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  • The Battle of the Bookstores and Gay Sexual Liberation in Minneapolis
  • Kevin Ehrman-Solberg (bio)

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...


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