September 01, 2009

Agenda 2008 - Part 6

Part VI. CONSUMERS AND BUSINESSES

A. Fighting Regulatory Abuse

Fights in 2005 and 2006 against the gay-welcoming Washington businesses Fab Lounge,24 Hank’s Oyster Bar,25 Cada Vez,26 and Be Bar27 illustrated a problem in need of reform: the abuse of the regulatory process by “gangs of five” and other unreasonable and unrepresentative groups. It is of little comfort that this regulatory abuse is often instigated by people who are gay themselves. The problem is not anti-gay bigots but people, both gay and straight, who are unreasonably hostile to urban nightlife and who seek to turn vital city neighborhoods into quiet suburbs.

We call for regulatory reforms to prevent the gaming of the system by small numbers of people to prevent legitimate businesses from operating, or to gain concessions that they could not obtain on the merits. It should be plain to all by now that so-called “voluntary agreements” are usually nothing of the sort, but amount to a holdup of businesses by small numbers of cranks and NIMBYs.

Not only should the provision for “gangs of five” be re-examined, steps should be taken to prevent the abuse of anonymous complaints against licensed establishments. For example, confidentiality can be preserved while recording the names of complainants to help identify persons who repeatedly file complaints in a bad-faith effort to harass a particular business. Persons with a record of frequent complaints not sustained by the evidence should have their subsequent complaints flagged as suspicious, should receive a warning, and should be fined if their abuse of the system continues. If multiple investigations show a particular complaint against a business to be without merit, a moratorium of 90 to 120 days should be imposed on repeat investigations of substantially the same complaint. There is no reason why law-abiding business owners, who bear all of the financial risk while serving customers and generating tax revenue, should have to endure such harassment, nor why taxpayers should have to subsidize it.

B. Defending Adult Entertainment

As a city whose hospitality industry generates a sizable portion of its revenue, the District should defend and preserve the place of adult entertainment as part of the mix. Those who disapprove of nude dancing establishments are free to avoid patronizing them, but have no right to deny those choices to other adults. Busybodies should not be permitted to misuse the power of government to boss their neighbors on matters that are none of their business. We call on our leaders to defend the District’s diverse nightlife against those who would impose their moral views on the rest of the residents and visitors to this international and cosmopolitan city.

In response to the destruction of the longstanding gay club zone by construction of the new baseball stadium Councilmember Jim Graham in 2007 introduced legislation to allow the displaced businesses to relocate elsewhere in the city. As we said during our lobbying for that bill, we are talking about legitimate, tax-generating businesses that served District residents and visitors for decades in some cases. The city, having caused their dislocation (and, indeed, pushed them into the area off South Capitol Street in the early 1970s), was honor bound to allow their relocation.

The demagoguery against the Graham bill by Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. (who opposed relocation of the clubs to the New York Avenue corridor, echoing his predecessor Vincent Orange) was irresponsible and unfair. We appreciated the successful efforts by Council Chair Vincent Gray to work out a compromise, though the bill as adopted was so heavily watered down that we were doubtful that any of our clubs would find a new home during the one-year window provided. We were therefore gratified when Ziegfield’s/Secrets found a new location on Half Street, SW. Nonetheless, we remain troubled that Thomas and three of his colleagues—Kwame Brown, Muriel Bowser, and Yvette Alexander—voted against the Graham bill in June 2007 even after Chairman Gray’s compromise addressed every legitimate concern (and, in our view, some dubious ones).

We are unimpressed by Ms. Alexander’s claim that she felt obliged to defer to Thomas due to the bill’s alleged impact on Ward 5, since by her logic any ward councilmember can kill a bill merely by claiming turf and objecting to it, regardless of the merits. In fact, the bill as amended specifically prohibited more than two clubs from relocating to any single ward. And we object to Ms. Bowser’s false claim that residents had no voice in club relocations under the bill; in fact, the bill as passed left in place existing opportunities for residents to raise objections. Mr. Brown, while not misrepresenting the bill, has talked about residents’ opposition to clubs in general; but unlike the straight-oriented clubs, which are scattered all over town, the gay nude dancing clubs were clustered in one neighborhood and were thus erased at a single stroke by the city’s use of eminent domain to seize the land for the building of the new ballpark.

C. Prostitution: Legalize It, Regulate It, Zone It, Tax It

The suicide on May 1 of D.C. Madam Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who faced a prison sentence for doing something that harmed no one, raised a question unrelated to those that swirled among conspiracy theorists. It is simply this: who benefits from the criminalization of prostitution?

A quarter-millennium ago, Samuel Johnson described the ills associated with prostitution—crowding, intemperance, famine, filth, and disease—and assured his friend John Boswell that “severe laws, steadily enforced, would be sufficient against those evils, and would promote marriage.” We think Jesse Ventura came closer to the truth in his rough-hewn way when he told Playboy in 1999, “Prostitution is criminal, and bad things happen because it’s run illegally by dirt-bags who are criminals. If it’s legal, then the girls could have health checks, unions, benefits, anything any other worker gets, and it would be far better.” Not just girls, Jesse.

As advocates of the legalization of prostitution, we think it needs neither sanitizing nor glorifying. It is not a profession filled exclusively with people who freely chose it from a host of other options. No doubt there are some in that category, like the college student turning tricks for extra cash. But too many turn to it by necessity. These include gay teenagers who have been thrown out of the house by their parents, and transgender people whom discrimination has left with few options.

People in these situations are not practicing an alternate lifestyle (not that there is anything wrong with that); they are practicing survival sex. They face greater risk of substance abuse, mental and physical abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases. The District has seen numerous murders of sex workers in recent years--murders that were made harder to prevent and harder to solve by the fact that the victims worked the streets and were without legal sanction or protection.

Harassing, arresting and prosecuting people for survival sex solves none of their problems. It only piles more on.28 Whose idea of responsible public policy is this? To be justified, any public law ought to serve some identifiable common good. Saying to people as Sister Mary Ignatius did, “You do the thing that makes Jesus puke,” is no basis for criminalizing whatever it is. Having been the targets of moralistic lawmaking, we as gay people are especially on guard against it.

No matter how bad you may think something is, if your proposed response is likely only to make it worse, then you should pull back. Policymakers are often too enamored of their own initiatives to pay attention to the consequences. If you want to provide safer, healthier, and more sustainable alternatives to survival sex, you can support the creation of drop-in centers, transitional housing, job training, counseling, addiction recovery programs and other services for at-risk populations. Key is creating safe spaces where help can be expected, not exploitation.

Speaking of addiction, our society’s addiction to legislating morality is the chief obstacle to eliminating the harm caused by anti-prostitution and anti-solicitation laws. Otherwise liberal, compassionate and practical people often lose their bearings when the subject turns to the “naughty bits.” Overcoming this will take time, especially here in D.C. with its constitutional vulnerability to congressional grandstanding; but we will never get there if we give up before we start. We can begin with a humble recognition of the normal variation in sexual expression, the proper limits of government coercion, and the fact that other people’s personal choices are none of our business unless they harm us. In the case of sex behind closed doors, whether in homes or hotel rooms, the fact that someone is paying for it is no more a legitimate basis for police involvement than if the transaction is a more informal one involving dinner and a show.

There is too much observable misery associated with prostitution for us to say it carries no problems; but they derive substantially, albeit not exclusively, from prostitution’s forced existence underground. Mitigating them requires leaving the moral implications to the participants and doing the few things that government can usefully do regarding prostitution: legalize it, regulate it, zone it, and tax it. In pursuing this course, the District can benefit from the experience of other jurisdictions, both domestic and foreign, that treat the sex trade in a more realistic manner.

We know that we are breaking a taboo by discussing this; but avoiding the issue will not make it go away. We ask those who disagree with our position to address our arguments seriously. Failed policies do not deserve to be defended with reflexive dismissals. [Adapted from a commentary published May 8, 2008 in Metro Weekly and Bay Windows; copyright © 2008 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved. Used by permission.]