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The Crapper Dick Crackdown: America’s Undercover War on Gay Sex

For decades, local vice squads worked washrooms to entice gay men into illegal sex acts — until a trio of lawyers took the fight right back to the cops

On October 25, 2014, Rory Moroney, a then 46-year-old gay New Yorker, was in Long Beach, California, looking for employment. There weren’t any seats available at the Starbucks he went to, so he posted up at a park across the street to search for jobs on Craigslist. 

There was one problem, however: His stomach was killing him from pain medication he’d been prescribed by his dentist. So he walked to a bathroom on the other side of the park to take care of business. The stark, poorly maintained Cold War era restroom he entered included four messy, doorless stalls, separated by cinder-block walls, with no toilet paper. Moroney, wearing athletic shorts, a white T-shirt and sneakers, decided to just pee and then began to wash his hands in the sink. 

That’s when a good-looking 40-year-old man wearing a short-sleeved polo and sunglasses perched on his forehead walked in. They made eye contact, and the guy walked into the last stall, eyeing Moroney up and down. “I was like, ‘Oh God, this is hot,’” Moroney tells me. “I took it to mean he wanted me to signal I was there for cruising, too.” 

Moroney grabbed his crotch, eliciting a grin and a nod, which he assumed meant to keep going. He slid his hand underneath the elastic waistband of his shorts to grab his semi-hard dick, and the guy signalled he wanted to see more. Moroney complied, pulling his shorts all the way down and beginning to jerk off. But as things were seemingly intensifying, the man aggressively pushed Moroney aside and briskly exited the bathroom. I was like, “Fuck, I’m not good enough?!” Moroney recalls, a sting of rejection still present nearly seven years later. 

He fixed himself up and walked out of the bathroom. But as he stepped out, the same man threw him up against the wall and barked, “Long Beach Police, you’re under arrest!” 

Cops poured out of three separate squad cars, one of whom arrested Moroney for lewd conduct and indecent exposure, whispering in his ear, “Don’t do that shit in bathrooms around here. Keep it behind closed doors in your own home.” Bail was set at $10,000. 

John Duran, a criminal defense attorney and former mayor of West Hollywood, served as an expert witness in Moroney’s case and testified that the actions of the Long Beach Police were a vestige of an era when homosexuality was criminal. “It was leftover from the really dark times when the LAPD would entrap gay men into sexual scenarios,” Duran tells me. 

Starting in the 1970s, police departments would dress their hottest police officers in tight jeans and tank tops before dispatching them to public restrooms for eight-hour shifts to grab crotches, lick lips and tap their feet under stall doors. If the suspect responded in any way to the officer’s con, he’d be arrested and charged with lewd conduct. “From the mid-1980s until 2000, I defended over 1,000 such cases,” Duran says with a sigh. 

Moroney’s arrest came a century after the same Long Beach Police Department had hired actors as “vice specialists” in the 1910s, who would lurk in public restrooms and bathhouses enticing suspects to expose their genitals before arresting them. The Long Beach police chief credited the cops with ridding the city of a “dangerous class which threatened the morals of the youth of the community,” despite at least one man committing suicide as a result of the department’s entrapment (the story of which became the basis for the play The Twentieth Century Way).

Harvard Law School professor Anna Lvovsky’s 2015 dissertation and forthcoming book examines the cultural and legal history of “crapper dicks,” a colloquial term for vice squads that worked public bathrooms to entice gay men into sex. (“Crapper” is obviously a slang term for toilet, while “dick,” of course, is a slang term for detective.) 

At the height of this enforcement — the 1950s to mid-1960s — patrolmen in New York would crouch in service closets in subway lavatories, while officers in Boston would look through peepholes inside train stations. The Pennsylvania Railroad Police Department even drilled a hole in the ceiling of a men’s room in Cortland Street Ferry Station so its agents could observe from above. Meanwhile, departments nationwide established registration systems to keep track of suspects arrested on homosexual charges, Lvovsky explains, “creating a police record that followed gay men throughout their lives.” 

Technological advances only bolstered the rainbow watch party. In the summer of 1962, officers from the Mansfield Police Department in Ohio hid in a closet for three weeks, silently filming clandestine activity on a 16mm camera through a two-way mirror. The footage led to 40 sodomy convictions and a 2017 documentary, Tearoom, which University of Houston professor Michael Sicinski declared “the most historically revelatory work of art I’ve encountered.” 

In the 1980s, three gay lawyers in California, Jay Kohorn, Bruce Nickerson and the aforementioned Duran, started fighting back. Instead of begrudgingly accepting guilty pleas in exchange for lesser offenses, they took the cops to court. While these may seem like open-and-shut entrapment cases, such a defense would require admitting to unlawful conduct, which many wouldn’t do. “Some police officers would lie and say my clients, many of whom hadn’t come out to their families, masturbated in a public place. But a client would swear on his mother’s grave that it absolutely didn’t happen,” Duran says. “It took moving the bar by courageous attorneys and courts to complement what was being done at Stonewall and on the streets.”

Despite crapper dicks clearly being homophobic, Duran says discrimination motions were rarely successful. “Occasionally, a brave jurist would agree that laws were being applied in a discriminatory way, but many judges just weren’t willing to go that far yet.” 

Instead, Duran would remind juries of the unofficial code of silence governing men’s restrooms, and that it would be an obvious affront to have a guy stand right next to you at a urinal. But that’s exactly what the crapper dicks were doing, attempting to provoke men into a sexual encounter. “The cops would testify honestly,” Duran continues. “I’d ask what they were doing there, and they’d say, ‘Looking at his penis.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Well, I wanted to see if he had an erection.’ ‘And how long did you make that observation?’ ‘I stared at his penis for 10 seconds to make sure I had a clear observation.’”

Some cops even testified that they played with themselves at the urinal while smiling, winking and licking their lips. (In one U.S. Navy sting, crapper dicks took things much further, admitting to having had anal sex with the men they were investigating.) Duran would ask the men on the jury how they’d feel if an unknown man stared at their penises for 10 seconds. One remarked that the whole thing was “total crap.” 

As such, juries returned acquittal, after acquittal, after acquittal. All the while, Duran, Kohorn and Nickerson continued to successfully sue police agencies for damages, forcing them to settle for millions. “That started to force a lot of the reform,” Duran says. “Thankfully, we really don’t see cases like this anymore.”

Unfortunately, Moroney’s was one of those rare cases. The police report noted that the officers were undertaking such undercover operations due to complaints that men were having sex with each other in Long Beach public restrooms, so Moroney’s lawyers asked to see them. There were none. In fact, the only complaints of public restroom indecency concerned men having sex with women.

In the end, justice thankfully prevailed: The judge ruled that the Long Beach Police Department’s actions were “discriminatory and sickening.” Upon dismissal, Moroney filed a civil suit against the department, which was settled for an undisclosed amount. That same month, five other men settled a class-action lawsuit with the San Jose Police Department for $125,000 related to similar types of sting operations. 

Moroney, now happily working as a courier in Long Beach, is proud of his small role in vanquishing the crapper dick. His work isn’t done, though. He’s now advocating for the revision of the sex-offender registry. There are a lot of gay men on that list unjustly for doing something very similar to what I did. They weren’t there to rape anybody; they weren’t there to steal your child; and they’re not sexual threats. Yet, many of their names remain on the list.

Which is exactly why Kohorn wants to make sure that the crapper dick is gone, but never forgotten. “Whether it’s Jews or Blacks or gays or women, every minority group that has survived brutal discrimination needs to remember their history,” he says. “Knowing where we come from keeps us from making the same mistake again.”

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