Providence's Alternative Source!

It's a scandal
The real story about a police raid in Johnston -- which apparently triggered the suicide of a Connecticut man -- is how the stigma that some associate with homosexuality still has the power to kill

[] A generic sense of sprawl typifies Route 6A in Johnston, and this bland feeling of anonymity -- an expanse of fast food, car dealerships, and the like -- no doubt helped to attract seven of the men who visited the Amazing Express video store on a recent Wednesday evening. By the time the men walked out, though, they were in police custody, charged with indecency, on a fast track to a degree of public exposure that would have been difficult to imagine.

Within days, it was reported that the arrestees included not just a registered sex offender, but also a high school teacher in suburban Cumberland, a Republican town official from Connecticut, and the lawyer husband of a judge in the "shoe bomber" case. The voyeuristic quality of schadenfreude was almost palpable in some quarters, at least until one of the men, 55-year-old Stuart E. Denton, the well-liked chairman of the planning and zoning commission in Plainfield, Connecticut, hung himself in a shed near his home.

Some suspect that police used the seven men as pawns in the town's long-running effort to reduce the presence of adult entertainment. For years, officials in Johnston have mixed police investigations and licensing initiatives, such as a 1997 prohibition on the presence of nudity and alcohol in the same business, effectively halving the number of strip clubs and similar establishments from a one-time high of a half-dozen. And the allegations of the January 16 raid will form the basis for a February 12 show-cause hearing by the Town Council that could result in a warning for Amazing Express, the suspension of the video store's business license, or possibly closure.

Although they express sadness about Denton's death, town officials in Johnston remain unapologetic about the raid, saying the town won't tolerate an "anything goes" atmosphere in a separate 50-seat adult theater located within Amazing Express. They also disclaim responsibility for the resulting media frenzy that quickly spread the story through Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Critics, though, fault police for targeting the men and they blame the media for running with the story of the raid -- which revolved around misdemeanor charges and allegations of masturbation -- as if it was something of major consequence.

"What these guys did [if the underlying charges are true] is no more meaningful than urinating in a parking lot," says Bill Jesdale of Providence, one of the many members of the extended gay and lesbian community who remain outraged by the situation. "What the mayor and the police seem to have been counting on is a homophobic response from the media and the public to apply a public shame technique. It seems to me they weren't interested in trying it in the court system. They were trying it in the public square. They put these guys in the stockade and invited people to come by and spit in their eye."

In the same way, some believe that the most pointed result -- the sense of stigma that apparently triggered Denton's death -- is far worse than the activity alleged to have been taking place among consenting men in an adult theater. As the Phoenix went to press, demonstrators planned to gather at Johnston Town Hall at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, January 30, to protest police and media handling of the situation.

[] "We're talking about a crime that's pretty low on the social impact scale in this case," says Kate Monteiro, president of the Rhode Island Lesbian and Gay Alliance for Civil Rights. "We're not talking about a guy exposing himself in a park in Johnston. We're not talking about a couple of guys engaging in sexual activity in a car in the parking lot of Johnston Town Hall. The police always take context into play when they handle a situation. You have to go back to that question -- did they treat these guys in the same way that they would treat other people?"

Rather than pursuing a zoning process against the store, "they decided they would just shame these guys," Monteiro says. "By shaming these guys, they would warn off anyone else who would be a customer of the establishment and drive the establishment out of business, rather than dealing with the laws." And while the way in which the arrested men identify their own sexual orientations remains unknown, she adds, "Homophobia is the activating mechanism in that shame."

Johnston Police Chief Richard Tamburini says the raid by four detectives was precipitated by complaints from Amazing Express customers who had expressed concern about activities taking place within the business. One man was arrested during the raid after allegedly exposing himself from a peep show booth, Tamburini says, and the six others -- four of whom were gathered together -- were charged after being seen exposing themselves or fondling each other inside the darkened theater, which requires a $5 admission.

"These kinds of situations never come down to a soft landing," Tamburini says. Denton's suicide was an "unwelcome and very tragic turn of events, but this was the police department responding to complaints from the community. We can not accept this kind of activity as a fact of life. It needs to be addressed. These men could very well have conducted themselves in this fashion in the privacy of their own homes, and why they decided to do it in a public facility, and risk so much, was a decision that they made on their own."

Town fathers have railed at establishments like Amazing Express, formerly an adult theater known as the Johnston Cinema, for years. (Amazing Express, a chain with stores in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, advertises in the Phoenix. A manager at the Johnston location, who says business at the store has fallen since the raid, indicated the company wouldn't make further comment.) In 2000, the Johnston Town Council refused to grant a Sunday license for a store that sells racy clothing -- echoing an earlier situation involving Amazing Express -- until the town solicitor warned of a likely lawsuit.

It's this kind of background that leads Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, to say that the recent raid "lends support to the suspicion that this was just one more attempt to harass the owners of adult entertainment in the town, and if the Constitution is preventing them from shutting these facilities down, it now appears they want to harass the customers."

As noted by Jennifer Levi, a staff attorney with Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) in Boston, there's a historic pattern of police misinformation when it comes to the targeting of gay men by police. "It sounds like in a circumstance like this, where there was no harm to anyone outside the theater or anyone who didn't want to be a part of this, that sort of raises heightened concern," Levi says. "These sting operations are really hard to justify. Clearly, no one's being hurt and quite tragically, as we see in this case, targeting people for arrest creates incredible hardship and trauma."

Tamburini and Mayor William R. Macera describe the alleged masturbation within the theater -- without condoms, they note -- as a threat to public health. Still, even if the town's explanation is taken at face value, the degree with which the story about the police raid took flight is surprising - and the police chief is the first to agree. "These charges [disorderly conduct and loitering for indecent purposes] were misdemeanor charges," Tamburini notes. "I don't think it should have got that much coverage, personally."

But by the time the details hit television in Providence and Boston, and the Providence Journal of January 18 -- with Tamburini telling the paper that he was struck by the varied backgrounds of the defendants, including the teacher and the lawyer -- it was if the story had taken on a life of its own. Taken singly, a few of these reports may not have added up to much, and some outlets, such as WJAR-TV (Channel 10), didn't identify any of the defendants by name until they appeared in court. Other stories, though, were more salacious. The Boston Herald included a report on January 19 with the headline, "Shoe bomber judge's hubby nabbed in porno raid," and the sting's aftermath remained a feverish topic on talk radio and television news through the January 23 arraignment of the defendants.

Macera says the town can't be blamed for a person who decides to commit suicide, and he denies that the raid of Amazing Express was intended to cause shame, badger the store, or to exploit feelings of homophobia. "I feel it's very sad that this gentleman in Connecticut decided to take his own life, I guess, for the shame connected with this," Macera says, "but as far as I'm concerned, this is a great country. I don't have any problem with the gay and lesbian movement; they have a right to their lifestyle. My concern is when this starts to interfere with other people's rights. It's in no way intended to embarrass people [although] that was the net effect of that. It shows you the stigma that's still connected with having that kind of sexual orientation."

The unmitigated scorn that can still be associated with homosexuality seems to be the one point upon which Johnston officials and their critics agree.

When it comes to the death of Stuart Denton, "He was killed by the power of shame and the message that if somebody thinks you might be gay, that would be the end of the world for someone," Monteiro says. "It's a sobering thought, but for the LGBT community, those moments still happen and they happen much too often."

ARREST RECORDS are public information, and it's not exactly uncommon for police in different communities to publicize the result of sting operations aimed, for example, against men who solicit prostitutes. The obvious intention is to use shaming in an attempt to reduce vice. Most of these stories, though, have a one-day lifespan and a pretty limited reach before they fade from view.

The difference in this instance was a combination of a few things: the gotcha mentality involving the arrest of men from respected positions in tawdry circumstances, resulting questions about the fitness of such an individual -- the teacher -- to work with young people, and misperceptions of how gay men are more likely to be sexual predators or otherwise engaged in aberrant behavior. These are the messages that were being fanned before the body of Denton, a divorced Vietnam veteran, who worked as a supervisor at a nursing home in New London, Connecticut, and was the father of a son in his twenties, was found on Sunday, January 20.

Shortly before the Johnston raid, WJAR reported that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health had traced the spread of four cases of syphilis to a gay club in which Fitzgerald Himmelsbach, Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr.'s liaison to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community, is a partner. Coming on the heels of the syphilis story, the police raid in the theater at Amazing Express made it easy to equate gay people with promiscuity and other forms of potentially dangerous sexual behavior.

Macera says he was expressing concern about the presence of the registered sex offender when he noted the proximity of the video store to War Memorial Park, one of Johnston's primary youth recreation areas. For many in the gay community, though, the comment was an oblique reference to the red herring that gay men are more likely than heterosexuals to be sexual predators when, in fact, the opposite is true.

The overlooked story in all of this is that despite considerable progress, gays and lesbians continue to face inequity, hostility, and stigma. Monteiro is grateful, for example, that she can walk into a dentist's office and use her domestic partner's insurance without being summarily dismissed, but a more common concern is facing harassment or worse because of her sexual orientation. While there might be a few spots around the country where it's not an issue, she says, "I'm still not safe walking down the street holding my partner's hand."

In the same way, a recent New York Times article on how September 11 terrorist strikes decimated matrimonial plans for a number of people brought a response from a gay California man who lost his partner in the attacks. "The freedom to marry the person you love is a precious right," Keith Bradkowski wrote in a letter to the editor. "While terrorists cruelly denied that right to those in your article, the right is denied every day by our government to millions of same-sex couples."

Was it newsworthy that lewd behavior may have been taking place within an outpost of the multi-billion dollar porn industry? Maybe to some small degree, although it's clear that the attention devoted to the story vastly exceeded its significance. For many in the gay community, the story should never have been reported. This is expecting too much, but it's telling that the things deemed obscene by Denton's friends and neighbors in eastern Connecticut aren't the allegations surrounding his visit to an adult video store, but the way in which a dedicated town official was reduced to a grotesque caricature. "As far as I'm concerned the press put the noose around the man's neck," says Paul Sweet, a former first selectman in Plainfield.

Gloria Rizer, who served with Denton on the planning and zoning commission, recalls him as a gracious and knowledgeable person who showed no signs of depression prior to his suicide. "I feel bad that it happened, especially to him," she says. "He was a perfect gentlemen at all times around me and around any other woman in this town. He's going to be missed, I'll tell you that, not only on the committee, but by all the people who knew him."

A few days after Denton's body was discovered, a cluster of satellite television trucks gathered outside of district court in Providence for the arraignment of the six remaining defendants. Three of the men pleaded no contest, meaning that the charges against them may be expunged if they remain free of trouble for a year, and they each paid a little shy of $100 in court costs. The cases were continued for two who pleaded not guilty, and one defendant missed his court date.

Denton's suicide and the odd contrast -- between the high-powered presence of the electronic media and the mundane disposition of a case that had all the drama in court of settling a parking ticket -- led at least one member of the media fray to reconsider the situation.

A few days earlier, Dan Yorke, who hosts an afternoon talk show on WPRO-AM, didn't identify the accused high school teacher by name, but he aggressively expressed his view that the man shouldn't be in front of another class, at least not in the same district. Ultimately, though, Yorke came to believe that the basis of the allegation -- if true -- doesn't really have much impact on society or that individual's professional capability. Taking up part of the court hallway with the media throng, Yorke began to wonder about the whole thing. "Really, you have to ask the question," he says, " `What the hell are we doing here?' "

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]

Issue Date: February 1 - 7, 2002