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At Southern Decadence 2019, on the streets of New Orleans' French Quarter, thongs abound.
Southern Decadence is a five-day LGBT celebration that draws thousands to the Big Easy each year, featuring such dazzling events as the Hot Ass Contest, a "Hung Over and Broke" Happy Hour, and a midnight "BATTLE OF THE BULGE." It's Saturday afternoon, two days before Labor Day, and festival-goers are preparing for the Bourbon Street Extravaganza, where live music, rainbow get-ups, and an air of tasteful raunch will come together in a supersized Southern revelry.
But Wendi Cooper isn't on Bourbon Street. In fact, she isn't at Southern Decadence at all. She's a mile away at Duncan Plaza, the green in front of New Orleans City Hall, wearing a full-body prison jumpsuit.
Cooper is a 42-year-old Black transgender activist from New Orleans. She's standing on stage leading a demonstration, flanked by her coalition: Black legislators, cis allies, and almost a dozen costumed trans women wearing outfits that symbolize the harsh criminal justice system they've endured.
Cooper and her fellow activists are calling for the repeal of the Crime Against Nature by Solicitation statute—a Louisiana law known colloquially as "CANS". It was passed in 1982 in a vote of the Louisiana State Legislature that almost no one—not even the bill's author—admits to remembering. But according to Cooper, this law has been used as a tool for the lifelong subjugation of trans women of color in Louisiana ever since.
She calls it "the matriarch of our destruction."
Cooper says the protest is a way to publicly demand that CANS be put to an end—but it's also a way to expose the story of how and why CANS began. Though that history is hazy, Cooper's demonstration makes one thing clear: Until trans women of color in Louisiana achieve full liberation, the LGBTQ+ community cannot have Decadence. They must stay focused on fighting.
CANS' journey to the governor's desk is clouded in mystery, but one cassette tape, hidden in the Louisiana State Archives' 30,000 cubic feet of yellowing parcels, shines a light on the law's beginnings.
The tape captures a meeting of the Louisiana House criminal justice committee. It is littered with static, and plays back at a comical speed. If you slow it down, you can make out the voices of 12 or 13 men. Recorded in an echoey room of the Louisiana House of Representatives, the tape brings us back to June 17, 1982, when legislatures sounded like boys' locker rooms and homophobic slurs were still in vogue.
After roll call, Jim Donelon, a young Republican legislator, approached the mic.
"A serious problem," he explained, was exploding in the streets of New Orleans. Young "male hustlers" were lurking in the shadows of the French Quarter, working the streets as prostitutes and evading police apprehension.
Using a VHS player in the committee room, Donelon played segments of a television special called "Cruisin' the Streets," a 15-part exposé on New Orleans' underground male prostitution industry. Circulated statewide on ABC, "Cruisin' the Streets" follows gay "streetwalkers" on the prowl for their next tricks, featureing church leaders warning of blowjobs in broad daylight. One funeral home director laments: "What is a child—3, 4, 5 years old—going to church to pray to the Almighty, going to understand when he sees something like this?"
At the recorded meeting, murmurs of concern crescendoed in the committee room as Donelon switched off the television. He appealed to his fellow legislators to pass H.B. 853, a bill that would make it a crime to "solicit… unnatural carnal copulation for compensation"—that is, to offer oral or anal sex for money—and would punish such conduct with up to five years in prison on a first offense.
Without hesitation, the committee endorsed his bill.
That day, with the help of a single inflammatory news piece, Donelon created a crisis. And six weeks later, with the signature of Governor Dave Treen, his bill became law. Its official title: Crime Against Nature by Solicitation—"CANS" for short.
Despite the law's quick trip through the legislative process, there was one major problem with it from the start: The crisis Donelon's bill sought to address wasn't credible. Local viewers and TV critics took to the pages of the Times-Picayune to decry "Cruisin' the Streets," calling it a "psychological attempt to reinforce the Moral Majority view… pumping hype and sensationalism."
If "Cruisin' the Streets" was journalism, it was yellow—and CANS was its collateral damage.
To those familiar with the politics of Baton Rouge, this picture may look unsurprising. Louisiana's shoot-first-ask-questions-later policymaking philosophy has long privileged bravado over forethought. In reality, though, CANS was part of something larger, a nationwide movement that was more concerned with denouncing "homosexual deviants" than helping young sex workers. That movement, a reactionary right-wing pushback against "gay rights," is at the heart of CANS.
It may be true that Jim Donelon, who now serves as Louisiana's Commissioner of Insurance, hasn't thought about CANS for almost 40 years. But hundreds more, Wendi Cooper among them, certainly have.
Even if Jim Donelon believed the sensationalist claims of "Cruisin' the Streets," his response—to create a new law—didn't make sense. Sex work was already illegal in Louisiana.
Prostitution has been criminalized in the Bayou State since the 19th century. For many years, the law was gender-specific, criminalizing only female sex workers. There was, however, a separate law, in place since 1805, that outlawed oral and anal sex—by anyone, for any purpose. That law is called Crime Against Nature. The combination of these two laws—one against prostitution, the other against sodomy—is CANS, and it has been used to double down on those accused of engaging in "unnatural" acts in exchange for money.
In 1977, five years before CANS was introduced, the legislature gender-neutralized the long-standing general prostitution law. If the police ever lacked a legal mechanism for apprehending any kind of sex work, that amendment gave them one.
CANS was unnecessary. So, why did Donelon propose it? The answer lies in the penalties.
While CANS and the prostitution laws criminalize the same conduct, prostitution alone was (and remains) a misdemeanor. That means it's punishable by a fine of $500 or a jail sentence of up to six months.
CANS, on the other hand, made these acts a felony. Under its harsh guidelines, prosecutors could push for sentences of up to five years with hard labor for a first offense. After a third, CANS offenders could be labeled habitual felons and sent to prison for 20 years to life. (One such individual, currently serving a 21-year sentence, was interviewed on background for this story. Because Louisiana D.P.S.C. records list the broader statute criminalizing the sex act itself, rather than the specific subsection, it's impossible to know exactly how many like her are still serving time.)
CANS wasn't the bare-minimum law officials needed to bring order to the French Quarter. Instead, it was the harsh law they wanted—one that law enforcement could use, as one legislator put it, to "intimidate street-wise boys" while reserving misdemeanor Prostitution charges for less "deviant" offenders. Above all else, CANS was an anti-gay emblem, one that would appease Louisiana's 63 conservative parishes at the expense of the marginalized in Orleans.
When NYPD officers raided the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, they didn't expect protests. In those days, gay bars were common police targets. But this time, the community, led by trans women of color, decided to push back. Three days of protests erupted in New York City, and the gay-rights cause began to roar nationwide.
As the '70s trudged on, however, this pro-gay movement met pushback. Outspoken homophobes like Anita Bryant of "Save Our Children" and Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority ignited an anti-gay counterwave, drawing Christian conservatives from the shadows to the ballot box en masse.
Inspired by Bryant and Falwell's ascension to right-wing fame, state and local leaders across the country initiated anti-gay measures of their own. Many officials looked to religiously-inspired, colonial-era "sodomy" laws—which still remained on the books in 49 states. Although these sodomy laws were not originally designed to target homosexual conduct (they criminalized all non-procreative sex acts, including oral sex, even between married heterosexuals), state and local leaders revitalized them for anti-gay ends.
In 1971, after the Florida Supreme Court struck down the state's 103-year-old sodomy law—which had applied to gays and straights alike—state senator David McClain suggested that the legislature reinstate the statute with penalties applied only to homosexual behavior. A similar proposal passed the next year in Texas, creating a "Homosexual Conduct" law that would remain on the books until the Supreme Court famously struck it down in 2003.
At the same time, San Francisco's Democratic mayor, Joseph Alioto, ordered widespread arrests of men engaging in "oral copulation." Under his leadership, the city's police department arrested 211 men for sodomy in the two years following Stonewall, a dramatic increase from the 11 arrests made in 1967.
By 1981, nine states had criminalized homosexual conduct while decriminalizing sodomy for opposite-sex couples. Compared to a century earlier, convictions for consensual, same-sex sodomy were up twentyfold.
Yet in the right-wing circles that advocated for these reforms, Jim Donelon was not a familiar face.
In fact, just four months before proposing CANS, Donelon was a Democrat. After losing a statewide race for lieutenant governor in 1980, he began eyeing a Louisiana House seat held by a retiring Republican. Weeks before the special election, Donelon announced his party change at a campaign press conference, citing a newfound commitment to the "basic conservative philosophies" of reducing waste and balancing the budget. He made no mention of family values or a return to morality—the classic dog-whistles for an anti-gay agenda.
But when the newly-minted Republican assumed office, he must have seen the reality unfolding around him. All the rising stars of the Republican Party, from Texas to Missouri to Arkansas, had one thing in common: they were leading the charge of an anti-gay legislative movement.
Jim Donelon must have wanted in on the spoils. So, in June of 1982, he jumped on board the bandwagon.
Although CANS emerged around the same time as anti-gay statutes in other states, it was distinct in one striking way. Most sodomy laws regulated sexual conduct that was private and consensual, meaning police almost never witnessed it and neighbors almost never reported it.
But CANS was a crime of words. To be charged and prosecuted, you didn't need to have gay sex. You simply had to solicit it (for money)—or consent when an undercover officer solicited you. The public, verbal, subjective nature of CANS made it an effective way for law enforcement to actually arrest (rather than just symbolically denounce) gay men.
And arrest they did. Although Kevin Boshea, former Chief of Sex Crimes at the Orleans Parish district attorney's office, denied in an interview for this story that his office used CANS to prosecute homosexual conduct, newspaper records show that after CANS passed, law enforcement routinely raided gay bars and bookstores and charged dozens of men with CANS.
This anti-gay enforcement strategy, aggressive as it was, only lasted about two years. In the mid-'80s, CANS enforcement was thwarted by the arrival of HIV/AIDS in New Orleans.
The widespread paranoia and medical uncertainty that characterized the AIDS epidemic largely quashed street sex work on its own. According to an article by sexual health researchers at the University of New England, medical officials publicly regarded gay sex workers—a group that had never before appeared in medical literature—as vectors, transmitting HIV into "normal" society via their "normal" clients. Paid sex became too risky a practice for many once-discreet clients—and it became deadly for many sex workers who depended on it for survival. The crisis of "gay hustlers" that Donelon had trumpeted in 1982 was, it seemed, over.
But CANS did not go with it. The law outlasted the AIDS epidemic, and it was born into a new life.
By the time AIDS fell from the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. in 1998 thanks to innovations in antiretroviral therapy, the gay community had achieved a major rebranding in popular culture. According to historian George Chauncey, in the early '90s a drastic increase in media coverage mainstreamed gay subculture in the U.S. and, intentionally or not, humanized its members. In many parts of the country, politicians found that demonizing their queer constituents—or, at least, their white, cisgender ones—was no longer upping their odds of winning elections.
But the psychic space once occupied by the "homosexual deviant" was not left vacant. For decades, politicians had been vilifying Black men and boys through a racist rhetoric of criminality, and in 1996, scaremongering political scientist John DiIulio consolidated a new mythic creature for Americans to fear: the superpredator.
This alleged class of impulsive, Black, criminal teens, famously described by then-first lady Hillary Clinton as having "no conscience, no empathy," was, purportedly, exploding: DiIulio predicted there would be 30,000 new juvenile criminals on the streets by the year 2000.
Officials responded to this specter of violence by initiating a street-cleaning craze. The Clinton crime bill (formally the Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act of 1994) added 100,000 subsidized officers to local police departments and authorized $9.7 billion in prison construction.
Within four years of the law's passage, the nation's incarceration rate had jumped 50 percent.
Louisiana followed Clinton's lead. Thanks to growing police squads, fortified mandatory minimums, and a new juvenile habitual offender law, the Bayou State held 33,000 people behind bars in 1998, giving it the highest incarceration rate in the country.
This shift was driven in part by a new, aggressive strategy known as broken-windows policing. This, according to legal scholar James Forman Jr., meant police worked not only to apprehend violent criminals, but to capture anyone who might one day become one. In the poorest and Blackest neighborhoods, police used "consensual searches" (in which civilians didn't know they could refuse) and pretextual stops (for activities like loitering or driving with tinted windows) to lock up otherwise innocent civilians for minor, nonviolent crimes.
Once the technology of hyper-policing was developed, though, it wasn't just deployed on Black men. As a result of aggressive Clinton-era welfare cuts that relegated many young mothers to the streets (and, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, likely to sex work as well), police rediscovered a new criminal target: women.
According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in the four years after Clinton's welfare reform, the number of women incarcerated for nonviolent offenses in Louisiana increased by 60 percent.
To accomplish this feat of confinement, Louisiana police departments had to leverage an inventive set of minor crime laws. CANS—a crime of words with multiyear penalties that could be used to punish survival sex workers, or those who sell or trade sex in order to meet their basic needs—must have seemed a perfect candidate.
Discussion around CANS resurfaced, but this time, it didn't target gay teens. It targeted poor Black women.
Tragic as it is, this turn in the law's history doesn't account for Wendi Cooper's demonstration during Southern Decadence. Cooper alleges that CANS is more than a general street-cleaning law; it's a tool of trans oppression, specifically.
That reality came to light in the mid-2000s, after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans.
When the city's levees broke on August 29, 2005, floodwaters ruptured vital infrastructure, inundated low-income neighborhoods, and brought massive unemployment to the city. Social services buckled under the pressure of public need, and state and local leaders allowed them to collapse completely. Government officials erected barbed-wire fences around the city's public housing units, barring entry even for residents whose possessions were locked inside. Dr. Jordan Camp, an urban studies scholar at the City University of New York, says landlords and state officials used the storm as a pretext to expel the Black working class to the streets.
And once they were there, police patrolled them ruthlessly. The New Orleans Police Department abandoned rescue missions in favor of maintaining "law and order." Mayor Ray Nagin and police chief Eddie Compass instructed NOPD officers to treat New Orleans as a war zone. Arrests skyrocketed. CANS enforcement surged.
But this time, things were worse. CANS had undergone a silent revision, one that made its impact even harsher.
In 1991, prompted by a new federal mandate, the Louisiana legislature drafted the state's first set of rules governing the registration of sex offenders. These rules included a list of so-called registrable crimes, or sex offenses severe enough that people convicted of them had to publicly register. CANS appeared on the list.
Though enforcement of sex offender registration laws was lax in the 1990s, officials cracked down after Katrina, prompted by a rule requiring sex offenders to shelter apart from their families during storms. All of a sudden, people convicted of CANS—but not of the broader prostitution laws—found themselves subjected to a litany of onerous requirements: They had to register for the public sex-offender database, mail notification postcards to neighbors, ensure adequate distance from schools, carry a license with the words "SEX OFFENDER" in bright orange letters, forfeit public benefits, forfeit child custody rights, and forfeit most opportunities for gainful employment. All this for 15 years on a first offense—and on a second, for life.
Whether or not Katrina caused an uptick in survival sex work, the sex offender registry swelled. By 2011, 40 percent of all people on the sex offender registry in New Orleans were there exclusively because of CANS. Of those, 75 percent were women and 80 percent were Black.
It was around this time that Wendi Cooper realized she wasn't alone. She was first arrested for CANS in 1999, just six months after she began her transition, and she had spent years hiding her conviction from almost everyone she knew.
But after Katrina, Cooper watched as an alarming number of her loved ones—fellow trans women of color, many of whom had also done survival sex work—found themselves strapped with the same obtrusive sex-offender registration requirements she was. She watched them lose their jobs and be denied affordable housing. She watched them hesitate to show their "SEX OFFENDER"-stamped IDs at bars.
She was outraged. And she was ready to go public.
On September 4, 2005, six days after Hurricaine Katrina hit New Orleans, police officers shot and killed two unarmed Black men—one 17 years old, the other mentally disabled—in what came to be known as the Danziger Bridge Shootings. Uproar ensued, and New Orleanians called for the U.S. Department of Justice to step in. Finally, in May 2010, New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu agreed to a federal investigation.
While activists roused by the Danziger Bridge Shootings hoped investigators would uncover the New Orleans Police Department's history of racial bias and brutality, Cooper and her coalition knew the DOJ would likely also uncover something else: a pronounced anti-LGBTQ+ bias, with CANS at its center.
With the power of an investigation that promised to be damning, Cooper partnered with Deon Haywood, a civil rights activist and executive director of the New Orleans nonprofit Women With a Vision. Together, they started the NO Justice Project, whose goal was to oppose CANS in the legislature and in court.
Haywood took the lead in Baton Rouge. In 2010, she successfully lobbied the Louisiana State Legislature to pass S.B. 381, which removed the sex offender registration requirement for first-time offenders convicted under CANS. The next year, she pushed for H.B. 141, a bill that would fully equalize penalties for CANS and prostitution, not just on a first offense. Thanks to tireless advocacy from three Black House Democrats—Charmaine Marchand Staies, Patricia Smith, and Rosalind Jones—that bill passed with unprecedented support: 98 in favor, and only 15 nays.
Finally, CANS was reduced to a misdemeanor offense—and it could no longer be used to saddle nonviolent offenders with oppressive sex-offender registration requirements. But these reforms were not retroactive. Wendi Cooper remained on the sex offender registry, as did hundreds of other Louisianians with old CANS convictions.
So, Cooper sued. On February 15, 2011, represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, Cooper and eight other plaintiffs—three trans women, four cis women, and one gay man—filed a complaint arguing that the sex-offender registration requirement in CANS violated their constitutional right to privacy. The next year, in federal district court, they won. Nearly 1,000 people, most Black women, were removed from the sex offender registry as a result—their long nightmares finally put to an end.
At the same time, the DOJ released the findings from its investigation. In a 158-page report, the DOJ confirmed what Cooper and Haywood had been fighting to make known: "NOPD practices lead to discriminatory treatment of LGBT individuals," including unjustified, prostitution-related arrests. Community members reported that trans women were much more likely, because of their gender identity, to be charged with a felony sex offense rather than a misdemeanor. Most shockingly, NOPD officers were found to have fabricated evidence of sex-work–related conduct and to have used the threat of a CANS arrest to intimidate trans women into performing sex acts.
In the legislature, the courts, and the U.S. Department of Justice, the ugly history of CANS was coming to light—and leaders were finally responding with meaningful reforms. But the story doesn't end there.
Over the years, police and prosecutors have used CANS to target a revolving door of "threatening" groups: those who transgressed family norms in the 1980s, those made vulnerable by welfare cuts in the 1990s, and those left destitute by failed levees and toppled flood walls in the post-Katrina 2000s. But one community represents the intersection of all these targeted groups: Black trans women.
Indeed, some of the "gay men" CANS targeted in the 1980s likely became the women it targeted in the '90s—as a consolidated identity category, "transgender" hardly existed in the '80s, and gender-affirming health care options were scarce. Although many gays and lesbians benefited from greater social acceptance in the years after Tom Hanks won his Oscar for the white-gay classic Philadelphia (1994), trans women of color did not. Youth homelessness, biased hiring, and discriminatory government safety nets relegated many to the streets—at the precise moment those streets were being "cleaned."
That's why, for Wendi Cooper, the fight against CANS isn't over until the law is fully off the books.
There's a practical reason for her continued fight. Even though people with old CANS convictions are no longer on the sex offender registry, they do still have felony records. When a potential employer or landlord runs a background check, a felony "Crime Against Nature" conviction still appears.
"People see that and assume I was doing something terrible, something with children, something with animals," Cooper said, "not something I needed to do to survive."
But, Cooper says, even more important than outstanding felony records is the symbolic harm wrought by CANS. Although the law may be what lawyers call "facially neutral"—that is, its text doesn't explicitly mention LGBTQ+ people—its anti-queer origins are clear. As long as that animus remains codified, Cooper argues, a message of hate is sent to Louisiana's hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ+ residents.
Today, Cooper leads a grassroots group called CANScan'tSTAND, which raises public awareness and builds relationships with lawmakers in an effort to get CANS off the books. State Representative Mandie Landry, a self-styled "post-Trump progressive," supports Cooper's cause. Since 2020, she has proposed two bills to repeal all Louisiana sex work laws, including CANS, though neither has received a floor vote. She plans to introduce a similar bill in 2022."
Support also comes from New Orleans' newly minted district attorney Jason Rogers Williams, who, in the early days of his campaign, suggested that healing the wounds inflicted by CANS will require more than expunging people's felony records. Indeed, it will take a serious reckoning—with faith, with resource allocation, and with Louisiana's history of codified hate.
Wendi Cooper's demonstration took place during Southern Decadence 2019, seven years after her victory in court. That victory, she says, must not be construed as the end of the fight against CANS. Rather, it should be viewed as a glint of hope—that the law's true end is near, and that greater change for trans Louisianians lies not far beyond. Moving forward, Cooper hopes her movement can serve as something of a meeting point for the marginalized, where all those implicated in the law's troubling history—LGBTQ+ people, people of color, and the millions impacted by the U.S. criminal justice system—can fight together for liberation.