News Analysis: Local alt-weekly exposes faults of gay men (and metro police, too)

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Historically, the gay populations of America – particularly the men – and local police forces have not enjoyed the most cordial of relations. Gay author John Rechy practically built a career around his much published experiences in the 1960s and 70s outwitting the boys in blue of Los Angeles while fulfilling his need for frequent, and public, sex.

And while the twenty-first century has brought with it new forms of hooking-up in the gay male community by means of the Internet, it has also brought to the fore the (now dubiously) legal accoutrements used by some men during those trysts.

Yes, the authorities are watching.

No, it’s not clear whether “poppers” are legal.

Only three weeks after Nashville police busted all of 12 men in a park sex sting (and in which one of the inhalants now referenced by police was shown clearly on the television broadcasts), the Nashville Scene detailed the sorry gendarme parable of “Steve” and the far from random nature of police protection in Nashville. (see related story, “Metro police, gay leadership clash” on front page)

The catch that burns so many in our community is that police were surfing through a web of self-identified homosexuals who, in many instances, were using the online forum only to arrange such trysts. Not solely to deal drugs.

What’s up in the air now – aside from the continuing moral implications of the metro police use of confidential informants – is whether the popular sex drugs commonly known as poppers are legal, and whether a police force engaging gay men in online forums to weed out drug use is justifiable.

“The substance is illegal, whether or not the DA wants to go forward with the charges,” Eric Snyder told me. He’s the investigative lieutenant of metro’s Hermitage precinct, the unit that carried out the sting. He conceded, though, that simple possession of poppers is not illegal. Similar to paint sniffing and trading prescription medications, he said, the intended use of the substance is key.

The Nashville Scene has called local police on its use of so-called “confidential informants” in the past. In mid-January of this year, writer Matt Pulle (who also authored this most recent chronicle, “Policing Gays”) filed the story “Private Dicks,” which outlined the metro police use of paid confidential informants in its crackdown on adult businesses here in town – a practice it proved to be “risky…if not flat-out wrong.”

“We found it unusual and foolish,” Pulle told me. “And the DA’s office agreed with us.”

Well-coordinated stings like this one are usually prepared well in advance and, most notably, operate with full cooperation and understanding between police and the district attorney’s office. As Pulle documented in ‘Policing Gays,’ that was not the case this time. Though it was presumably for the purpose of internal politics that prevented District Attorney General Torry Johnson from offering a full quote, Pulle nevertheless disclosed a freely recognized issue that exists between some members of the local police and its DA office.

“(The DA) office has been working for months now to moderate some of the more aggressive tactics of the cop shop,” he reported. In a society where every citizen who’s ever seen an episode of ‘Law & Order’ understands how closely DA’s offices and police forces are allied, this local disconnect is very revealing.

The Scene’s collection of articles pertaining to the metro police use of confidential informants details the pratfalls inherent to such under-the-radar schemes utilized to maintain the peace. The perspective that the Scene undertook with this recent article relays what they consider to be a seemingly routine misuse of police resources. Though editorially the Nashville Scene may appear to be a politically Left-leaning publication, it used the gay angle this time only as an example of the string of controversial “confidential informants” metro police have been utilizing.

With regard to gay Nashville specifically, this most recent tale presents a far greater issue regarding the ways we look at our community.

Steve’s case may sit in limbo now, but the legal issue in most all of the others is not so ambiguous. Did police specifically target gay men? Is the drug problem in gay Nashville so out of control that police felt the need to focus on this community?

‘Out & About Newspaper’ has considered many times the possibility of documenting the overwhelmingly large online community that gay men in town have created. Critics suggest the rise of various Internet sites designed for dating (ironically, in some instances) may have pulled the rug of “community” out from under us.

A writer to Andrew Sullivan’s popular weblog, www.andrewsullivan.com, commented on the volatile mixture of singles online and the rise of methamphetamine use within the nationwide gay male community, concluding…

“The computer offers a safe place to connect for instant porn, in-and-out sex, and if the drugs make us feel that much better about the whole process, then what the hell. The problem lies in the isolation that accompanies online sex, dating, and life nowadays. The drugs comfort that need, and increase the isolation. Must we rip these people from behind the computer screen to experience life and share the world?”

Simply: drugs are bad. And illegal. Gay or not, if you have any on you, you’re breaking the law. Investigative Lieutenant Snyder told me that, save for Steve’s precarious predicament, all 16 of the other indictments involved illegal substances. Unquestionably.

“With the exception of … the person they (in the Scene article) called Steve, all 16 had known illegal narcotics on them,” he said. “Ten of them had meth.”

A complicated issue, yes. Where does the community stand? Not surprisingly, it is divided. Some have chosen to focus on the questionable actions of the police, focusing on the “Steve” character and considering his experience proof to the claim of police power abuse. Others wonder if police would’ve had any reason to “abuse” their power in the first place if gay men weren’t so willing to advertise their access to illicit drugs.

So did police specifically target gay men? No more than they would target any other identified cluster of drug use. Note as well that “Policing Gays” itself documents the fact that many of the men the informant approached online declined him outright at the mention of illegal drug use.

Is the drug problem among gay men in Nashville bad enough to warrant a specially-coordinated police sting? The role of this particular informant here is key – one suspects that if the informant hadn’t suggested the possibility of finding gay men with drugs in online chat rooms, the police wouldn’t have engaged in this sting at all.

Which isn’t to suggest police believe “the gays” are the only drug dealers in town. Two days after the Scene article was published, metro police sent out a media release which indicated 91 people were arrested that week – that week alone – with drug-related charges. Of those 91 people, none involved crystal meth. Compare that to the 10 arrests involving that drug in this case. Does it reveal a pattern?

Ask Frank Sanello. The author of “Tweakers: How Crystal Meth is Ravaging Gay America” (Alyson Publications), who spoke with over 250 users and drug counselors, plainly states his understanding in the book’s introduction.

“Although this drug is not discriminating about whose lives it will destroy, crystal use has had a particularly devastating impact on the gay community.”

Ultimately, if the Scene has requisitely embarrassed the police force and the DAs office enough to take care of its bad apples, the community should focus on the community issue that has been presented.

We know the same symptoms that cause alcoholism, for example, have contributed to relaxed attitudes regarding safe sex in recent years and have created a drug-laden subculture within this community. And even if not, we now know what “pnp” means, we know drugs can be easily found in (some of) the clubs, that it’s clearly available freely online.

Only now does it become clear just how important a geographically-defined hub would be for our community. With Church Street developing into that hub, we’re becoming more prepared to honestly ask ourselves, ‘what does a strong, healthy GLBT community look like?’

When we find some answers, we need to put those plans in place as soon as possible.

If we want to label ourselves – or, literally survive – as a community of likeminded people, we need to take care of our own. We tell the world we’re responsible enough for the rite of marriage, and that we’re unified in our quest for it, yet we sidestep any opportunity to prove to ourselves that we actually care, not only about our immediate circle, but for everyone in this community.

This is not a call for vigilante justice. But is it too much to ask our leaders to find and deliver to us some healthy alternatives?

The widespread use of drugs among gay people, and men in particular, is a nationwide problem, but it’s one we can work locally to contain. Ironically, our local police – while using questionable methods – have done us the favor of pointing out flagrant drug use among us. It’s far more than we ourselves have ever done to tackle a problem we all know exists.

We can’t build any form of community, nor can we bring about understanding from our heterosexual neighbors, if we don’t expand our goals beyond simply changing laws.