The sign outside Palm Springs proudly welcomes visitors to a "two-time winner of the Best Gay Destination in the World Award", and tourist information leaflets proclaim it "America's Gayest City". But no one told the police chief.
David Dominguez, the top cop in a Californian community where almost 50 per cent of residents are gay or lesbian, has been forced out of his job after instructing officers to mount an undercover "sting" against visitors taking advantage of the desert climate to have outdoor sex. His early retirement comes after months of controversy over the operation, in which his officers made dozens of contentious arrests. The final nail in Mr Dominguez's coffin came when he was caught on tape making an "inappropriate comment," thought to involve the word "faggot".
Supporters and opponents of gay rights, in a state on the front line of the battle over same-sex marriage, have been galvanised by the affair, which began in 2009 when the police chief first ordered male officers to dress flamboyantly and walk the streets late at night attempting to solicit sex.
The undercover detectives would approach revellers walking home from bars and nightclubs in the Warm Sands neighbourhood of Palm Springs, home to many gay hotels and resorts, and suggest an amorous liaison. Anyone who accepted their advances was handcuffed, and charged with sex offences.
Critics described the operation as unlawful entrapment, and said it was motivated entirely by homophobia, since no similar "sting" was mounted against heterosexuals. They noted that only one of the city's 99 serving police officers is openly gay.
"What would happen, in a typical scenario, was that three or four of the officers would dress up in tight T-shirts. They would then approach a man, grab his crotch, and say something like 'What you got?'" Roger Tansey, a lawyer for six victims of the sting, told The Independent. "They would flirt for as long as it took to persuade the target to undress, and then handcuff him."
Two dozen of the arrested men are now being prosecuted under Section 290 of the California Penal Code, which will require them, if convicted, to register as sex offenders and spend the rest of their lives on a public database intended to allow concerned parents to identify local paedophiles. "I've never heard of a more discriminatory prosecution," added Mr Tansey. "My clients aren't the sort of people who do this normally. They were talked into it."
Adding to the criticism, video footage emerged of one arrest in which detectives laugh at a suspect they describe as a "cocksucker". After that tape emerged, Mr Dominguez ordered an inquiry and instructed staff to undergo diversity training, but this proved insufficient to save his job.
Palm Springs, about 100 miles east of Los Angeles, but has lately become reliant on the pink pound. There are fears the controversy may hurt the economy. Today, it is one of America's most liberal cities, with a gay mayor, and several gay council members. Although there have been complaints about the occasional excesses of homosexual tourists, the political clout of the gay community was also evident at the last election, when Rod Pacheco – a District Attorney who had aggressively prosecuted men caught up in the controversial "sting" – was voted out of office.Reuse content