-sexual category in relation to the broadening of federal political power. Sexual categorizations may be socially and politically derived, but that does not negate their power to construct identities.20 Indeed, the fluidity that surrounds sexual identities makes a powerful argument that sex (the act) and sex (the identity) exist in relation to each other based on contemporary social constructs, expectations, and discourses.

In Minneapolis, Alexander’s bookstores provided an ideal space where men could explore these sexual constructs without adopting an explicitly gay identity. The editors of Geographies of Sexualities suggest that “sexuality—its regulations, norms, institutions, pleasures and desires—cannot be understood without understanding the spaces through which it is constituted, practiced and lived.”21 The influence of space is readily apparent in the male–male sex acts occurring in the bookstores. While much scholarship has centered on the “gay ghettos” of American cities, this work tends to focus on visibly and overtly queer sites—for example, bars, bathhouses, and clubs. The bookstores occupied a more liminal space.22 The Adonis in downtown Minneapolis screened gay films like Men in Leather alongside heterosexual films such as Hot Summer Night and Little Sister.23 The city’s bookstores were certainly sexually charged, but they also resist easy categorization as either gay or heteronormative. Their amorphous nature made these spaces attractive to men who wished to engage in sex with other men while avoiding the heterosexual/homosexual binary. The bookstores were chosen precisely because they were not strictly gay spaces, although they were frequented by openly gay men. The fluidity of the “kind” of sex that many of these men sought—gay sex decoupled from a gay identity—required a comparably fluid space.

The executive director of Gay Community Services Inc., Morris Floyd, made that connection when he told Mayor Donald Fraser that men choose to pursue sex in the bookstores “because they have not yet come to terms with being identified as gay in their own minds.”24 Gary Bankila, a local lawyer who represented hundreds of men arrested for indecent conduct, [End Page 5] also noted the disconnect between the sexual acts of those arrested and their sexual identity. He told the Star Tribune that “nearly half of his clients do not apply the label ‘gay’ to themselves.”25 Minneapolis’s first openly gay council member, Brian Coyle, further highlighted the difference between identity and desire in an open letter he wrote to Mayor Fraser in 1984. He claimed that “a large number of the men arrested are very closeted about their gay identity and activities; indeed, many are married and honestly don’t consider themselves to be gay.”26 Because many of the arrested men remained reluctant to openly identify as gay, when members of the vice squad threatened to “call the man’s wife and/or employer to tell them what happened,” the results could be incredibly damaging.27 According to activist Robert Halfhill, “since most gays are still closeted, bookstores are one of the few places most of us can meet.”28 The GLC Voice, one of the local gay newspapers, put the problem more succinctly: “Does this mean that we think bookstore sex is good sex? No. But it’s better than none at all. Only the demise of homophobia will truly reduce the amount of anonymous gay sex in the world. Arrests won’t help. Ignorance won’t help.”29

Fig. 2. One of the few pornographic spaces that openly advertised its collection of queer pornography was the Adonis in downtown Minneapolis. Although straight porn was shown alongside the “hot male movies,” the Adonis was the closest thing Minneapolis had to an explicitly “gay” theater. <br/><br/>Courtesy: Organizing against Pornography organizational records, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
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Fig. 2.

One of the few pornographic spaces that openly advertised its collection of queer pornography was the Adonis in downtown Minneapolis. Although straight porn was shown alongside the “hot male movies,” the Adonis was the closest thing Minneapolis had to an explicitly “gay” theater.

Courtesy: Organizing against Pornography organizational records, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

For members of the Minneapolis Police Department’s vice squad, it did not matter how these men identified themselves. They saw men having sex with other men in public locations as a problem. They had no issue [End Page 6] with imposing a gay identity on any man who participated in such an act. Some officers were openly explicit in their homophobia. Lieutenant Robert Lutz told the Minneapolis Star that many members of the vice squad avoided using the term “gay” when referring to the men they arrested. Instead, they preferred using derogatory terms such as “perverts” and “faggots.” The underlying assumption was that public spaces should be straight spaces. Officers were quick to highlight the “danger” of non-normative sexual behavior infiltrating heteronormative space. In the same interview, Lutz complained that “homosexuals are in our schools, in our community agencies . . . they are sick, perverted people.” Another member of the vice squad warned that “they show up in the bathrooms at places like Powers and Penny’s. The sick part is that they are involving young kids.”30 These officers were policing the sexual identity of spaces just as much as they were targeting sexual acts between men.

While there were occasional raids of cruising sites in the 1970s under Mayor Albert Hofestede, it was not until Donald Fraser became mayor in 1980 that police enforcement of city ordinances targeting “indecent conduct” dramatically escalated.31 With Tony Bouza, Fraser’s new chief of police, city enforcement shifted away from the sporadic and well publicized busts favored by Hofestede. Instead, the vice squad engaged in continual undercover operations that focused on the men who went to the bookstores to have sex with other men. According to the glc Voice, under Fraser and Bouza the “mass round ups of vice offenders” gave way to “decoy” officers who tried to induce bookstore patrons into touching them below the waist. Such an action provided grounds for an indecent conduct arrest.32 It also generated far less publicity, at least in the local “mainstream” media.

Bouza’s tactics were the result of his tenure as deputy chief of the New York City Transit Police. There—in the city that saw Stonewall—entrapment of men using decoy officers developed into a comprehensive strategy.33 When Bouza came to Minneapolis, his shift in enforcement policy did not go unremarked. The Minnesota Civil Liberties Union (mclu) filed an amicus curiae brief in support of a group of men arrested under the indecent conduct ordinances. The ordinances were unconstitutional, the mclu argued, “because they prohibited private consensual sexual conduct between adults, or they punished mere physical presence in places where such activity took place.”34 Target City Coalition, a local gay rights group, wrote to the Minneapolis City Council arguing that the ordinances were “ludicrously vague.” Despite “explicitly applying to both public and private [End Page 7] behavior,” they were only enforced against sexual acts that could be construed as “gay.” This selective enforcement led “to a steady and continuing succession of bookstore arrests.”35

Mark Weintrob’s experience was typical. On August 17, 1982, he left work and headed to the Adonis Bookstore in downtown Minneapolis. Weintrob went up to the second floor where a small theater advertised “Hot Male Movies” from “Noon to Midnight.” After taking a seat, he noticed a man staring at him in the dim lights of the theater. The two proceeded to engage in the “normal gay male cruising rituals” until the stranger finally took the initiative and asked Wientrob if he would like to “go somewhere a little more private.” Wientrob followed him to a small boiler room. There, the stranger asked: “Are you a cop?” Wientrob responded with a simple: “No.” “Well I am,” the stranger said, “and you’re under arrest.”36

By 1984, the vice squad averaged forty indecent conduct arrests in the bookstores per month.37 Some years, the numbers went higher. One vice officer reported that he and his partner made “between 400 and 500 arrests in one bookstore alone in a six-month period.”38 All told, in the first five years of the Fraser administration, police decoys netted at least 3,500 indecent conduct arrests in the bookstores, with an additional 1,500 arrests taking place in city parks, beaches, and bathhouses.39 The charge of “indecent conduct” itself became almost exclusively reserved for “instances of observed sodomy and other sexual conduct between consenting males.”40

Due to Alexander’s willingness to allow men to use his bookstores for such purposes, his businesses became the preferred venue for anonymous sex between men. The bookstores themselves were mostly comprised of individual viewing cubicles—essentially plywood boxes containing a rudimentary projector that played five minutes of pornographic film for a quarter. Tim Campbell recounted that “Ferris, or his employees, would put holes in [the walls between the cubicles], about the size of an orange, about crotch height,” that “allowed you to have sex with somebody in the other booth.”41

Not only did Alexander let men use his bookstores as sites for sexual encounters, but his pornography empire also provided him the necessary funds to fight off efforts to shut down his businesses. Neighborhood pressure along the Lake Street corridor resulted in a 1977 city ordinance that forced pornographic shops and theaters to locate five hundred feet away from each other and from residential neighborhoods.42 Even though the zoning ordinance prevented new pornographic business, Alexander and [End Page 8] his attorney Randall Tigue obtained temporary injunctions allowing them to remain open while the case moved its way through the courts. In 1982, US district court judge Diana Murphy ruled the ordinance unconstitutional. She noted it would force Alexander to close several businesses without providing any suitable alternative locations.43

Fig. 3. An undated photograph of a demonstration led by the Pornography Resource Center. <br/><br/>Courtesy: Organizing against Pornography organizational records, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
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Fig. 3.

An undated photograph of a demonstration led by the Pornography Resource Center.

Courtesy: Organizing against Pornography organizational records, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

Another option for eliminating pornographic bookstores was to buy them out. Unfortunately for the city government’s antipornography interests, this proved equally ineffective. Alexander repeatedly bought commercial properties in economically depressed areas. Once offended neighbors found out, they pressured city officials to buy the property back. John Cummings, a Minneapolis city planner, noted that “Alexander gets his neighbors terribly upset . . . and then the politicians are under pressure to do something. And usually when the city acquires a property, it ends up paying more than the market value.”44 Alexander sold the property at an inflated price, pocketed the proceeds, and opened a new theater down the street.

Neighborhood leaders were not the only ones opposing Alexander’s bookstores. By the late 1970s a new national feminist antipornography movement took shape, based on the belief that “the primary social sphere of male power resided in the area of sexuality.”45 Those activists believed [End Page 9] pornography to be the clearest manifestation of sexual disparity.46 As renowned feminist Robin Morgan put it in 1979, “pornography is the theory and rape is the practice.” A shared interest in eradicating porn brought the neighborhood groups and the antipornography feminists together. In 1983, the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Pornography Task Force invited Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin—two nationally renowned radical feminists teaching at the University of Minnesota at the time—to help them combat Alexander and his entrenched businesses.47 The two women argued that pornography caused undue harm to women, and as such those women should be allowed to file civil suit against pornographers. This shifted the antipornography movement away from obscenity arguments. Instead, they framed pornography as a civil rights issue. The approach gave the neighborhood groups a new weapon to use against Alexander. That same year, they pushed an antipornography ordinance based on the civil rights argument through the Minneapolis City Council. The national feminist antipornography organization Women Against Pornography (wap) urged Fraser to sign it into law.48 Fraser declined. He argued that he did not believe pornography had a “causal relationship with illegal conduct.”49

The ordinance, and Fraser’s subsequent veto, made front page news in Minneapolis. It sparked a city wide debate on pornography that captivated the local press. In spite of the heightened attention paid to the bookstores, discussion of vice squad entrapment in those spaces remained conspicuously absent. Local mainstream publications generally avoided the topic between 1980 and 1985. Outside of gay and lesbian publications such as Equal Time, the glc Voice, and the Gaily Planet, the constant arrests of men in Alexander’s bookstores rarely garnered media attention.

An unintended effect of the pornography debates was a developing rift between feminists (arguing that pornography constituted direct harm to women) and gay men advocating for sexual liberation.50 In 1980, wap took a stance against both sadomasochism and public sex as “equally reprehensible.”51 Naomi Scheman, a spokeswoman for the city’s Pornography Resource Center, remarked in April 1984 that gay men unwilling to give up the “convenience” of sex in bookstores threatened the wellbeing of women and made them “no ally of mine.”52 In a 1982 community meeting directed at stopping pornography, tensions between feminist women and gay men intensified. A local gay activist, Howard McQuiter, complained that the police focus on Alexander’s bookstores unfairly targeted gay men. Then, lesbian activist Jeanne LaBore countered that she lived across from a pornographic [End Page 10] bookstore and “considered them a neighborhood nuisance.”53 John Stoltenberg, chair of the Anti-Pornography Task Force, did not miss the connections between bookstore arrests and the antipornography movement. “Why are so many gay men on the wrong side of the civil-rights pornography ordinance?” he asked in 1984. “Why do so many gay men want justice for gays who are harassed by police, but not for women who are injured by pornography?”54

Stoltenberg’s question was not an idle one. The tension between the antipornography movement and those opposed to the vice squad entrapment occasionally resulted in very public conflict. In 1982, a group of lesbian women walked out of the Gay Pride planning committee and urged a boycott. Several of those women then organized a “Lesbian Pride” counter-picnic in Powderhorn Park. One of the event’s organizers, a woman identified only as “Ann,” explained to Equal Time that she joined the picnic planning committee because “a lesbian culture has emerged and needs to be recognized.” She went on to target the gay men who supported pornographic bookstores as one of the primary reasons for the split. “All gay issues are not lesbian issues. I’m sick of defending faggots, child sex, bathroom arrests and pornography.”55 Ann’s language was certainly inflammatory, but her frustration did not necessarily originate in the cruising taking place in the bookstores. The sexual acts between men were not the problem per se. The issue was that those acts—and the police response to those acts—threatened to overshadow a burgeoning lesbian rights movement. That perceived marginalization seems to have provoked Ann’s ire.

Importantly, the conflict around pornography did not neatly break down into a pro-porn gay camp and an antiporn feminist one. Local gay activist Larry Larson wrote to Equal Time: “I find porno bookstores with their preponderance on heterosexual sadism literally nauseating. . . . But I also find arresting those gay men who do sexually connect in them also deplorable.”56 Furthermore, while some feminist lesbians campaigned to close down Alexander’s stores, others frequented the gay and lesbian bookstore in Uptown called A Brother’s Touch. There, they might buy copies of On Our Backs, the first pornographic magazine created by and for “the adventurous lesbian.”57

The continuous pressure on the city to do something about pornography certainly helps explain why the vice squad targeted Alexander’s bookstores. Yet it does not satisfactorily explain why the men using those bookstores for cruising were specifically targeted. Although many women [End Page 11]

Fig. 4. The Minneapolis Police Department was frequently targeted by gay activists in the early eighties. The escalating number of indecent conduct arrests as the decade progressed was seen as evidence of institutionalized homophobia. <br/><br/>Courtesy: Organizing Against Pornography organizational records, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
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Fig. 4.

The Minneapolis Police Department was frequently targeted by gay activists in the early eighties. The escalating number of indecent conduct arrests as the decade progressed was seen as evidence of institutionalized homophobia.

Courtesy: Organizing Against Pornography organizational records, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

[End Page 12]

disagreed with the gay men who advocated for the bookstores, few supported actual entrapment. In 1980, Bouza spoke before a community meeting in the Fifth Congressional District to talk about pornography. Members of the local chapters of Women Against Violence Against Women, and wap attended. Although the meeting demonstrated the “tension that has recently developed between gays and some feminists over the issue of adult bookstores,” there was little support among feminists or neighborhood activists for the vice squad arrests. Liz Anderson, Fifty-ninth District dfl Chair, said she was “not offended by gay sex, but I am offended when people say ‘Do you live in that neighborhood?’” Another woman told Bouza that “the problem we see is not the gays in the bookstores. What can we do about the women being hassled on the streets around the bookstores?” The police chief proved either unable or unwilling to separate the men who used those stores as sites for queer sex from complaints about pornography in general. During the same meeting, someone asked about the specific complaints that led him to focus on arresting these men. “You heard the same complaint here tonight,” he replied. “It is a diffuse complaint.”58

When the local weekly City Pages asked Bouza the same question several years later, he offered an equally nebulous explanation: “it’s merely a response to complaints by citizens.”59 Yet a 1985 citywide survey conducted by the city’s Task Force on Neighborhood Crime painted a different picture. The survey asked Minneapolis residents to rank the “most troublesome criminal activity or gross misbehavior” in their neighborhoods. The result was a ranked list of seventeen different “types of activity” that included everything from “tippling houses” to “loitering.” Public sex and indecent conduct did not even make the cut—the only sexual crime listed at all was “prostitution” at number seven.60

While there is little record of any “community pressure” to selectively target the men who had sex with other men in the bookstores, police and political pressure were more explicit. Linda Brown of the Minnesota Committee for Gay and Lesbian Rights asked Bouza during a 1982 meeting on police–gay relations whether or not the vice squad emphasis on bookstore sex was “selective enforcement.” “Of course it is,” he responded. “I’m not going to be a hypocrite and tell you there is no selective enforcement.” Bouza went on to offer a very different version of his earlier “citizen complaint” defense of the vice squad’s entrapment program. “Let me give you an example of the kind of pressure we’re under, I’m not imagining things. A group of judges called us over to the chambers of the municipal [End Page 13] court some time ago . . . these judges berated the mayor and myself on the gay issue. They said we were opening up Minneapolis as a sin city, that we were blind to child-molesting and other crimes they saw as related to the gay community.” Bouza refused to disclose the identity of the judges. That said, he did mention that the conference was specifically called to voice concern over “vice law enforcement not being adequate.”61

These judges were not the only members of the government advocating against the men cruising the bookstores. Homophobic police officers and the anti-Bouza contingent of the force also resisted any change to vice-squad policy because they wanted to put the Fraser administration—and thus Bouza—in an uncomfortable position. When Bouza ordered the vice squad in 1980 to refrain from the big bathhouse “roundups,” many of the officers “flatly disagreed.”62 The chief’s initial willingness to “hire gays for the department” led to protest among rank-and-file leaders in the police department.63 Relations became so strained that the Minneapolis Police Federation mounted a “Dump Bouza” campaign. They tarred the New York City native as a “carpetbagger” and a “faggot.”64

Dean Severson, one of the vice squad officers, went after Bouza specifically in the Minneapolis Police Federation newsletter, Show-Up. He defended several unnamed police officers who “called the gay world exactly what it was, sick, perverted, queers, and faggots [sic].” He finished his article by saying that “anybody who caters to the likes of tim campbell, the editor of the G.L.C. voice and the homosexual world, are either one themselves, or they are profiting in some way from it.”65 Such blatant homophobia did not go unnoticed by members of the local queer community. One such member wrote to Mayor Fraser and suggested that the police department was the progenitor of complaints against bookstore sex. While he admitted that Fraser “may have heard a few complaints about sodomy on the beach,” he argued that there have been “none from the bookstores, I understand, except those created by the police department itself.”66 In response to yet another letter complaining about vice-squad entrapment, Fraser hinted that the problem was indeed with the police. Although Fraser reiterated his commitment to “fair and impartial law enforcement,” he went on to qualify his statement by suggesting that “it takes some time for any administration to influence the behavior and direction of any agency or department, including the police department.”67

While community and feminist activists put pressure on Bouza to act against pornography broadly, specifically targeting the men who used pornographic [End Page 14] spaces as sites for queer sex protected him from critique, both from police officers and from members of the judiciary. “Bouza and Mayor Don Fraser can’t do anything to the vice squad,” Tim Campbell argued. “If Bouza and Fraser tell officers to stay out of the bookstores, they’ll run to the press and say Bouza and Fraser are in favor of sodomy.”68 Stoney Bowden agreed. In a 1984 letter to the glc Voice, he observed that “Chief Bouza either cannot control his bully force, making him grossly incompetent, or he is a phony, quietly condoning what it happening.”69

Despite thousands of such arrests, the charges did not always hold up when challenged. By 1984, Judge Hedlund of the municipal court had dismissed several bookstore arrests, citing the fact that the events did not take place in public and that the arresting officers had given apparent consent.70 The publicity that came with fighting the charge often proved more damaging than the arrest itself. That fear was further complicated because the arrested man could not guarantee that his case would be heard by a sympathetic judge such as Hedlund. The defendant also might face one of the judges who “routinely sign criminal complaints for indecent conduct.”71 Judicial uncertainty, combined with the fear of being outed, meant that only 5 percent of the men charged with indecent conduct actually took the case to court.72 For some, these cases were literally a matter of life and death, as Reverend Santo’s self-immolation suggested. Ironically, since the mainstream press ignored bookstore arrests, many of these men remained unaware of the new entrapment policy under Bouza.

Nonetheless, continued vice-squad harassment spurred a backlash from the openly gay community. Gay activists Philip Wilkie, Stoney Bowden, David Brookbank, Tim Campbell, and Robert Halfhill met with Fraser and Bouza to discuss vice-squad behavior every year between 1981 and 1985. Stoney Bowden, chair of the Police/Community Relations Task Force of the Minnesota Committee for Gay and Lesbian Rights (mcglr), described the vice squad as “a vehicle of gay oppression[,] a symbol of it within the community.”73 Yet none of these meetings resulted in any substantive policy changes.

The many parties committed to closing Alexander’s bookstores—homophobic policemen, antipornography feminists, and neighborhood activists—insulated vice-squad policy from gay community pressure. But when voters elected the openly gay Brian Coyle to the Minneapolis City Council in 1984, the dynamic shifted. One of Coyle’s main agenda items during his election campaign was the improvement of police–gay relations. [End Page 15] In September 1984, Coyle met with Fraser, councilmember Barbara Carlson, and lawyers Ken Keate and Randy Tigue (who regularly represented not only Ferris Alexander but also men arrested in Alexander’s bookstores). Keate and Tigue brought with them three men who had been arrested for indecent conduct. Fraser showed surprise that this type of arrest was still going on, saying, “we’ve had a new policy since May. This is the first time I’ve heard about this.”74 Despite Fraser’s claims of a “new policy,” the summer of 1984 saw the spread of vice-squad entrapment techniques to park policing. The number of gay men arrested in the city’s Loring Park, for instance, increased dramatically.75 This stiffened organized opposition to the city’s use of decoy officers.

In February 1985, activists Tim Campbell and William Johnson joined Ferris Alexander to sue the city over the vice-squad arrests. That same week, an aide to openly gay Minnesota state senator Allen Spear “came within inches of getting arrested in a bookstore.” Spear then called for politicians from across the Minneapolis area to meet with Bouza and Fraser to discuss vice-squad policy. One hour before the start of the meeting, a man beaten by Minneapolis policeman Rick Thomas in the bookstore at Chicago and Lake Street met privately with Fraser. Thomas allegedly assaulted him after the arrest. The damage was severe enough that the victim filed an assault complaint with the Minneapolis Police Department Internal Affairs Unit.76

Immediately after speaking to the man whose face was so mangled that “Fraser’s secretary almost jumped out of her chair,” the mayor met with a veritable “who’s who” of Minneapolis politicians.77 The group that Spear helped gather included state senator Eric Petty; state representatives Lee Greenfield, Karen Clark, Randy Statton, and Dee Long; city councilmembers Brian Coyle and Barbra Carlson; Hennepin County commissioner Mark Andrew; and Minneapolis civil rights commissioner Gary Rankila.78 Afterward, Bouza sarcastically said, “I caved in. I always cave in to every pressure group. Whatever they want. All they have to do is ask me.”79 Despite his mocking tone, the next day Bouza told the Star Tribune that the vice squad would now leave the bookstores alone. Even so, the chief refused to admit that he “caved,” saying, “how anybody on any rational basis could think I would succumb to that kind of pressure is beyond me.”80

Bouza’s refusal to admit that gay political pressure influenced the decision mattered little. The meeting marked the effective end of vice-squad entrapment of men in Minneapolis bookstores. Indeed, only four men [End Page 16]

Fig. 5. Originally a newsstand, Shinder’s “read more” Bookstore added pornography to its magazine racks in the 1970s. Along with the Adonis, Shinder’s has the distinction of being one of the few bookstores that advertised in the local queer press. The bookstore was also the site of one of the most tragic demonstrations of the antipornography movement. Only a few years after this ad appeared in the Voice, Ruth Christianson walked into the Shinder’s lobby, poured gasoline over her head, and burned herself alive. <br/><br/>Courtesy: Organizing against Pornography organizational records, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
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Fig. 5.

Originally a newsstand, Shinder’s “read more” Bookstore added pornography to its magazine racks in the 1970s. Along with the Adonis, Shinder’s has the distinction of being one of the few bookstores that advertised in the local queer press. The bookstore was also the site of one of the most tragic demonstrations of the antipornography movement. Only a few years after this ad appeared in the glc Voice, Ruth Christianson walked into the Shinder’s lobby, poured gasoline over her head, and burned herself alive.

Courtesy: Organizing against Pornography organizational records, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

were arrested for indecent conduct in the month after the change in policy, a precipitous drop from the previous average of forty.81 Yet the successful effort to stop police harassment was only the beginning for gay political activism in the city and state. Less than two years later, Allen Spear and Karen Clark introduced a bill that challenged the Minnesota sodomy statute—effectively legalizing all forms of consensual sex between adult men. Spear went on to focus his energies on passing a state antidiscrimination [End Page 17] bill protecting gay rights. Brian Coyle advocated for aids education and full funding for the city’s civil rights commission.82

In the late 1980s, sex in the bookstores reappeared as a live political issue. Yet it did so in a profoundly altered context. The burgeoning aids crisis led to a renewed effort to rein in institutions and sites that facilitated public sex. This time gay politicians led the charge. Brian Coyle, who was instrumental in ending vice-squad entrapment, sponsored a bill that would force Minneapolis bookstores to remove the doors from their viewing cubicles. The bill in question—similar to the 1984 San Francisco ordinance that shut down the city’s bathhouses—prohibited commercial sites from allowing “persons to engage in sexual activities which include high risk sexual conduct.”83 The bill was not uniformly accepted by the local gay community. Indeed, many saw the legislation as an attack on queer sexuality and practices. Larry Pyers wrote a letter to Coyle to “express my dismay over the newest attack on the bookstores.”84 Another letter, this one from Dean Parkway, asked if “we really need an ordinance that will force secluded behavior into open or more dangerous behavior?”85 Despite such opposition, the bill made it through the city council and in 1988 was signed into law.

While the intertwined issues of sexuality, space, and privacy again grounded the debate, what was critically absent was any attempt to criminalize men having sex with men. The issue was a health one, not one of selective enforcement. Not only had the impetus radically shifted; this time the questions surrounding sexual expression were being posed and answered by the gay community and that community’s political leaders. The entrapment under Bouza was a decision made by politicians who imposed heteronormative notions of morality onto a queer culture operating under radically different social and sexual constructs. The gay community and its new political leaders had no power in shaping municipal treatment toward sexual conduct between men. Yet only a few years after Bouza was forced to end his entrapment policy, gay leaders became the driving force behind the debate.

While police harassment was not the only issue in the city’s gay politics, stopping it was a notable victory. Stoney Bowden told the City Pages in 1983 that “[t]he only thing cops understand is raw political power. At some point, they’ll get wise that a gay city council member is looking at their budget and pension and they’ll think twice about what they do.”86 Bowden’s prediction came true. Indeed, by the mid-1980s, there were more openly gay and lesbian elected officials in Minneapolis than in San Francisco. That growing power also marked a shift in the city’s dfl establishment. [End Page 18] For the first time in the region, openly gay politicians and party members such as Brian Coyle and Allan Spear had successfully exerted their political muscle in order to protect the ability of men to have sex with men. In the process, they drew on a “broad and well-entrenched political base of support for gays.”87 Fraser’s response indicated a growing awareness in the dfl that this newly vocal gay constituency could no longer be ignored. The debates around the 1988 ordinance show that constituency had developed into an unquestionably powerful participant in shaping municipal policy dealing with sex.

In 1982, Mayor Fraser believed “people would just stop going to the bookstores for this after a few arrests. I’m starting to see it’s not so simple now.”88 Those words turned out to be prophetic. Neighborhood residents, feminist activists, the Minneapolis vice squad, and queer men all contested the city’s bookstores and theaters. The resulting tension boiled over into open—and occasionally violent—conflict. Pornographic space in Minneapolis proved to be highly resilient to monolithic moral rendering. Indeed, the multitude of parties engaged in the “porn wars” ensured that the fight would be anything but simple. Yet emerging from this intersectional conflict was a new willingness to leverage gay political power. Gay activism certainly predates the struggle with the Minneapolis vice squad, but examining the battle over the bookstores sheds new light on the fight for queer sexual expression and challenges easy assumptions about the heteronormativity of the Midwest.

Kevin Ehrman-Solberg

Kevin Ehrman-Solberg is currently working toward his M.A. in the Geographic Information Science program at the University of Minnesota. An active proponent of the digital humanities, Kevin’s work focuses on the intersection of space, sexuality, and historical narrative.


1. Paul Klauda, “Minister Dies of Injuries Suffered in Fire at Church,” Minneapolis Star and Tribune, Dec. 20, 1982.

2. Dick Dahl, “The High Price of Vice,” City Pages, Apr. 27, 1983, Minneapolis Public Library Special Collections (hereafter mpl).

3. When describing acts of same-sex desire, I generally avoid using the term “gay” unless the actors openly identified as such. This is done to ensure that when describing sexual acts between men, I do not unfairly impose a gay identity onto the participants. The identities of these men were often quite complex, and in order to respect that nuance, I prefer using broader categorical terms such as “queer” or “men who have sex with men.”

4. For American instances, see William L. Leap, ed., Public Sex/Gay Space (New York: [End Page 19] Columbia University Press, 1999); Laud Humphreys, Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places (Chicago: Aldine Pub. Co., 1970). For international instances, see Catherine Jean Nash, and Alison L. Bain, “Pussies Declawed: Unpacking the Politics of a Queer Women’s Bathhouse Raid,” in Geographies of Sexualities: Theory Practice and Politics, ed. Kath Browne, Jason Lim, and Gavin Brown (Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2007), 159–67.

5. “Gays Rank Other Issues Ahead of Bookstores,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis), Mar. 4, 1985.

6. Although this article primarily deals with queer men’s advocacy, this is not to insinuate that the bookstore arrests were the only live issue in local glbt politics in the early 1980s. Rather, my focus on the complex circumstances that led to the arrest of thousands of men who sought sex with other men necessarily limits the scope of this article. For concurrent glbt issues, see Anne Enke, Finding the Movement: Sexuality, Contested Space, and Feminist Activism (Durham, nc: Duke University Press, 2007); Twin Cities glbt Oral History Project, Queer Twin Cities, ed. Kevin P. Murphy, Jennifer L. Pierce, and Larry Knopp (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); Stewart Van Cleave, Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

7. Bill Johnson Gonzalez, “The Limits of Desire: On the Downlow and Queer Chicago Film,” GLQ 20, nos. 1–2 (Jan. 2014): 15.

8. Kale Fajardo, “Queering and Transing the Great Lakes: Filipino/a Tomboy Masculinities and Manhoods across Waters,” glq 20, nos. 1–2 (Jan. 2014): 118.

9. For a more detailed critique of metronormativity, see Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: New York University Press, 2005); Scott Herring, Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism (New York: New York University Press, 2010); Karen Tongson, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (New York: New York University Press, 2011).

10. Gonzalez, “The Limits of Desire,” 15.

11. Martin F. Manalansan IV, Chantal Nadeau, Richard T. Rodriguez, and Siobhan B. Somerville, “Queering the Middle: Race, Region, and a Queer Midwest,” glq 20, nos. 1–2 (Jan. 2014): 1.

12. Carl Wittman, “A Gay Manifesto,” in We Are Everywhere: A Historical Sourcebook of Gay and Lesbian Politics, ed. Mark Blasius and Shane Phelan (New York: Routledge, 1997), 380.

13. Colin Johnson, Just Queer Folks: Gender and Sexuality in Rural America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013), 187.

14. Brock Thompson, The Un-Natural State: Arkansas and the Queer South (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2010), 9.

15. Johnson, Just Queer Folks, 187.

16. Peter M. Nardi, “Reclaiming the Importance of Laud Humphreys’s ‘Tearoom Trade: Interpersonal Sex in Public Places,’” in Public Sex / Gay Space, 26.

17. Wittman, “A Gay Manifesto,” 384.

18. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1978), 17–35.

19. Jeffery Escoffier, “Sexual Revolution and the Politics of Gay Identity,” Socialist Review 119 (July–Oct. 1985): 15. [End Page 20]

20. Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, nj: Princeton University Press, 2009), 253.

21. Kath Browne, Jason Lim, and Gavin Brown, “Introduction, or Why Have a Book on Geographies of Sexualities?” in Geographies of Sexualities, ed. Browne, Lim, and Brown, 4.

22. Because the bookstores occupied the space between two different worlds, they also served as an introductory point for men who were trying to come to grips with their sexuality. This role is fairly common in spaces that facilitate “public sex,” whether they be bookstores, bathrooms, or bathhouses. Ira Tattelman describes these locations as “erotic environments that celebrated communal sex options. These spaces offered new social structures, pleasure practices and changing definitions . . . [they] created strategic positions from which to construct the ‘meaning’ of one’s own existence.” While this observation certainly takes a sex-positive view in the formation of gay identities, it is worth mentioning that for many, male sex was the only feasible entry point from which such an identity could even be constructed. Ira Tattelman, “Speaking to the Gay Bathhouse: Communicating in Sexually Charged Spaces,” in Public Sex/Gay Space, 73.

23. Robert Sullwold, “Police Close Adonis, Flick Again, Take Films, Lenses,” Minneapolis Tribune, June 8, 1976.

24. Community Meeting on Police–Gay Relations, Feb. 9, 1982, box 6, Brian J. Coyle Subject Files, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul (hereafter mnhs).

25. “Gays Rank Other Issues Ahead of Bookstores.”

26. Brian Coyle, “Coyle and Bouza Face-Off,” letters, Equal Time (Minneapolis), Brian Coyle to Anthony Bouza, June 13, 1984, Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis (hereafter jnt).

27. Brian Coyle, “Coyle Criticizes Vice Squad,” letters, Equal Time (Minneapolis), Brian Coyle to Anthony Bouza, May 30, 1984, jnt.

28. Hearing on Ordinances to Add Pornography as Discrimination, Before the Pornography Task Force Committee, Minneapolis City Council, June 7, 1984 (statement of Robert Halfhill), box 6, Brian J. Coyle Subject Files, mnhs.

29. Tim Campbell, “Bookstores Sex: Therapy is the Answer. Who Should Get it?” glc Voice (Minneapolis), Jan 7, 1985, jnt.

30. Christine Hudgins, “Policy on Gays Has Fraser, Police Battling on the Beaches,” Minneapolis Star, Oct. 14, 1981.

31. An Ordinance of the City of Minneapolis, 385.130–385.180.

32. Dick Dahl, “The High Price of Vice,” City Pages (Minneapolis), Apr. 27, 1983.

33. Anthony Bouza, interviewed by Rebecca Rand, Metropolitan Forum Exclusive, Feb. 23–Mar. 1, 1981, Anthony Bouza Clip File, mpl.

34. Brief for the mclu as amicus curiae, Minneapolis v. Victor, c-0180 (1980).

35. Target City Coalition to Minneapolis City Council, Mar. 17, 1980, Donald Fraser Subject Files, box 9, mnhs.

36. Jennifer Holt, “Whose Conduct was Indecent,” Equal Time (Minneapolis), Feb. 8, 1982, jnt.

37. J. C. Ritter, “Coyle Alerts Fraser on Police Harassment of Gays,” Equal Time (Minneapolis), Oct. 3, 1984, jnt.

38. Dick Dahl, “The High Price of Vice.” [End Page 21]

39. Tim Campbell, “Bookstores Sex: Therapy is the Answer. Who Should Get it?” glc Voice (Minneapolis), Jan. 7, 1985; Tim Campbell, “Police Decoy Operations Lead to Third Death,” glc Voice (Minneapolis), Oct. 1, 1984, jnt.

40. Dick Dahl, “The High Price of Vice.”

41. Tim Campbell, interview by author, Nov. 9, 2013, Minneapolis, in author’s possession.

42. Helen Robinson and Ann Stumme, “The 7th Annual Urban Journalism Workshop Reports on Adult Bookstores in Minneapolis,” advertisement, Minneapolis Star, Aug. 4, 1977.

43. “Empire/Alexander Called a Modern Robber Baron,” St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch, Jan. 26, 1986.

44. Jeffery C. Kummer, “Real Estate Deals Make Big Money,” St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch, Jan. 26, 1986.

45. Ronald J. Berger, Patricia Searles, and Charles E. Cottle, Feminism and Pornography (New York: Praeger, 1991), 35.

46. While this view did not have a monopoly on feminist theory, by the 1982 Barnard conference on sexuality a distinctly “pro-sex” branch of feminism had galvanized, it was one of its most powerful threads. See Carolyn Bronstein, Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, 1976–1986 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 297.

47. Georgina Hickey, “The Geography of Pornography: Neighborhood Feminism and the Battle Against ‘Dirty Bookstores’ in Minneapolis,” Frontiers 32, no. 1 (Mar. 2011): 16.

48. Carolyn Bronstein, Battling Pornography, 325.

49. Martha Allen, “Opposition to Porno Ordinance Surfaces,” Minneapolis Star and Tribune, Dec. 30, 1983.

50. The feminist antipornography movement has traditionally been viewed as a reaction to the perceived violence towards women that pornography could incite. See, for instance, Bronstein, Battling Pornography; Whitney Strub, Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010). But the role that gay men had in this debate has been underexamined.

51. Bronstein, Battling Pornography, 292.

52. Robert Halfhill, “Gelded Faggot,” letters, glc Voice (Minneapolis), Apr. 16, 1984, jnt.

53. Tim Campbell, “Officials Backing Puppet ‘Neighborhood Groups’ in Fight with Bookstores,” glc Voice (Minneapolis), Apr. 5, 1982, jnt.

54. John Stoltenberg, “Pornography vs. Women’s Rights: Which Side Are Gay Men On?” Minneapolis Citizens Against Pornography, summer 1984, Pornography Clip File, mpl.

55. Jill, “Pride Group Snubs Lesbians; Boycott Called,” Equal Time (Minneapolis), June 2, 1982, jnt.

56. Larry Larson, “Dismayed,” letters, Equal Time (Minneapolis), May 14, 1982, jnt.

57. Advertisement, glc Voice (Minneapolis), Sept. 17, 1984, jnt.

58. Robert Halfhill, “dfl, Bouza in Heated Exchange over Vice,” The Gaily Planet (Minneapolis), Nov. 19, 1980, Quatrefoil Library, Minneapolis. [End Page 22]

59. Dick Dahl, “The High Price of Vice.”

60. Task Force on Neighborhood Crime Steering Committee, “Crime, Community, Concern: The Report of the Task Force on Neighborhood Crime,” Dec. 20, 1985, box 6, Brian J. Coyle Subject Files, mnhs.

61. Community Meeting on Police–Gay Relations, Feb. 9, 1982, box 6, Brian J. Coyle Subject Files, mnhs.

62. Dick Dahl, “The High Price of Vice.”

63. Tom Davis, “Police Chief’s Honeymoon Over Before it Begins,” Minneapolis Star, Feb. 12, 1980.

64. Philip B. Taft Jr., “Tony Bouza of Minneapolis: Is He a Reform Chief or a ‘Flake’?” Police Magazine, Jan. 1982, 21, mpl.

65. Dean Severson, Show-Up (Minneapolis Police Federation Newsletter), ed. Donald J. Engel, Feb. 5, 1982, box 9, Donald Fraser Subject Files, mnhs.

66. Art Higinbotham to Donald Fraser, Nov. 3, 1981, box 9, Donald Fraser Subject Files, mnhs.

67. Mayor Donald Fraser to Stephen M. Dent, Feb. 24, 1980, box 9, Donald Fraser Subject Files, mnhs.

68. Dick Dahl, “The High Price of Vice.”

69. Stoney Bowden, “Get Involved Dammit!” letters, glc Voice (Minneapolis), Dec. 17, 1984, jnt.

70. Ibid.

71. Anthony Bouza to Brian J. Coyle, May 18, 1981, box 2, Donald Fraser Subject Files, mnhs.

72. Anthony Bouza, “Coyle and Bouza Face-Off.”

73. Dick Dahl, “The High Price of Vice.”

74. Ritter, “Coyle Alerts Fraser on Police Entrapment of Gays,” jnt.

75. Tim Campbell, “Police Decoy Operations Lead to Third Death,” glc Voice (Minneapolis), Oct. 1, 1984, jnt.

76. Tim Campbell, “Fraser Curbs Sex Sleuths,” glc Voice (Minneapolis), Mar. 4, 1985, jnt.

77. Ibid.

78. Mark Kasel, “Political Leaders Protest Vice Squad,” Equal Time (Minneapolis), Mar. 6, 1985, jnt.

79. Campbell, “Fraser Curbs Sex Sleuths.”

80. Kasel, “Political Leaders Protest Vice Squad.”

81. Tim Campbell, “Local Courts Hand Down Two Friendly Decisions and One Unfriendly Decision,” glc Voice (Minneapolis), Mar. 18, 1985, jnt.

82. “Gays Rank Other Issues Ahead of Bookstores” Star Tribune (Minneapolis), Mar. 4, 1985.

83. An Ordinance of the City of Minneapolis, Section 219 of the Minneapolis Code of Ordinances, Article V.

84. Larry Pyers to Brain Coyle, Feb. 1, 1988, box 11, Brian J. Coyle Subject Files, mnhs. [End Page 23]

85. Dean Parkway to Brian Coyle, Feb. 1, 1988, box 11, Brian J. Coyle Subject Files, mnhs.

86. Dick Dahl, “The High Price of Vice.”

87. “Gays Rank Other Issues Ahead of Bookstores,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis), Mar. 4, 1985.

88. Tim Campbell, “Two Women Judges Throw Out Bookstore Arrests,” glc Voice (Minneapolis), Jan. 18, 1982, jnt. [End Page 24]

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