Justified, But Insensitive

SCIENCE CENTER ARRESTS:

THE arrests of 12 men on charges of "open and gross lewdness" in the Science Center bathroom over the past several weeks has provoked a storm of protests from campus gay activists. They complain that the police were insensitive in the handling of the arrested men and that the recent crackdown on sexual activity in the Science Center is necessarily a symptom of hatred of gays.

On the first count, they are right. On the second count, the evidence is far less conclusive.

The Harvard Law School Committee on Gay and Lesbian Legal Issues charged last week that Harvard and Cambridge police had harassed the arrested men, and demanded that the University administration require Harvard police to undergo sensitivity training in gay and lesbian issues.

In the case of the Cambridge police, they have a legitimate complaint: Cambridge officers insisted on wearing latex gloves when they fingerprinted the arrested men, a practice that Cambridge police Capt. William R. Burke called "a precaution...to prevent the spread of AIDS."

This practice must end. Although Burke said that the use of rubber gloves is not limited to handling of gay detainees, the Cambridge police evidently assumed that AIDS is spread through casual contact, such as holding down a person's hand on an ink pad. It isn't.

The use of gloves in booking the men was less a public health measure than a way for police officers to demonstrate their contempt for the arrested men.

Morris Ratner, chair of the Law School committee, also charged that Harvard police verbally harassed the arrested men. If they did, it was also unacceptable. Harvard should institute sensitivity training on sexual orientation for its police force. Powerful societal actors have a responsibility to use their resources to eliminate bigotry.

THE committee's larger complaint is not about the treatment of the men in custody, but the Harvard police's concerted policy of arresting men found engaged in sexual activity in the bathroom.

In a letter to The Crimson, Rattner and Jarret T. Barrios '90, co-chair of the Harvard-Radcliffe Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Student Association (BGLSA) charged that the crackdown on bathroom sex was motivated solely by "the perhaps unconscious manifestation of a deep-seated ignorance and fear of gay people and gay sex."

While there is likely some truth to the assertion, it is overly simplistic to attribute the arrests solely to pervasive homophobia. It seems just as likely that the motivation for the crackdown stems from a long history of using the Science Center bathroom as a "tearoom" for anonymous sex between gay men. These men have reportedly repeatedly made unwanted sexual overtures towards Harvard students and staff. It doesn't matter whether the propositions were heterosexual or homosexual--the University has a responsibility to keep such activity out of its restrooms.

That means eliminating public sex from the Science Center. The BGLSA and the Law School committee argue that the arrests by plainclothes officers were unnecessary, and that posting a uniformed guard or a sign that says "No Sex" would suffice.

A UNIFORMED guard would undoubtedly be effective, but only if one were posted 24 hours per day, a tremendous waste of resources given other campus security needs.

The idea that simply posting a "No Sex" sign would eliminate sex in the bathroom is ridiculous. One might as well post a "No Armed Robbery" sign in a bank. A sign recently installed in the bathroom warns that the premises are periodically patrolled by plainclothes officers. This should eliminate the objection that off-campus men will not be forewarned of the arrest policy.

But that sign would be useless without a commitment to enforcement. The police should continue to deter would-be offenders with the prospect of arrest. Eventually, these men will learn that the Science Center is no longer a good place to pick-up, in much the same way they first learned that it was a good place.

A more serious objection to the arrest policy is that the punishment does not fit the crime. Those arrested are usually closeted gays, who are presumably pushed into anonymous sex by their inability to publicly reveal their sexual orientation.

Rattner correctly points out that the public record of the arrests can literally ruin their lives. Witness a Belmont High School swim coach who resigned in the wake of the incident.

It is truly unfortunate that the coach lost his job. But Harvard cannot be responsible for the homophobia of others. It can and must be responsible for the security of its property and students. So the issue comes down to whether sex should be allowed in Science Center bathrooms.

SOME of the arguments against the arrest policy are transparent veils for defending the practice of anonymous public sex. Rattner and Barrios write that bathroom sex is a "victimless crime" and that the University's opposition is caused by a "selective sense of decency"--as if there were some inalienable right to have sex in public.

Gay activists are wrong to imply such a blanket defense of anonymous sex in public places. Such action only reinforces the vicious stereotype of homosexuals as depraved.

The Science Center arrests have revealed that Harvard and Cambridge need to better train their police forces to be made more aware of methods of transmission of AIDS.

But they also reveal that campus gay activists damage their efforts to win much-deserved support when they attempt to protect sex in the Science Center bathroom, a practice very few people can defend.