Were these cruisers heterosexuals, the problem would be an easy one to solve. If they were weird, dirty perverts with long arrest histories for sexual crimes, no one would care when the police hauled them off. But they aren't. They're gay men from the towers uptown on their lunch breaks. They're married men living secret double lives. They're teenagers exploring their sexuality.
These men understand that cruising is about more than sex, that it's a lifestyle, and for many, an addiction that's rarely talked about in our society. Fear is part of the thrill, but there are also rules of etiquette that have to be followed. They rarely talk when they meet. It's understood that chatter would somehow ruin the mood, the thrill of the danger of meeting a complete stranger for sex. Instead, they speak through subtle signs, hand signals, eye contact, and quirky smiles.
"The key to successful cruising is learning how to deal with your fears," a man named Keith advises. "Fear is a good thing. It often is a way the brain tells us to be very careful of something or someone that might hurt us. Men get bashed or arrested every day while cruising for sex. Most of these guys let down their guard when their instincts might have been saying, 'Don't do it!' Finding the balance is the key and that takes experience. It might be helpful to know that most of the men you encounter in a theater, park or toilet are likely as apprehensive as you are. We all are afraid of rejection, being busted by cops, or robbed or worse and for good reason."
And that's where the rubber hits the road, not just for men who participate in this lifestyle, but also for cops bound to enforce the law while running the risk of walking into a politically correct trap. The problem is that open-air sex attracts not just gay professionals, but prostitutes, and with them, cash, drugs and crime. What are police to do, for instance, with the 15-year-old boy who repeatedly cuts school to prostitute himself in Kilborne Park for money?
The answer, so far, has been a quiet campaign of crackdowns in some of the county's most frequented locations, particularly its parks. If these men are caught soliciting sex, it's a misdemeanor charge and a fine. If they're caught in the act of having anal sex and many have been it's a felony. And if the police are caught cracking down? They risk a potential campaign by the ACLU, which has published an often-quoted dos and don'ts lists for cruisers on how to deal with law enforcement if they're caught.
Because the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police don't typically write up police reports detailing misdemeanor arrests in these cases, and because the department hasn't systematically tracked them, it's difficult, beyond word-of-mouth, to track what the department is doing about the situation and exactly how much of it they're doing. But word on the street is that the department is quietly gearing up for another round of busts.
Given the growing popularity of cruising, our community will eventually have to publicly deal with this situation, hopefully before the ACLU or a gay rights organization hauls some well-meaning cop into court. But how will we deal with it? How should we deal with it?
The easy way out would be to ignore it, because inevitably, those enforcing the laws against public nudity, public intercourse and crimes against nature risk public accusations of gay bashing, gay harassment and homophobia for doing their jobs. But as with most things in life, the easy way out is not the right one. We must admit that this is going on, and we must work to stop it not because these men are gay, but because they are putting themselves and others at risk with their behavior. Every man who wanders into Kilborne Park looking for sex runs the risk of contracting AIDs and other sexually transmitted diseases and of unwanted sexual assault or being robbed or even murdered. If he's married or involved in a committed relationship and the department's policy is not to contact spouses after an arrest, although some officers do anyway he could spread any number of diseases to his wife or partner.
A county that truly values the lives of gay men would target and crack down on cruisers. Rather than just fining them, as we do now, penalties for cruising should include mandatory counseling, not for sexual orientation, but because this destructive behavior is a sign that these individuals either don't understand the consequences of the risks they are taking, or they don't value their own lives and ultimately the lives of those they care about.
What they do in their own homes is their business. But when they wander into our parks, it becomes our business.