Soon after moving to Silver Lake last year, Keith Farr realized the daytime serenity of his neighborhood was deceptive. Once he awoke to the sounds of police making an arrest in his yard. Another night, he came home to find two men engaged in sex on the stairs to his second-floor duplex.
At 2 or 3 a.m. on the weekend his street was as noisy as an airport terminal during the holidays, rowdy with men driving back and forth, hanging out on the sidewalks. They were there to meet and flirt, to party and take drugs, and to have sex--in cars and sideyards, and, as Farr discovered, occasionally even on a front stoop.
In the enduring subculture of men cruising for sex with other men, a few pleasant residential blocks of Griffith Park Boulevard had become hot. A nearby sex club had drawn crowds, as did the boulevard’s mention in gay guides.
“In no way am I a moralist, but it would be embarrassing,” said one exasperated condo owner who regularly got an eyeful from his third floor balcony. “I’d have guests over and guys would be having sex” in the bushes below.
Weary of seeing more than they cared to in the shrubbery, of being propositioned on the street, of having to clean up used condoms, residents demanded that something be done. A police crackdown ensued, largely quieting the scene--but also stirring dissension and complaints that authorities overreacted.
“I don’t want cruising here on the street, to subject my family and friends to it,” Farr, a 34-year-old investment advisor, said some time ago. “But on the other hand, I don’t want them subject to police harassment and running into an undercover vice officer.”
After police beefed up their presence in the neighborhood last year with both uniformed and undercover officers, Farr said he was stopped six times (“in various ways, none of them pleasant”). One night he was questioned while standing in front of his duplex with his dog. Officers wanted to know where he lived, demanding identification and threatening to cite him for having his dog unleashed. “The attitude I was getting from them was appalling.”
When someone was arrested in his sideyard, Farr said he heard an officer ask the suspect, “Are you a homosexual?”
Others, like the gay condo owner, groused that the matter was unfairly being turned into a gay-rights rallying cry. “It’s not a gay issue. It’s a quality of life issue,” he stressed. “The gay activists are saying our rights are being trampled. Eh, eh. The police did it in a gay-friendly manner.” Reflecting just how sensitive the matter became, he did not want his full name printed out of fear he would be harassed.
The cruisers have all but disappeared, but controversy lingers over “No cruising” and “No U-turn” signs placed on the boulevard at the beginning of the year. Many in the neighborhood say they have been effective. Others contend that the signs, which forbid more than two trips past the same spot in six hours, are illegal because the city’s anti-cruising ordinance was designed to control a quite different situation: that of teenage low-riders rumbling down the boulevards.
It doesn’t matter to Farr any more. Disenchanted with community bickering as well as the police, he moved to the Bay Area in June.
The flare-up in gay-friendly Silver Lake raised delicate questions about community values. But it also has broader dimensions: Once again, complaints were voiced about enforcement of lewd conduct laws, an issue with a long history. And beyond that, the controversy spotlighted the centuries-old culture--disgusting to some, thrilling to others--of gay men who are drawn to sexual adventure outside the bedroom.
Certainly the cruising scene provides ample opportunity for run-ins with police. The stigmatization of homosexuality may be fading and the laws that kept gay relations furtive and criminal may be long gone in states like California, but for some, the appeal of quick, anonymous encounters remains.
Now, there is even an Internet site that offers an extensive, constantly updated listing of sex cruising spots across the country. “It is the most useful page I have ever encountered on the Web,” one site user enthused.
The Southern California section goes on for pages, detailing scores of parks, public restrooms and adult bookstores where men can find public sex--from the bathrooms at Venice Beach and Orange County department stores to the bushes of San Fernando Valley parks and Long Beach parking lots.
Some who frequent these spots are married or deeply closeted, unwilling to engage in conventional ways of meeting other men. Some are sexual compulsives. And some simply enjoy sexual activity with strangers.
“There are times when my emotion department is filled,” explained Paul (not his real name), a gay man who is in a long-term relationship but has cruised in bath houses and off the trails of Griffith Park. “You get something different without any commitment. . . . The excitement of a different person.
“It sounds kind of shallow,” continued the 25-year-old, but he makes no apologies. “I’m not uncomfortable about cruising. I’m not obsessed and it’s not an activity I participate in a lot. With me I kind of think it’s just a phase.”
He doesn’t go to West Hollywood to pick someone up because “the bars are filled with pretty boys looking for other pretty boys.” And he is not one of them. Besides, he’s from Kansas and likes the outdoor setting of the park. “You’ve got the trees, the birds. It’s nice.”
Paul was arrested for lewd conduct last year, and his case illustrates some of the gay community’s recurring allegations: that undercover vice officers are used as decoys and don’t simply arrest people they find engaging in public sex, but actively lure men they think are gay and fabricate scenarios in arrest reports.
Paul was in a park men’s room, on a day when he says he was there to enjoy the observatory view and hike, not cruise. He insists he would not have sex in a restroom--"You could potentially have anyone walk in"--and simply had to go to the bathroom.
The police report was typical, stating that he stared at an undercover officer’s groin area and masturbated. Paul, who denies that, said the undercover officer grabbed his own genitals and persistently stared at him.
He contested the charge and was acquitted in a Los Angeles Municipal Court trial earlier this year--one of a string of recent victories for Paul’s attorney, John Duran, who said more of his clients are willing to go to trial than in the past and more of them are winning. Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Keith Schwartz agreed that it is becoming more difficult to obtain lewd conduct convictions, largely because the defendants, often professionals, “are such good witnesses.”
“In the past a lot of people were ashamed and humiliated to be in a courtroom and have all these private things come out,” Schwartz noted. “The stigma has really sort of dissipated.”
Still, the vast majority of cases end in pleas. Of about 1,500 lewd conduct cases handled by the Los Angeles city attorney’s office last year, only 41 went to trial. About half ended in acquittals or mistrials, usually because juries deadlocked, leading to the dismissal of charges.
Lewd conduct, a misdemeanor, typically carries a sentence involving community service, probation or a $150 fine for a first offense. But it can also become a state licensing issue for professionals such as doctors and lawyers; for public school teachers, a conviction by law means the end of their careers.
There is no official breakdown, but attorneys say the great majority of lewd conduct arrests allege same-sex activity. Therein lie persistent claims of discriminatory enforcement.
“You go to parts of Elysian Park and there are straight couples. They’re fornicating. And they’re not behind a bush,” complained one gay man who was arrested for lewd conduct in the park. “It’s out there. You don’t have to look very hard. But there’s a different attitude--that’s normal. That’s OK.”
In one of several, so far unsuccessful bids for LAPD records that defense lawyers contend will prove discrimination, attorney Gerald A. Gerash argued that four of his clients were arrested for lewd conduct in an area next to Los Angeles International Airport, while on the other side of a knoll, a heterosexual lovers’ lane is largely ignored by police.
Police dismiss the allegations of entrapment and selective enforcement.
“What other defense would you have other than to say, ‘I didn’t do it and the police officer entrapped me?’ ” countered Los Angeles Police Capt. Louis Gray of the Northeast Division, which includes parts of Griffith Park, an eternally popular cruising locale and the site of 151 lewd conduct arrests by his vice unit last year. “You can’t say I wasn’t there. There’s no other defense to have than the police officer lied.”
LAPD Cmdr. Dan Watson, who oversees vice operations in the Central Bureau, said his officers concentrate on vice crimes that are conspicuous, commercial or complained of. “We don’t have nearly the level of activity or complaints about couples, about men and women engaging in that activity as we do with men,” he said. “The fingers are being pointed at the police department. And we’re there because illegal activity is occurring.
“I would rather have my resources deployed elsewhere,” he added. “I think that segment of the gay community that is engaged in this activity has to take some of the responsibility themselves instead of pointing fingers.”
It isn’t just elements of the gay community, however, that keep the cruising scene going.
“A lot of men who get arrested for lewd conduct . . . identify themselves as non-gay, heterosexually married and live in Rubidoux, San Bernardino, Palmdale, where they’re living in their straight world,” observed LAPD Officer Lisa Phillips, the department’s liaison to the gay community. “They come here and they take that chance and then they go back home.”
While cruising attracts men of all ages, Santa Ana attorney Georgia Garrett Norris said her married clients tend to be older than 50, torn between homosexual yearnings they can barely acknowledge and straight family life that is the foundation of their personal identity.
“They have too much invested in being a parent, husband,” said Norris, who has handled some 2,500 lewd conduct cases in Orange County and Long Beach in the last 16 years. “These aren’t people who can join a gay group. Their alternatives are pretty narrow. They can’t go into a dating mode.
“To me they are the saddest. I understand them not wanting to give up their lives. But on the other hand, they’re not just going to be able to will away their sexual feelings.”
Even for the unmarried, cruising defies a simplistic explanation. “It implies they’re making this conscious decision and ignoring the law,” said Beverly Hills psychologist Brian Gold. “These are people who are often bright, very successful, very well educated, but for a whole complex of reasons are struggling with ways to connect with people.”
Although Los Angeles psychologist and veteran gay activist Donald Kilhefner believes a desire for quick anonymous encounters can be a healthy sexual expression, he said many of the men he has treated are involved in “compulsive, addictive sexual behavior” that is often tied to shame about their sexuality. “It really is something they can’t stop.”
At the same time, Kilhefner suggests there is a broader cultural dimension at work. To the extent society defines homosexuality by sex acts, that can become a self-fulfilling identity. Gays are “going to play out the roles that are ascribed to them,” he observed.
Yet that explanation stumbles over the lack of a comparable lesbian cruising scene. “I think it has to do with male sexual expression rather than exclusively male homosexual expression,” Gold said. “I think heterosexual men probably would [cruise] if women were responsive to it.”
Even as some gay leaders and writers lament that gay male culture is too obsessed with sex for its own good, others suspect there will always be public sex in the gay world.
“A lot of gay guys are part of gay culture because they don’t want to be locked into the bonding thing,” said American University anthropology professor William Leap, who is editing a book on public sex. They don’t want to adopt heterosexual conventions such as monogamy, and “one way of expressing that resistance is having a lot of sexual partners in different locations.”
Historically, cruising was one of the chief ways gay men found each other. Lacking privacy or their own socially acceptable establishments, they turned to the streets to meet and tryst.
“If [men] didn’t get married they lived with their families. . . . You didn’t have privacy,” John De Cecco, gay studies coordinator at San Francisco State University, said of earlier eras. “You had to have [sex] publicly or not at all unless you were very rich.”
Records of men arrested for public sodomy date from 15th and 16th century Florence and Venice. There were waves of enforcement, depending on the politics of the time. “It was much less a moral issue than a practical issue of keeping things looking well,” De Cecco said.
In this century, cruising became a familiar literary theme as well, related in gay novels and memoirs as voyages of self-discovery and conquest.
The young protagonist of Edmund White’s “The Beautiful Room Is Empty” spends a good chunk of his college career in university bathrooms. One of the stops in Renaud Camus’ 1981 fictional sexual diary, “Tricks,” is a darkened Parisian square near Notre Dame.
And in John Rechy’s earlier, similarly themed novel, “Numbers,” the trails of Griffith Park become Johnny Rio’s frenzied hunting ground for anonymous partners. The book was not that far from the reality of the park’s cruising heyday, in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But it was more than the promise of the sexual prowl that clogged the prime cruising turf with cars.
“I’ve known people who said they couldn’t survive without the possibility of the park,” said Rechy, who still lives nearby. “It allowed contact, association and confirmation that there were a lot of us. And when we were together it was not all that b------- that we were sick.” Nowadays, he added, the park scene “has never been more muted.”
Though assimilation and the specter of AIDS have hardly eliminated cruising, its allure has dimmed somewhat. “It has changed a lot. As for nostalgia, our history moves on,” Rechy said.