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Gay men prosecuted in California for consensual sex can seek clemency

Gay men Clemency

Acknowledging that the LGBTQ community has been targeted for discrimination and prosecution by law enforcement and the criminal justice system, Gov. Gavin Newsom has launched a clemency initiative to correct the “egregious wrong.” Photo: iStock.

Acknowledging that the LGBTQ community has been targeted for discrimination and prosecution by law enforcement and the criminal justice system, Gov. Gavin Newsom has launched a clemency initiative to correct the “egregious wrong.”

Newsom made the announcement last week when he issued a posthumous pardon for gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who was arrested in Pasadena in 1953 for having consensual sex with two men.

Bayard Rustin

Rustin was charged with a “vagrancy” misdemeanor and sentenced to 50 days in jail and a lifetime registration on the state’s sex offender list. Rustin was a brilliant organizer and senior advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., who helped plan the 1963 March on Washington. Rustin died in 1987.

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“In California and across the country, many laws have been used as legal tools of oppression, and to stigmatize and punish LGBTQ people and communities and warn others what harm could await them for living authentically,” Newsom said in a statement. “I thank those who advocated for Bayard Rustin’s pardon, and I want to encourage others in similar situations to seek a pardon to right this egregious wrong.”

Gay community prosecuted

In states across the country, charges such as vagrancy, loitering, lewd conduct, and sodomy were used to target and prosecute LGBTQ people, and force them to register as sex offenders.

Gay men in particular faced humiliating police entrapment in public places such as bars, parks, and sidewalks. In 2016, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge made a historic, first-of-its kind ruling that found the Long Beach Police Department targeted and discriminated against gay men in lewd conduct undercover, sting operations.

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In 1975, California repealed the law that criminalized consensual sex between same-sex adults.

Clemency program

In 1997, the state created a process for people convicted of these crimes to request removal from the state’s sex offender registry. But that process did not remove their underlying conviction and did not constitute a pardon, according to the governor’s office.

In Newsom’s executive order, the clemency initiative will focus on identifying eligible candidates for pardons and will accept applications on behalf of people who meet the criteria for consideration, the governor’s office said.

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It’s unclear how many people might be eligible, and if anyone incarcerated would meet the clemency criteria.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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