Our age-old PR problem resurfaced yet again at NorthPark last week, but community seems more willing than ever to condemn practice
If there was ever a problem that most everyone in the LGBT community wishes would simply disappear, it’s got to be the one of men engaging in sexual activity in public places and getting arrested for it.
This embarrassing public relations dilemma has dogged gay rights leaders for the last 40 years — virtually the entirety of the modern U.S. gay rights movement. In some cases, the arrests even involved gay rights leaders themselves, compounding the problem for a community that is seeking acceptance from mainstream America.
It is a problem that has particularly distressed lesbians, who generally don’t participate in public sexual activity but nonetheless share in the embarrassment when men are arrested for solicitation, indecent exposure and public lewdness. Lesbian leaders have often found themselves over the years working with police representatives and other public officials in an effort to solve a problem to which they really don’t contribute.
In the words of Deb Elder, the former president of the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance who met with police officials and gay male leaders about public sexual activity in Reverchon Park many years ago, "That’s a guy problem."
And indeed it is, but gay male leaders have been unable to find an effective solution, either. No amount of dire warnings about the high risks of the behavior seem to dissuade those who frequent well-known cruise spots in search of what appears to be the quick high they receive from anonymous sexual activity. At one point years ago, a task force of gay volunteers was formed to go into Dallas city parks and attempt to disrupt sexual activity.
City leaders, including some of those who have been our strongest allies, thought that perhaps posting the names and pictures of men arrested for misdemeanor sex crimes on the Dallas Police Department Web site would help deter the activity. So far three years of postings — which is apparently unique to Dallas — have not been all that successful of a deterrent. And some of the pictures posted on the Web site have shocked Dallas’ LGBT community.
The recent arrests of four men for indecent exposure at NorthPark Center restrooms illustrate my point. Ever since NorthPark opened in the 1960s, men have been using the restrooms there as cruise spots, and the vice squad has been arresting them for the activity. And of course the media, including Dallas Voice, report these arrests when the vice squad publicizes a sting operation or one of the arrests involves a prominent person.
It really doesn’t matter what you blame the LGBT community’s public relations problem on — sex addiction, closeted men, overzealous or dishonest police officers, insensitive journalists or whatever — it’s a burden that every gay and lesbian person carries. Whenever our enemies need ammunition, this is one of the weapons readily available for their use.
As a journalist specializing in the coverage of gay issues for at least 15 years, I’ve repeatedly written about the dangers that are inherent in illicit sexual behavior — legal problems, financial loss, disease, public humiliation and even violence at the hands of anonymous sexual partners.
My examinations of unsolved murders of gay men in Dallas-Fort Worth several years ago revealed that police and friends of some of the victims suspected they came into contact with their killers after going to public parks to search for sexual partners. Homicide detectives told me these are among the most difficult crimes to solve because victims don’t know their killers, who can simply walk away from crime scenes into oblivion.
After years of covering this issue, the only improvement I see at this point is that people seem more willing to discuss the subject and to speak out against public sexual activity. A recent posting on Dallas Voice’s blog, Instant Tea, about the NorthPark arrests attracted about 50 responses in the Comments section over several days. It was one of the most intense discussions I’ve ever seen on Instant Tea.
My greatest hope now is that our community is evolving and that public sexual activity will eventually become passÃ©. It is understandable how it came to be in the first place. Gay men didn’t have the wide variety of meeting places they do today, and the public scorned the sight of two men sharing time together in public or private, something lesbians often escaped.
Attitudes and habits do change, and I’m hoping now that it’s just a matter of time before this problem disappears or at least diminishes to the point it is no longer making headlines.
The future of the LGBT community is in the hands of younger people, and I’m counting on them making wiser choices than previous generations of gay men did.
David Webb is a former Dallas Voice staff writer. He now lives on Cedar Creek Lake and publishes a blog at http://therarereporter.blogspot.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 7, 2009.