Something Different, Inc., is a
gift and card shop located in a
popular shopping mall at 5300 Tchoupitoulas Street.
Co-owners Jeff Steingraber and Brett Messmer, are two gay men. They have been lovers for over a decade. They share a half-double shotgun home in the Irish Channel. Messmer is a local New Orleanian and does most of the buying for the business. Steingraber is originally from New York and keeps the books.
On Thursday, October 12, about 6 pm, Messner was working at the shop when he was presented with a summons by a New Orleans police officer. To his shock, he had allegedly broken New Orleans Code Sec. 54-259, which prohibits the "Sale, exhibition, or distribution of material harmful to minors."
The items in question are a small section of adult greeting cards depicting nude same-sex models posing in various costumes. These are the same cards which can be found in another card shop on Magazine Street and also in card and gift shops throughout the French Quarter.
The first portion of the ordinance is written as follows: "(a) The unlawful sale, exhibition, rental, leasing, or distribution of material harmful to minors is the intentional sale, allocation, distribution, advertisement, dissemination, exhibition, or display of material harmful to minors, to any unmarried person under the age of 17 years, or the possession of material harmful to minors with the intent to sell, allocate, advertise, disseminate, exhibit, or display such material to any unmarried person under the age of 17 years, at a newsstand or anyother commercial establishment which is open to persons under the age of 17 years."
This ordinance is followed by 14 more paragraphs of detailed descriptions of what is meant by the ordinance. The penalty for breaking this ordinance is no small matter.
"Whoever is found guilty of violating the provisions of this section (54-259) shall be fined not less than $100.00 nor more than $1,000.00 or imprisoned for not more than 1 year, or both. (Code 1956 42-50).
Messmer and Steingraber deny any wrongdoing and are very concerned about the high legal expense resulting from this charge.
"We don't even allow kids in the shop unless they are escorted by their parents or an adult," stated both merchants.
They are both extremely upset over the incident, and Mr. Steingraber is especially concerned over the fact that such an accusation can be made against a shop that has had over 30,000 to 40,000 people come in to buy something each year for the last 4 years. Steingraber says he has records to validate this claim.
During all that time he says, we have had maybe 4 complaints about items in our shop from all those people. Both men allege that the police action was instigated by a constituent of Councilwoman Suzanne Haik Terrell's office (District A). They are amazed that such a charge can be brought about by what appears to be pressure from an elected councilwoman phone call to a police station. In this case it was the 2nd District police station house which is in their neighborhood.
"We have policemen and policewoman who come to our shop to buy cards and things all the time," said Messmer. Messmer could not describe specifically which cards the police persons bought, b ut he declared that they were from the clearly marked Adult Section of cards.
"I was sitting there working, putting something away or whatever when this cop came in and said, I've got bad news," Messmer stated. "I kind of knew what it was about because they had been in three times before and never issued a summons so I just figured they were going to say, got a complaint blah, blah, blah. On three different occasions uniformed police officers had come to the shop and looked around..."
"They started coming in during May," interjected Steingraber.
"They said that they had to give me the summons, so I said, fine, you have to do what you have to do," continued Messmer. "It had been maybe a month since they had been in last time, so we weren't expecting anything because we researched the statutes and we weren't in violation of anything. The policemen who had come the other times said, 'Oh it looks allright to me. I don't see anything wrong. You got them [the items] segregated; you got a sign on it that says Adults Only.' The ordinance says you have to have a sign that reads 'Not For Minors' and our sign reads 'Adults Only.'
"The policemen had bought cards here before. I don't remember which ones, but they were from the Adult Cards section. The store that was here before, 'Keep In Touch,' had their adult cards in the same exact spot that we do. The only addition that we have added are the same sex cards. We've been here for fours years now with no problems."
Both men do not believe that the actions brought against them is any form of homophobia. They think that the mystery person or persons who probably filed the complaint with Councilwoman Terrell's office was some little old uptown lady with no connection to any organized hate-mongering group. They were unable to get any ID on the alleged complainant(s).
"We have every thing in our shop from rubber cockroaches to crystal vases. Novelty, gifts, cards," said Messmer. "Ninety nine percent of the items we sell are not Adults Only. I really don't know if this was a gay issue or just the Adult Cards which caused the person to complain.
"The original summons was set for October 17," said Messmer. "I showed up at court and I was told the original summons was not turned in to the court and the defendant was instructed to leave until further notice. So I left. I have not as yet received another summons or date," continued Messmer.
"I was there in late May when the first Police Officer came to the shop," said Steingraber. "His name was Officer Joe Maumus or something like that. I had received a phone call from a female police officer at the 2nd District who claimed that there had been a complaint. I told her that to my knowledge we were not doing anything wrong but thanks for relaying the complaint. Officer Joe Maumus came in with a clip board and went directly to the Adults Only card panel. After the phone call I was a little suspicious. I walked up to him and I asked could I help him. He replied that he was on official business and that he would be with me shortly. He came up a few minutes later and plopped down three or four cards and said we've had complaints about these cares. They were adult cards showing single nude males, some with genitals showing, or a tush. One showed an erect penis. He reiterated what I'd been told about having received a complaint and that he could not tell me who it was. He mentioned Section 255 (Sale and Distribution of Obscene Material) and Section 256 (Public Display of Explicit Sexual Material). Those were the only two ordinances mentioned. He never mentioned Section 259 at that time which is the sale and display of explicit sexual material to young persons. I said to him, gee you look familiar and he said yeah I've been in here before. I've bought cards here. And I said well you're not the only police officer who has."
At press time the case was still pending.
What we members of the gay community find interesting about this case is the fact that once again it appears that an elected official can simply pick up a phone and call the police station in their district and have police action performed, such as a raid. The charge involving "a minor" which the final summons for Ordinance 54-259 specifies seems once again like the old bogeyman of "molesting children" in mind or body which the Christian fascists always claim to be an activity of the gay community.
Whether or not this is a homophobically influenced charge, the fact remains that once again, a gay man (Messmer) is being accused of a criminal act and is being forced to spend perhaps thousands in his defense. When have we been through this before? Who remembers Clay Shaw? Who remembers the actions of ex-councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor when she allegedly had an uptown bar raided for giving plastic cups to its clientele with an unflattering likeness of herself imprinted on each side of the cup? Who remembers how a little Viennese paper hanger got started in his political career by slowly but surely bringing claims of unlawful activity against European gypsies, gay men and women, and Semitic peoples living in the German State during the 1940s?
Is it the New Orleans mind-set or is it just the misuse of political power, or the use of political power without thought? Is it the humidity or the stupidity as the unflattering T shirt sold in the Vieux Carre declaims about New Orleans?
[To be continued.]