Pathologizing Homosexuality, Pathologizing Race: Sex Offender Registration in California, 1940-1975

By: Alex Burnett


On July 30, 1938, James Davis, the Los Angeles Chief of Police, announced that the LAPD had established a “sex crime bureau,” as “reports had shown that sex crime had increased steadily in the past few years.”1 Believing that “a major sex criminal” committed “each minor offense,” Davis noted that the bureau would keep thorough records on people who committed sex crimes and operate a clinic specializing in psychiatric evaluations for “sex criminals”—a category that included homosexuals, sex workers, gender non-conforming people, rapists, child molesters, and people who had public sex.2 Although California had criminalized “deviant” sexual behavior, such as sodomy and oral sex, for nearly half a century, Davis’ bureau laid the groundwork for California’s sex offender registry, which would be the first of its kind in the nation. 3 4 5 Instituted in June 1947 after extensive advocacy by the Los Angeles Parent-Teacher Association, the California registry required anyone convicted of a sex crime to submit their fingerprints, place of residence, and photograph with local police and, in certain cases, undergo a psychiatric evaluation, pay a fine, or spend several months in a prison or state hospital.

Within ten years, thousands of Californians had registered as “sex offenders” for a diverse series of crimes, including consensual homosexual sex, child molestation, or engaging in “lewd vagrancy”—a vague term that law enforcement used to arrest gender non-conforming people and homosexuals who “cruised,” or had sex with strangers in restrooms or parks. 8 9 Designed as a “surveillance system” that would aid “local police” in tracking “sex offenders and sex deviates,” law enforcement primarily used the registry to target gay men—in 1950, over 90% of arrests in Los Angeles County resulting in registration were for consensual homosexual acts.10 11 While sexual minorities criticized the discriminatory enforcement of these laws, many Californians didn’t think the registry went far enough.12 Indeed, one Californian wrote to the Los Angeles Times in 1951 arguing that “all sex offenders should be castrated” in order to protect “children” and “public morality.”13 This citizen was likely unaware that California had, in fact, castrated and sterilized nearly 20,000 sex criminals in the 1930’s and 40’s, most of whom were women housed in state mental hospitals. 14 Regardless, this letter highlights that a verifiable sex panic had emerged—one that resulted in thousands of Californians, many of them marginalized by their gender, sexuality, or race, behind bars, in psychiatric institutions, and on the registry by the 1970’s.

While scholars have extensively written about the impact of California’s sex offender registry in the 1990’s and 2000’s, few, aside from Scott De Orio and Chrysanthi S. Leon, have analyzed their earliest days (1947-1975). 15 16 Many questions remain for historians of sexuality and incarceration, particularly regarding the public discourse surrounding the registry and what it meant to its architects and those it ensnared. Who got registered as a sex offender and what happened to them? Did sex offenders get treated differently based on their race, gender, sexuality, and crime? How did ordinary citizens, law enforcement officials, psychiatric professionals, and registrants conceptualize California’s registry in the midst of sex panics, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights movement? And did the creation of the sex offender registry change what Californians thought the proper response was to “sex crime?”

In this essay, I hope to these answers and more, as I analyze the history and politics of California’s sex offender registry from 1940-1975. Through my discussion, I demonstrate that although California’s registry criminalized and pathologized homosexuals of all races, it perpetuated racist ideas regarding sexual deviance, specifically that some non-normative sexual expressions—such as child molestation and homosexual sex between white men—were threatening, but “treatable,” while others— such as the rape of white women by Black men—were incurable and necessitated incarceration and surveillance. This was reflected in and registrant’s experiences and public discourse surrounding the registry, which I will discuss in detail. Furthermore, while some Californians (mainly radical gay activists and disability advocates) opposed the registry altogether, most believed it was necessary to protect the public, particularly white children and women, from “threatening” sexual behavior. As such, many attempts at reforming the registry reified racialized distinctions between “curable” and “incurable” forms of sexual deviance.

Dangerous Strangers, Sex Panics, and the Racial Politics of Registration

California’s sex offender registry was created amidst a national sex panic, in which millions obsessed over how society should respond to child molestation, rape, and non-normative sexual or gender expression. During this era, which historians loosely date to 1949-1955, newspapers around the country published thousands of sensationalizing articles detailing the mass rapes of children and questioning the sanity of homosexuals, child molesters, and “sex offenders.” 17 For instance, in a 1947 article in American Magazine, FBI Director J Edgar Hoover claimed that “the most rapidly increasing type of crime is perpetuated by the degenerate sex offender,” whom Hoover believed poised a “sinister safety threat to American childhood and womanhood.”18 These stories rarely mentioned the race of the victims, “unless (they) were a ‘Negro’ boy,” because they almost exclusively profiled young white girls whose bodies had been mutilated by a stranger, presumably motivated by mental illness and sexual depravity. 19 By 1940, The New York Times had published so many articles about violence against young white girls that it created a new index category—“Sex Crimes.” 20 Since the public was so fascinated with protecting young white female children, this panic spilled into film, television, and literature. One such film, The Dangerous Stranger, cautioned children from “accepting rides or presents from strangers” and was shown in thousands of schools across the country, “informing multiple generations of schoolchildren regarding the perils of sex crime.”21 By the mid 20th century, American media had popularized the idea that insane homosexual men were sexually mutilating white children en masse.

A brief article explaining "How Homosexulaity Endangers Your Children"22

However, this sex panic extended beyond newspapers and movies and into law and psychiatry. Between 1937 and 1967, twenty-six states, including California, passed “sexual psychopath” laws that allowed authorities to indefinitely detain convicted sex criminals in psychiatric institutions. 23 Often enacted following the abduction or murder of a white female child, sexual psychopath laws reflected postwar anxieties regarding the primacy of the white heterosexual family and the widespread belief that homosexuals were uniquely predisposed to assault children.24 For example, after Los Angeles police discovered the mutilated body of Linda Joyce Glucoft, a six-year old white girl, they began a highly publicized statewide investigation that ended with the 1952 execution of Fred Stroble, an Austrian immigrant who confessed to murdering and molesting Glucoft.25 Many Californians linked Stroble’s crime with homosexuality and his immigration status—though some, such as the Director of Atascadero State Hospital, acknowledged that Stroble “was not a homosexual” despite the public’s “expectations.”26

The Stroble case raised many questions regarding the proper response to sex crime. Should sex offenders be executed, incarcerated, or treated for having a mental illness? How could similar crimes be prevented in the future? While the California Attorney General demanded that local departments increase their enforcement of sexual psychopath laws and register more sex offenders following Stroble’s execution, some Californians believed that sex offenders deserved treatment in a mental hospital, rather than execution or a prison sentence. 27 Gladys Towles Root, a Los Angeles attorney specializing in sex crimes, articulated this view in a 1959 Los Angeles Times article, claiming, “I think science has progressed to the point where these sick people (sex offenders) can be cured.” 28 Though Root did not oppose registration per se, she believed it must be accompanied by several months in a psych ward to be truly effective.

For certain sex offenders—mainly white men convicted of molesting children or having homosexual sex—state officials agreed, believing their deviance to be dangerous, but ultimately treatable. This reflected itself in the sentences sex offenders received, which, as Chrysanthi Leon has noted, differed significantly from those demanded by a “vengeful public,” eager for the incarceration and execution of sexual deviants.29 From 1944-1949, most of the approximately 2,790 Californians charged with child molestation received a “misdemeanor” charge, resulting in a “maximum imprisonment of six months” and, in many cases, no jail time at all.30 A similar pattern holds for homosexual registrants convicted for “lewd conduct,” who, between 1940-1976, judges mostly sentenced to state hospitals for 18 months, rather than to prison. 31 Although registrants suffered tremendously in state hospitals, experiencing “conversion therapy,” social isolation, and, in some cases, castration or lobotomy, their conviction to a hospital highlights a belief in the possibility of their rehabilitation. 32 Indeed, as Dr. Sandritter, superintendent of Atascadero State Hospital argued in a 1963 Los Angeles Times article, “We are not as optimistic today as were three years ago that we can help all offenders, but we are equally optimistic that we can help some of them.”33 It is unsurprising, therefore, that the overwhelming majority of Californians sentenced to state hospitals in the 1950’s were white men who had not committed rape, as judges and psychiatrists “accepted only a select group of MDSO’s (mentally disordered sex offenders)” for treatment, sending sex offenders who were perceived to be “dangerous,” such as convicted rapists and Black men, “to the prison psychiatric ward.”34 A 1960’s publication from Atascadero State Hospital makes this implicitly racialized logic clear, declaring that they did “not accept for treatment any sane patient who would be hostile and disruptive.”35 Forced hospitalization, though a deeply traumatic experience, reflected state officials’ racialized conviction that white male homosexuals, unlike Black men, could be cured for their sexual transgressions and turned into respectable, law abiding citizens.

In prison, where sex offenders were sent about half as often as they were to hospitals between 1955-1973, registrants’ experiences differed dramatically based on their crime and race. While convicted rapists served an average of 42 months in 1963, homosexuals convicted under “lewd” conduct charges spent only 37 months behind bars.36 Considering that California prosecutors disproportionately targeted Black and Mexican men for rape, these sentencing disparities reflect how deeply rape was racialized in the minds of Californian public officials. 37 The general public shared this association too, as, Gladys Towles Root claimed in a 1959 interview that “certain types of offenders,” such as rapists and drug dealers, “should not be paroled,” indicating her racialized view that some sex offenders were too “dangerous” for public life. 38 Prison officials acted on similar notions, granting white sex offenders probation more often than Black and Mexican sex offenders, who were mostly behind bars for statutory rape. 39 Even for incarcerated sex offenders, the idea of white male curability shaped the treatment they received at the hands of the California criminal justice system.

Responses to the Registry: Reformism, Race, & Pathologized Homosexuality

From the earliest days of registration, sex offenders and their allies helped promote the idea of a “curable offender,” countering sensationalist media narratives about the rising “threat” of sex crime with articles that framed sex offenders as “respected member(s) of the community” who were “gainfully employed, usually white,” and only temporarily “mixed up” in sexually unacceptable behavior. 40 In 1955, sex offenders housed in Atascadero published an article firmly in this tradition entitled, “The New Approach: From Sex Offender to Good Citizen,” which presented sex offenders as “average” citizens who “didn’t want to” be sexually deviant, but acted out due to mental illness and their frustration with the stifling nature of white middle-class life. 41 The explanation that sexual deviance resulted from mental illness had a profound impact on sex offender’s perceptions of themselves and their crimes—an impact we can see by close reading a 1959 Los Angeles Times article on the Californian penal system. In the article, an incarcerated sex offender convicted of gang rape discussed his view of the child molesters he encountered behind bars, saying, “You look around you and see guys with houses and good jobs and women and good clothes and cars and like that. Man, you look at yourself and you know you ain’t makin’ it. You’re a nothin’, What you gonna do? Nobody wants to be a nothin’.”42 Through this quote, we can see that this inmate had internalized the idea that certain sex offenders, whom he coded as white, middle-class, and heterosexual, were “normal” and deserved rehabilitation, while other sex offenders, whom he coded as of color, working-class, and homosexual, were “nothin’” and added little value to society.

Some psychiatrists defended sex offenders with similar arguments, highlighting the “normalcy” of sex offenders while failing to critique the homophobic basis upon which law enforcement defined sexual deviance and the racism implicit in popular conceptions of “normal” citizens. One such psychiatrist was Dr. Abe of Atascadero, who told visiting researchers in 1956 that he treated so many “normal” sex offenders that he estimated that “50% of the civil commitments in Atascadero really did not need to be hospitalized, and another 25% could be handled outside the institution in patient therapy.”43 Another was Evelyn Hooker, a prominent Los Angeles psychologist, who advocated for “removing penalties,” such as registration, for acts “in private between consenting adults.”44 A fierce advocate for the decriminalization of homosexuality, Hooker published numerous papers criticizing provisions in California’s registry that penalized sodomy and oral sex, believing that homosexuals could become “productive” citizens if law enforcement stopped criminalizing all forms of their sexual expression. Although she recognized the need to punish homosexuals whose “sexual tendencies or activities” impeded their ability to function at work or “otherwise violated public decency,” Hooker argued that California’s current laws unnecessarily punished “good” homosexual citizens who kept their sex private and their gender performance “discreet.”45 As she clarifies several times in a 1969 article, she “in no way” wants to change “legal sanctions against sexual behavior which violates public decency or involves the seduction of minors.”46This quote reveals that Hooker, like many psychiatrists during this era, merely wanted to reform the registry to protect “responsible” homosexuals, rather than abolish the registry altogether, reflecting Hooker’s belief that some acts, such as rape, public sex, and gender non-conformity, deserved registration.

Hooker was not the only Californian who believed that the registry should be reformed. In the early 1960’s, a number of homophile and gay organizations, such as the Homophile Effort for Legal Protection (H.E.L.P), Mattachine Society, and Gay and Lesbian Police Task Force, began challenging the registry in earnest, particularly its provision against “lewd conduct,” which police almost exclusively used to target gay men and gender non-conforming people.47 Although these organizations, as Scott De Orio notes, did not exert enough influence to be blamed for California’s radical expansion “of its sphere of control over sex offenders,” they frequently used respectability politics to bolster their claims, contrasting “healthy” (white) homosexual citizens with pathological sexual deviants (of color). 48 For example, in a report written by the Gay and Lesbian Police Task Force, the authors note that they created the task force with the aim of “developing an enhanced image of gays and lesbians as responsible concerned citizens,” rather than ending the criminalization of sexuality or assisting all gays and lesbians, regardless of race and class. 49 Similarly, the Homophile Effort for Legal Protection, a legal aid and political advocacy group started in 1968 that achieved notoriety for bailing hundreds of homosexuals out of jail, made frequent appeals to respectability politics in their literature—an unsurprising move, given that the H.E.L.P Political Committee argued in 1970 that homosexual liberation would “come through the election of officials who will favor laws allowing us our rights and freedoms.”50 Aside from refusing to bail out “felons” (i.e. men accused or rape or “kidnapping” children) without “board approval,” H.E.L.P aimed to serve “(people) of half-way respectable appearance, employed or otherwise ‘established’ in the community, (who possess) sufficient identification,” as H.E.L.P President Cliff Lettieri and board member Larry Townsend revealed in a 1970 conversation with a commander of the Los Angeles Police Department. 5152 H.E.L.P’s decision to focus their aid efforts on “respectable” sex offenders reflected their belief that some sex crimes, such as rape, were irredeemable, and that some sex offenders, such as Black men convicted of rape or sex workers who lacked formal employment, were incurable.

Conclusion: Challenges to Registration & Racial Regimes of Sex Surveillance

While many failed to challenge the registry’s racism, some Californians argued that sex offender registries should be abolished, denouncing the inhumane treatment of sex offenders in psychiatric institutions and locating the hetero/patriarchal family, rather than “dangerous” strangers, as the source of sexual violence. One 1970 article in the Gay Flames Bulletin, a leftist gay publication, expressed this abolitionist view, comparing the “chemical castration of sex offenders” to torture in concentration camps. 53 Starting in the early 1970’s, The Advocate published many pieces, often written by registrants, demanding an end to the registry, such as one 1972 article written by John Lastala, a gay man who spent 16 months “as a sex offender” in Atascadero and, as a result of that experience, advocated that the state shut down California’s “prison hospitals.”54 These critiques, however, had little impact on policy discussions of their day, since, as Scott De Orio notes, these activists mostly “did not advance—or, perhaps, were unable to imagine—some better legal response to sexual violence.”55 For scholars of incarceration who are interested in dismantling California’s sex offender registry—which currently tracks over 120,000 people today—this should serve as an instructive lesson, reminding us of the importance of clarity in our critiques of the state. 56


1. “Sex Crime Clinic Opens: Chief Davis Starts Classification and Control Bureau,” Los Angeles Times (Jul. 30, 1938)
2. Ibid
3. Biennial Report of the Attorney General of the State of California 1900-1902 (Sacramento: AJ Johnson, 1902), 73-88
4. Statutes and Amendments to the Codes of California 1921, page 1633, chapter 848, enacted June 3, 1921
5. De Orio, Scott. “The Creation of the Modern Sex Offender,” in The War on Sex ed. David M. Halperin & Trevor Hoppe (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017) 6. “Proposal to Register all Sex Offenders Referred to Police Chief,” Los Angeles Times (April 17, 1940)
7. Statues and Amendments to the Codes of California 1947, pages 2562-2563, chapter 1124 (enacted June 13, 1947)
8. Leon, Chrysanthi S. Sex Fiends, Perverts, and Pedophiles: Understanding Sex Crime Policy in America (New York and London: New York University Press, 2011), 83 9. Eskridge, William N. Dishonorable Passions: Sodomy Laws in America, 1861-2003 (New York: Viking, 2008), 433
10. De Orio 250 11. Los Angeles Police Department: Annual Report 1950, 28, 29
12. Lettieri, Cliff. “A Brief History of H.E.L.P.” HELP Newsletter (January 1971), p. 5
13. “Easy Dealing with Sex Offenders,” Los Angeles Times (June 20, 1951), pg. A4
14. Woodside, Mary. Sterilization in North Carolina: A Sociological and Psychological Study (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1950), 194-195
15. Sarah Welchans, “Megan’s Law: Evaluations of Sex Offender Registries,” Criminal Justice Policy Review 16, no.2 (June 2005). Meiners, Erica. For the Children? Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016)
16. De Orio, Scott. “The Creation of The Modern Sex Offender.” Leon, Chrysanthi. Sex Fiends, Perverts, and Pedophiles: Understanding Sex Crime Policy in America 17. Estelle B. Freedman, “’Uncontrolled Desires:’ The Response to the Sexual Psychopath, 1920-1960,” Journal of American History 74, no. 1 (Jun. 1987), 92 18. J Edgar Hoover, “How Safe Is Your Daughter?” American Magazine 144 (July 1947), 32
19. Leon 31
20. New York Times, April 13, 1933, p. 13
21. Leon 34
22. “America’s Most Insidious Moral Problem” & “How Homosexuality Endangers Your Children,” Los Angeles Times, August 23, 1950 23. De Orio, Scott. 250
24. Edwin H. Sutherland, “The Diffusion of Sexual Psychopathy Laws,” American Journal of Sociology 52, no. 2 (1950), 142 25. Cecil Smith. “Fred Stroble Executed for Child Murder,” Los Angeles Times (July 29, 1952), pg. 1
26. Ray Ingle, Leo. Asylum: A Gay Dachau (Morrisville: Lulu Publishing Services, 2015), 5
27. Sutherland 144
28. James Hubbart. “Sex Deviates Can Be Cured, Says Attorney,” Los Angeles Times (August 12, 1959), p. 4
29. Leon 52 30. Hill, Gladwin. “California Moves to Curb Sex Crime: Warren Parley Notes Laxity, Asks Harder Punishment in Molestation Cases.” The New York Times (December 9, 1949), p. 43 31. Leon 83
32. Ray Ingle vii
33. Harry Nelson. “Better Cure Rate for Sex Offenders Sought.” Los Angeles Times (October 6, 1963), pg. H1 34. Leon 74
35. Youth Maturity Program: From boys to men (Sacramento: Atascadero State Hospital, 196?) 36. Leon 83
37. Leon 101
38. Hubbart 4
39. Delinquency and Probation in California (Sacramento: California Bureau of Criminal Statistics, 1957) 118 40. Leon 61
41. The new approach: Sex offender to good citizen (Sacramento: Atascadero State Hospital, 1955) 42. James Hubbart. “California’s Penal System Designed to Cure Criminals: six part piece.” Los Angeles Times (August 9-15, 1959),pg. B1 43. Leon 61
44. Evelyn Hooker, “Final Report of the Task Force on Homosexuality.” ONE Institute Quarterly: Homophile Studies 22, vol. VIII (October 10, 1969), 11 45. Hooker 6, 10, 11
46. Hooker 10
47. De Orio 252
48. De Orio 248
49. “Report on ONE Incorporated’s participation in the Gay and Lesbian Community: Gay and Lesbian Police Advisory Task Force.” ONE Inc. (Date unknown), 2 50. “H.E.L.P Political Committee.” H.E.L.P Newsletter (December 1970), pg. 3
51. “Membership Application: H.E.L.P” (retrieved from Professor Ramos’ personal archive 12/10/17)
52. 52 “Los Angeles Police Department Joins H.E.L.P.” H.E.L.P Newsletter (December 14, 1970), pg. 1
53. 3 “Koncentration Camp for Gays,” Gay Flames Bulletin, 14 (December 1970), 3
54. 4 John Lastala, “Atascadero—Dachau for queers?” The Advocate (April 26, 1972), pg. 11
55. De Orio 259
56. “California Sex Offender Registry.” (Accessed 12/10/17)

Humanities: Menu

1. Border Architecture: Spatial Politics of the U.S.-Mexico Frontier by Dylan Galano Morrissey

2. Pathologizing Homosexuality, Pathologizing Race: Sex Offender Registration in California, 1940-1975 by Alex Burnett

3. Paul the Benjaminite: The Jewish Identity of the Apostle to the Gentiles by William Zebang Lu