Edward M. Davis: Late LAPD Chief's Anti-Gay Letter Circulates on Internet, Sparks Memories of 1976 Melrose Avenue Bathhouse Raid
A letter from anti-gay former LAPD Chief Ed Davis is circulating on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ showing Davis' harsh 1975 response to Sharon D. Cornelison, former president of the Christopher Street West Association.
Davis' letter vividly depicts his staunch opposition to a proposal that LAPD support "Gay Pride Week" and reminds many of the turbulent past between LAPD and homosexuals, sparking in some recollections of a notorious 1976 Melrose Avenue bathhouse raid organized by Davis.
The letter from Chief Davis, who served from 1968 to 1978, reads:
"Dear Ms. Cornelison:
As you no doubt expected, I am declining your invitation to participate in the celebration of "GAY PRIDE WEEK." While I support your organization's constitutional right to express your feelings on the subject of homosexuality, I am obviously not in sympathy with your views on the subject.
I would much rather celebrate "GAY CONVERSION WEEK" which I will gladly sponsor when the medical practitioners in this country find a way to convert gays to heterosexuals.
Very truly yours,
E. M. DAVIS
Chief of Police"
Davis, who died in 1996, was widely criticized by gay-rights groups for targeting the LGBT community in various cruel and unfair raids and forms of harassment.
One of the worst incidents took place a year after Davis wrote the letter mocking Gay Pride Week -- a raid at a gay bathhouse, Mark IV on Melrose Avenue, where employees were hosting a charity slave auction to benefit the Gay Community Services Center.
According to a 1995 report by California State University Northridge professor Ben Attias, LAPD officials prepared for the raid for months and alerted the media before it started. More than 100 officers raided the Mark IV bathhouse, citing patrons and volunteers at the benefit auction for breaking a 1899 state law prohibiting "slavery."
Val Martin, the "slave auctioneer" at the benefit, told the now-defunct gay newspaper The Connection in 1984:
"... [A] very groovy guy comes to me with a leather jacket and a leather cap, torn jeans, very good-looking. And he comes to me and asks what is the price of these slaves, so I told him. ... As soon as I said 'sold' and received the money from him, the whole thing comes down.
"He gives a hand signal to the rest of the police, and a couple of helicopters, three or four TV cameras, and 120 policemen surrounded the premises, even on top of it."
The next morning, the Orange County Register's headline read, "Police Free Gay Slaves!" A police officer was quoted in the Pasadena Star-News saying, "We went in and liberated them."
The cost of the Mark IV raid was later estimated at $150,000.
Stories that have surfaced since vary in details. Some say that once the charity auction participants were hauled to jail, the Los Angeles jailers denied them bathroom privileges, took pictures of them in their cells and mocked them.
Val Martin recalled in The Connection:
"They arrested the ones who were the most outrageous, because everyone who was in jail with me were, like, in leather chaps and nothing else, the rest of the body was nude. You know, pierced tits, chains, really the way we really dress for an evening like that. They treated us like animals, like the worst people in the world."
Another source, who wishes to remain unnamed, recalls that his own friends were arrested but managed to turn the tables on LAPD by refusing to be cowed. He tells L.A. Weekly, "After they got to jail, the guys all kept carrying on -- made it their own jailhouse fantasy scene. It pissed off the police and they were released."
He also said that many of the men taken into custody in that incident were close friends who died of AIDS in the mid 1980s, so not many people who experienced the arrests are left.
Among those arrested was the late Aristide Laurent, co-founder of The Advocate and longtime gay activist. Ultimately, Davis' raid was considered a public relations disaster for LAPD and became a rallying point for the gay community. Eventually all charges were dropped against everyone arrested.
Times have changed. In 2008, then-LAPD Chief Bill Bratton donated money to Equality California's effort to prevent the passage of Proposition 8, the California constitutional amendment that defined marriage as only between a man and woman. At the time, Bratton said, "The Constitution guarantees life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I see no reason why gays can't pursue happiness through marriage."
In 2012, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck changed the gender-identification policies on arrest reports to reflect the preferred gender of the suspect. He explained that the new procedure would "create mutual understanding, prevent discrimination and conflict, and ensure the appropriate treatment of transgender individuals."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.