Lambda Literary Award in LGBTQ Studies
David J. Langum Sr. Prize in American Legal History, Finalist
Committee on LGBT History John Boswell Prize, Honorable Mention
In the mid-twentieth century, gay life flourished in American cities even as the state repression of queer communities reached its peak. Liquor investigators infiltrated and shut down gay-friendly bars. Plainclothes decoys enticed men in parks and clubs. Vice officers surveilled public bathrooms through peepholes and two-way mirrors.
Vice Patrol chronicles this painful story, tracing the tactics used to criminalize, profile, and suppress gay life from the 1930s through the 1960s, and the surprising controversies those tactics often inspired in court. It shows that the vice squads’ campaigns stood at the center of live debates about not only the law’s treatment of queer people, but also the limits of ethical policing, the authority of experts, and the nature of sexual difference itself—debates that had often unexpected effects on the gay community’s rights and freedoms. Examining those battles, Vice Patrol enriches understandings of the regulation of queer life in the twentieth century and disputes about police power that continue today.
In her stunning new book, Vice Patrol, Anna Lvovsky . . . introduces much-needed nuance to the broader history of the surveillance and prosecuting of same-sex desiring people . . . Lvovsky demonstrates that individual agents and agencies of the criminal justice system, alongside same-sex desiring people and "experts", shaped and reshaped the public and legal concept of the ‘homosexual’ . . . A fascinating analysis of the mid-century criminal justice system.
― Journal of Urban History
A page turner of legal history . . . This painstakingly researched and exhaustive account of the criminalization of sexual identity . . . offers powerful lessons for today’s civil rights battles, both in the courts and online. The book uses a case study of state enforcement of anti-vice laws against gay people to tell a larger story about an epistemological struggle over facts and knowledge, as well as the limits, if any, they place on power . . . Brilliant.
― Michigan Law Review
Blending impressive archival research with sophisticated theoretical analysis . . . Lvovsky brilliantly disentangles the forms of cultural salience, stereotype, and self-representation that often fly under the banner of "visibility" . . . As a case study in the life and role of truth claims in the operation of a repressive regime, the book makes an important contribution to legal history beyond the history of sexuality . . . Extraordinary.
― University of Chicago Law Review
Vice Patrol offers an exciting, novel contribution to the fast-growing field of police history in the United States . . . with groundbreaking insights into the relationship between police knowledge and police power . . . An incisive policing history written with a storytelling flair, Vice Patrol will be of tremendous interest to experts and nonexperts alike.
― American Journal of Legal History
Lvovsky’s masterful book provides a necessary correction by tracking the way police officials, alcohol regulators, and judicial actors all interacted to define a spectrum of ‘‘normality’’ that excluded gay and lesbian Americans and subjected them to unusual constraints and oppression . . . A work of impressive and fascinating scholarship that will not only speak to scholars but also to our students.
― Contemporary Sociology
In this sophisticated and original work, Anna Lvovsky interrogates the policing of queer sexual and cultural expression in the United States from the 1930s through the 1960s. Without trivializing the harm perpetrated through such efforts, she persuasively demonstrates that midcentury antivice policing "was not a monolithic enterprise" [but] “a complex, deep-seated struggle among multiple branches of the legal system."
― Journal of American History
With precise details and careful analysis, Vice Patrol tells a fascinating story about how the policing of homosexuality from the 1940s to the 1960s was far more contradictory and contested than we might think, and how courts of law played a crucial role in the emerging understanding and visibility of LGBT life . . . A compelling and important book.
― The Gay & Lesbian Review
An important history of antigay policing . . . Lvovsky dives into municipal archives, court records, and psychological literature to interrogate queer tropes, taking care to guide readers through this narrative . . . with nuance and compassion. Those studying law, history, gender and sexuality, and political science will benefit from her work in terms of understanding queer life in the 20th century, the professionalization of policing, and how the two intersected to shape (mis) understandings about the other. . . . Essential.
Lvovsky has done incredible detective work to take us deep inside the machinery of antigay policing during its peak years. Focusing on three distinct sites—the regulation of gay bars by state liquor agencies, the work of plainclothes decoys, and the policing of public restrooms through "peepholes"—Lvovsky shows that a legal system we assumed to be monolithically repressive was in fact internally divided about these practices. This subtle and smart book not only illuminates the boundaries around sexual difference but criminal justice as well. Revelatory in every sense of the word.
—Margot Canaday, Princeton University
Lvovsky takes the vice patrolman—the villain who lurks at the edges of virtually every work of the queer communities that flourished in twentieth-century U.S. cities—and insistently pulls him into the spotlight. Vice Patrol is ambitious, meticulously researched, exceptionally well-conceived, and startlingly original. It deserves a wide readership among historians of law and legal history, LGBTQ history, urban history, and the history of policing and punishment. It is, in fact, a tour de force that will be read and reread by every scholar in the field and will lead us to ask new questions of our sources in the years to come.
—Timothy Stewart-Winter, Rutgers University
Lvovsky has written a splendid, insightful history of anti-gay policing in mid-twentieth century America. Vice Patrol shows how investigatory tactics evolved and how they prompted and were in turn shaped by debates about the nature and prevalence of same-sex desire, the appropriate limits on law enforcement, and the kinds of authority and expertise that should matter in answering those questions. It's a gripping read, combining rich, ground-level detail with sober assessments of what those decades-old struggles signified and what lessons they hold for us today.
—David Sklansky, Stanford Law School
"The police" and "the gay community" are often portrayed as monolithic entities. In Vice Patrol, Lvovsky shows how each entity revealed the extraordinary diversity of the other through their interactions in the pre-Stonewall United States. This is the debut of an important new scholar, who can etch a legal world in scrimshaw with strokes that are both bold and sure.
—Kenji Yoshino, New York University School of Law
In Vice Patrol, Anna Lvovsky examines with both precision and breadth a time period during which litigants in queer society encountered considerably greater difficulty in the justice system . . . This important book casts new light on the legal intricacies and political realities of anti-gay legislation several generations before courts began looking with disfavor on laws stigmatizing or even criminalizing members of the queer community.
― Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books
A Vice Patrol Q&A at Provincetown's East End Books
In conversation with historian Aaron Lecklider and a terrific audience at East End Books on Vice Patrol's archival finds. July 13, 2021.
Vice Patrol: A PCJ Book Talk with Anna Lvovsky
A discussion with Harvard Kennedy School's Professor Sandra Susan Smith on Vice Patrol's core arguments and their relevance to policing today. May 14, 2021.
ABA Journal: Modern Law Library Podcast
An interview with Lee Rawles of the ABA Journal on how gay communities were policed from the 1930s through the 1960s. June 9, 2021.
Lewis Rice, Vice Age: Anna Lvovsky chronicles the policing of gay life in the mid-20th century, Harvard Law Bulletin, Summer 2021 ,
The View from Mulberry and Market: Revisiting Newark’s Gay and Lesbian Nightlife at Midcentury, in
Queer Newark, ed. Whitney Strub (forthcoming)
Cruising in Plain View: Clandestine Surveillance and the Unique Insights of Antihomosexual Policing, Journal of Urban History (2020).
Rethinking Police Expertise, Yale Law Journal (2021)
Fourth Amendment Moralism, University of Pennsylvania Law Review (2018)
The Judicial Presumption of Police Expertise, Harvard Law Review (2017)
The Province of the Jurist: Judicial Resistance to Expert Testimony on Eyewitnesses as Institutional Rivalry, Harvard Law Review (2013)
Anna Lvovsky is a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where she teaches American legal history, the history of policing, evidence, and criminal law. Her scholarship focuses on the legal and cultural dimensions of policing, judicial uses of professional knowledge, and the regulation of gender, sexuality, and morality.
Her first book, Vice Patrol: Cops, Courts, and the Struggle over Urban Gay Life before Stonewall, examines the daily realities and legal contests surrounding the policing of gay communities at midcentury. Vice Patrol received the 2022 Lambda Literary Award in LGTBQ Studies and was the 2021 finalist for the David J. Langum Sr. Prize in American legal history. As a dissertation, the project received the Julien Mezey Dissertation Award from the Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities.
Prior to joining HLS, Anna was an Academic Fellow at Columbia Law School and clerked for Judges Michael Boudin of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Gerard E. Lynch of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. She received her B.A. from Yale University, her J.D. from Harvard Law School, and her Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization from Harvard University.
Harvard Law School
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