New Jersey, my home state, has a lot of star qualities: great beaches, Bruce Springsteen, water ice. It’s also a state that targeted gay bars for decades through specific and highly discriminatory liquor laws.
The New York Times reports that up until 1967, New Jersey liquor laws wouldn’t let bars or taverns provide service to “apparent homosexuals” or “female impersonators.” The laws were common in other states across the country during the early 20th century, including New York and California, and were routinely weaponized by police to shut down establishments that catered to a gay clientele. These raids and citations, which were sometimes as ridiculous as police noting the voices of men were “effeminate,” robbed gay communities of vital safe spaces to express their sexuality freely in an era when it was criminalized.
On Tuesday, New Jersey law enforcement issued a formal apology for their part in this history. “Our Department has never reckoned with this ugly moment in its history,” state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal wrote in a new directive, reported on by NJ.com. “We recognize that our office, charged with furthering justice, set back the cause of freedom and equality in New Jersey.” The directive throws out all suspensions to businesses made in previous decades.
The apology is likely partly inspired by a 2019 apology delivered by the New York Police Department, who finally admitted that the violent raid on the city’s iconic gay bar Stonewall was “wrong, plain and simple.” In 1969 police stormed the bar for violating liquor laws similar to those that existed in New Jersey, forcing bar patrons to show identification and even that some submit to anatomical inspections.
But, in the words of Jojo: it’s just too little, too late. New Jersey’s apology, and New York’s as well, are paltry excuses for decades of harm inflicted on gay and queer communities, especially as gay bars (and particularly lesbian bars) struggle in the aftermath of the pandemic. Queer communities are still frequently harassed and discriminated against by law enforcement, a reality that no doubt informed NYC Pride’s decision to block police officers from participating in the event this year. Apologizing for harm inflicted decades ago is not, as much as law enforcement wants it to be, a substitute for change.