Pride was behind closed doors last year — as are so many painful true stories of how we got here
The Pride March in London — along with many such events across the USA for the whole month — was cancelled due to covid-19. The efforts made by all those people who fought for gay rights had to go acknowledged in private. But the joy, exuberance and downright fun of the Pride movement as it is witnessed today across the world can conceal the true darkness of its origins.
The Stonewall Riots are the event that birthed the “pride” in Pride. And while Stonewall is famous, it was only one event in a backdrop of systemic homophobia which echoes one of the major social challenges of today — ending a corrupt police culture and brutal abuses of power against a minority group. It is by learning the lessons from this time that we may finally be able to address the seemingly intractable current nightmare.
For decades, even the most serious offences against gay victims were often referred to as simply a “faggot bash.” The victims rarely managed to have a case investigated, let alone have any realistic prospect of being treated equally under the law. It was a world where a coroner’s official cause of death for gay murders was often simply “LS — loose sphincter.”
What’s been most painfully lost to history is a truly unbelievable story that took place at the exact same time Selma was unfurling in 1965. It involves the dismantling of one of the most egregious and astounding criminal extortion conspiracies in American crime history — and in the process, it became in our assessment the first substantive building block of the gay rights movement.
But this story has never been made widely public. No one took a knee for the men who suffered back then, and no sports stars took up their cause. The victims suffered, almost in total silence. And homophobic treatment by people in power still lives on today. So it is a painful shame the “chickens and bulls affair” as it was called is so little known. These men merely wanted to be their true selves in the streets of this country without fear of danger. And they expected that those who are supposed to protect us from harm don’t use state-sanctioned repression and violence to keep us in a metaphorical closet.
This extortion ring was masterminded by a handful of corrupt police officers, and had its roots in mafia-run bars and hotels throughout the East Coast of America. Its basic M.O. involved thugs masquerading as police officers using male prostitutes to lure “respectable” victims to hotel rooms, where their trysts were secretly recorded. Armed with this “proof of deviance,” the fake cops would storm in mid-flagrante and begin a cycle of hellish abuse, threatening exposure and ruin to mainly married men. Handing over blackmail cash of eye-watering sums was the victims’ only way out.
Victims included a senior Congressman; an internationally renowned surgeon; a Pentagon general; an acclaimed NASA scientist; and even a serving Admiral, who tragically committed suicide when brought under the lens of the investigation. Celebrities were also involved. Liberace, who declined to help bring down the ring, told the FBI he could afford to keep paying the blackmail.
It would take an action-packed TV series to fully unveil all the colourful characters involved in this astonishing true crime story. At the heart lies Edward “the Skull” Murphy — arguably the most controversial figure in 20th century gay rights. Before Operation Homex, the menacingly muscled Murphy was a part-time wrestler and much-feared bouncer at many New York gay bars. Murphy ran a prostitution ring out of a wholesome ice cream parlour, where he forced young male runaways and transgender youths to exchange their bodies for cash. At the same time, he was a caring and protective “Mother” to his boys and girls — unless one of them betrayed him, resulting in terrifying punishment (retribution that may have included one-way trips to the bottom of the Hudson). Murphy’s role in this seedy ecosystem quickly became crucial to the extortion racket — his prostitutes were the lure, his supervision the grease that made the wheels turn.
Later, after the extortion ring had been crushed, Murphy became a gay rights activist, working with AIDs-stricken teens and the homeless and disabled. The man who once caused so much misery for so many gay men and teenagers was even the grand marshal for one of the first Pride parades.
This event is filled with many other fascinating characters and contradictions. Most notably was John Pyne — a Chicago Vice detective who was the leader of the ring and whose vicious anti-gay attitudes and actions alarmed even his most homophobic colleagues. He was likely a closeted homosexual whose passionate anti-gay attitudes and actions alarmed even his most homophobic colleagues, so the old “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” adage seems very appropriate in this case. It’s also likely he was blackmailing J. Edgar Hoover, which goes some way to explain the F.B.I.’s initial resistance to participating in the investigation.
There were also two of Pyne’s henchmen, a fellow cop and a bodybuilder who appeared in gay porn, who were secret lovers. When this corrupt cop was convicted at the end of Operation Homex — the judge, in fact, calling him out for his vile actions against the victims — he fled and was only eventually apprehended nearly two decades later. Raising chickens in Nevada. A vindictive ex-girlfriend was responsible for turning him in.
Operation Homex ultimately fostered a productive, respectful relationship between the victims and some in law enforcement. As officials untangled this web of criminals, they began to grasp that is was wrong for innocent lives to be destroyed purely because of private sexual activity. This shift in attitude is seismic in the context of the times. If Stonewall is the foundation for gay rights, then Operation Homex is the wooden frame into which the concrete was poured.
What the chickens and bulls affair reveals is that change only comes when brave men and women help break these legal chains. Lasting change, though, also requires the participation of our legal systems and law enforcement. The corrupt police officers and their associates in the crime ring could abuse the LGBT community with impunity because society as a whole viewed them as less than.
And ultimately, the dynamic between law enforcement and society is symbiotic. They both have to change for either to do so. The global protests over the murder of George Floyd (and every Black citizen who’s been assaulted or murdered by the police) is both an indictment against police and our own cultures. The chickens and bulls scandal represents a small but powerful change happening in law enforcement — societal change would come later post-Stonewall.
Now, in 2021, we are starting to see how society is inching towards change. What we need now is for law enforcement to change too.
Jonathan A. Stewart is a screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and son. His research into Operation Homex began over a decade ago, prompted by a relative who was an archivist for the FBI.
Patrick Tobin is a writer whose credits include Cake, starring Jennifer Aniston. His stories and essays have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, including Best American Nonrequired Reading. He’s currently working on a memoir detailing his experiences in the ex-gay movement in the late 80s and 90s.