In 1994, after 7-year-old Megan Kanka was killed by a convicted sex offender living across the street, New Jersey passed a law requiring sex offenders to register with local police and instructing local officials to inform communities when sex offenders are living among them. Similar statutes, known as "Megan's Laws," have been adopted in at least 40 states. And last year Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, a law requiring states to pass such community notification laws or risk losing federal funds.
But the laws have unexpected implications. Consider California, whose 1996 Megan's Law requires creating a CD-ROM database of convicted sex offenders, available to the public. (The state has had a registry of sex offenders since 1944.) The Los Angeles Times reports that this new database is turning up many ancient cases of men arrested for consensual gay sex in public or semi-public places, some of them youthful experiments of men who went on to long married lives. One man, arrested in 1944 for touching the knee of another man in a parked car, was surprised when his wife collected the mail containing an envelope, stamped "sex crime" in red ink, telling him he needed to register as a sex offender. Many of these men are going through humiliating confrontations with long-forgotten aspects of their past, and complicated and expensive legal maneuverings to get themselves off the list.
"It's a real concern," says Suzanne Goldberg of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, which works on legal issues involving gays. "These laws have the potential to sweep in more people than they should. Laws requiring registration of people engaging in consensual sex are far beyond the pale. Those requirements can have devastating effects on people's lives."