As of today, the #4 bestselling paid app in Apple’s entire iPhone store is “Offender Locator,” by ThinAir Wireless, which links into your GPS and maps the registered sex offenders near you. A couple of mainstream articles have discussed the pros and cons of “Offender Locator,” but none has mentioned the fact that the app names and locates some people who were convicted only of the crime of sodomy.
Although state laws that make consensual gay sex illegal were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas, they remain on the books in many states. In some of those states, people who were convicted under state sodomy laws are still required to register as sex offenders, and are flagged by “Offender Locator.”
For example, a Ridgeland, Mississippi man that “Offender Locator” warns you about was convicted in 1994 of “Unnatural Intercourse” under Mississippi Code § 97-29-59, that state’s anti-sodomy law, which still stands and has been held to prohibit both consensual gay sex and consensual heterosexual oral sex. And under § 45-33-23, that man is still required to register as a sex offender. According to a website published by the state of Mississippi listing registered sex offenders, the man’s information was current as of June 24, 2009.
In spite of the Lawrence decision, some states have not just left anti-sodomy laws on the books but even used them as the basis for arrests. In 2008, two men in Raleigh, North Carolina, were charged with a “Crime Against Nature” in connection with a domestic dispute. Although the charges were later dropped, one of the men lost his $450 bail bond fee. Three years earlier, North Carolina state senator Ellie Kinnaird (D-Orange) had introduced legislation to eliminate the “Crime Against Nature” law on the grounds that anti-sodomy laws are now unconstitutional under Lawrence, but her bill died in the state legislature.
Among other people required to register as sex offenders, and would thus also be subject to listing in the iPhone app, would be teenagers convicted of statutory rape—for example, in Massachusetts, where I went to high school, that might include a 17-year-old high school senior that had sex with his 15-1/2-year-old girlfriend, a fellow senior. That’s not a thought experiment—it’s a real case, and a motion to dismiss it was denied; if convicted, this boy will wind up on “Offender Locator,” too.
The imperfections in our rule of criminal law have resulted in many wrongs through the years. Gay and lesbian people have suffered more than most. Yet decisions like Lawrence give us hope that as a society awakens to the possibility of tolerance, our rule of law can, in time, become less imperfect.
Perhaps ThinAir Wireless would plead neutrality—that it aims simply to make public information more accessible. Yes, these sex offender registries were already online, and, in theory, already public. But the app’s menacing logo and the way it conveys information—representing people convicted of being gay as GPS dots flashing across your map, like obstacles in a video game—tell a different, more public, more accessible story. “Offender Locator” is not just one more cruel punishment for people that have already been maltreated by centuries of codified intolerance; it is, in its novel use of technology, unusual in its cruelty.