THE BLOG
11/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Anatomy of a Southern Sex Panic: The Atlanta Police Raid a Gay Bar

What happens when police think sex poses a greater threat than home invasions?

Atlanta's gay community woke up with a shock last week when they learned that dozens of cops stormed into a tranquil gay bar, forced 62 patrons to lay on the grubby floors face down for an hour, ransacked through their pockets, rounded up their ID's, threatened jail time to anybody who asked why they were being held against their will, and then threw them out--without letting them have access to their cell phones, wallets and other personal belongings.

police raid gay bar atlanta

All so they could arrest eight men for dancing in their underwear.

That's the only charge police could come up with. They traumatized 62 men, violated their constitutional rights against illegal search and seizure, threatened them with arrest if they didn't comply, trashed an iconic neighborhood bar so they could do what? Arrest a few guys doing the Macarena in their Calvin Klein underwear?

Of course, that's not what the police were looking for. They were looking for something that posed an intolerable danger to the city; something that menaced the public safety; something worse than home invasions or armed robbery: Sex.

Or rather, the possibility of it.

The police had raided the bar because anonymous tips--and their own undercover work--showed that in a few instances, a few men were kinda, sorta, MAYBE doing the deed at the back of the bar.

The operative word being maybe.

This of course, sent law enforcement officers into an orgy of panic. If there was ever a reason to divert police resources from armed assaults plaguing the city, this was it!

Welcome to a southern-style sex panic. The only thing missing from the police action was the captain waving goodbye to the tyrannized and saying, "Ya'll come back now, ya hear?"

Here's how a sex panic works in the south: First, you convince yourself that two guys looking at each other like Elvis looked at a pork chop poses more of a threat to public safety than two guys who look at your property as if it were their own.

Because when you're in the middle of a sex panic, stopping the possibility of sex is more important than stopping the reality of crime. A sex panic doesn't need sex to fuel the rage, by the way. It just needs the notion of it. The police turned The Eagle upside down and did not find any evidence of the "illicit sex" that prompted the raid. The only thing they found the men groping were the wallets they used to pay for the beer.

But it doesn't matter, police insisted at their press conference; they had a reasonable suspicion. Reasonable enough to pull cops off the street to investigate while homes were being burglarized.

Second, a sex panic requires you to make outrageous comparisons. For example, the possibility of getting your pants undone by somebody you like is worse than the actuality of getting your house broken into by somebody you don't. The possibility of making out in the dark corner of a bar with a guy whose name you can't remember is worse than the actuality of getting raped in the privacy of your own home by somebody whose name you know.

Third, a sex panic demands that you divert resources from addressing real problems to battling imagined ones. You can't keep the city safe by locking up crooks, convicts and hard-core recidivists when there are gay men running around with impure thoughts.

No government witch hunt is worth its weight in waste if it didn't sacrifice tax dollars and the Atlanta Sex Panic was no exception. Since the recession, Midtown, the bar's neighborhood (and where I happen to live) has been convulsed with waves of crime. By the police's own admission, they don't have enough manpower to cover their beats properly. Worse, cops took it in the cheeks earlier in the year when the city handed them a 10% cut in salary and instituted a system of furloughs that police union president, Sgt. Scott Kreher, said would result in spotty police coverage.

Midtown residents, outraged by a string of high-profile crimes, banded together to demand better police protection at an outdoor rally a few months ago. All the candidates for Mayor took to the microphones and promised they would put more cops on the street to protect us from the home invasions, armed robberies and murders that shook our neighborhood to its core.

Apparently, the police had wax in their ears. We were yelling "Stop Crime" and they heard "Stop Sex." We were chanting "Jail the Crooks" and they heard, "Imprison the Gays." We demanded safe streets; they gave us safe sex.

Again, a sex panic doesn't need sex to fuel it. It's the thought of it that creates what Philip Roth once called, "The ecstasy of sanctimony." Clearly, the Atlanta Police were in the throws of that ecstasy. What else could explain the massive shift of time, money and manpower away from, say, preventing another student at Georgia Tech from being murdered and toward preventing the possibility that two men might hook up?

A sex panic is like any other kind of panic attack. You drive yourself to the E.R. because you know you're having a heart attack, but the doctors come back with test results showing there's nothing wrong. It's all in your head.

And that's the diagnosis for the Atlanta Police Department: It's all in your head. If they were more panicked about crime on the street than sex in their head, this city would be a lot safer.

Until the police recognize that it was a panic attack, not a crime wave, that drove them into the E.R., Atlanta residents are not going to have the confidence that they can keep us safe. Until they do, we're all going to have to resort to gaming the panic. The next time someone breaks into your house, call 911 and tell them two guys are about to hook up in your living room.

That'll get the cops there faster than you can say, "cocka doodle doo."

What Really Happened the Night of the Raid.