June 22, 2005 News & Opinion » Featured story

Public displays of affection 

Gays, parks and misdemeanors

It's 7 p.m. on a hot Tuesday night in June, and a couple of men have been in their cars cruising Highland Park since 5:30. One of them, driving a dark blue, late-model Saab, parks at the top of the hill near the Goodman Street entrance. The other, a middle-aged man driving a red pick-up, pulls behind it. He gets out, looks around, and treks up the slope. The guy in the Saab gets out and follows. They disappear behind a lush screen of pine and maple trees, undetected by the woman walking her two white terriers and the couple napping in a car.

Highland Park has long attracted men seeking sex with other men. So have Durand Eastman, GeneseeValley, Ellison, and Mendon. Some men only cruise. Some have casual conversation. But many venture into what appear to be private and secluded locations of public places to have quick, anonymous sex.

In 2003, the MonroeCounty sheriff's department, the agency that patrols most of the parks, arrested 85 men. Last year, it arrested 87. The arrests are usually made in "sweeps" or "stings," pulling in as many as 10 or 15 men at a time.

Men who seek sex from other men in the parks may be putting themselves at risk for physical harm and sexually transmitted diseases, not to mention becoming entangled in the criminal-justice system. Even worse is how one moment of indiscretion can permanently destroy relationships and inflict feelings of shame and self-hate so intense that some men who have been arrested contemplate suicide.

But it's the concern of nearby homeowners and unsuspecting park goers that seems to trip the wire. "All of these details originate from complaints," says Corporal John Helfer, spokesperson for the MonroeCounty sheriff's department. "If we get complaints from people in surrounding neighborhoods or from people using the parks, we're going to address them. But it's not an all-encompassing thing. This is not handled any differently than complaints that come in about people speeding in the park, noise, or things like that."

The MonroeCounty parks department also fields complaints. "We have 21 parks under our jurisdiction," says County Parks Director Frank Allkofer, "and we manage them according to our public laws. If there are any illegal or immoral acts in our parks, I notify the sheriff's department. They are the professionals."

"It could be boom boxes, vandalism; it could be an unlicensed car," says Allkofer. "We had someone not long ago damage some of our trees. I had residents walking down to the DurandBeach, and they saw some things they didn't appreciate, so anytime the park policy is not being adhered to, the sheriff's office gets a call. And, yes, including immorality in the parks, and I'll say it straight out: homosexuality."

While cruising in parks is as much a part of some gay subcultures as bath houses and shirtless dance bars, many of the men arrested in the parks aren't part of the gay community. Often, these are men secretly living double lives. They may be married. They may be prominent in business and are afraid to be seen at a gay establishment. Or they may be older men who have come out late in life and don't feel they fit into a younger gay social scene.

"There's not a lot of research on this," says William Kelly, a licensed clinical social worker and certified sex therapist. "But generally, there are two categories: men who have sex with other men, but they are married, and they don't identify with the gay community. In fact, they don't really identify themselves as gay. But they go to places like adult theaters or parks. Or they are older men, and this has been their behavior for years. They don't know of other options."

"Men with a gay identity will have some friends --- know about the bars, the jerk-off clubs, the bath houses, Jones Pond, and all that stuff," says Kelly. "But if they don't have a gay identity, they don't know any of this. And that's what makes them so vulnerable."

Alex (not his real name) was arrested in late July of 2002. He is 6 feet tall and has a round, boyish face.

"I had just turned 42," he says. "I'd been in a relationship for 15 years, and for most of that time, we were monogamous. "But during the last two years of it, things had changed. We were still living together, but we were not really a couple anymore." He pulls out his wallet and flips to a picture he still carries of the two of them on vacation in Mexico.

One day as the relationship was nearing an end, Alex drove down to the lake at Durand Eastman and parked by the beach. "I walked up the road into the park," he says. "I hadn't been in that park in years. I was up the road a ways, and I looked up the hill into the woods, and behind a few trees I could see this guy looking down and watching me. I walked a little further and then he came down the hill and out into the road about 25 feet ahead of me. He is so hot. This guy is like People's 50 Most Beautiful hot. He's like inches hot." Alex laughs, shaking his head.

"He sort of gives me this look," he says, raising his eyebrows. "And I am thinking, This hot guy is so into me," shaking his head again. "He walks up into the woods and turns around, so I follow him. He leads me up this trail that's away from the road. There is no one around. No cars. No people. Nobody.

"We walk for a minute, then he stops and real playful like, with one hand in his pocket, he says, 'Show me something. Let me see a little something.' I start looking around, and I'm feeling real nervous. And he says it again. He starts to turn away as if he had lost interest and right then, I say, 'Sure, why not' or something like that. I unzip my pants and stroke myself and let him get a good look. He still hadn't taken his hand out of his pocket, and I thought he was rubbing himself. But just as I reached over to touch him, he pulled out his badge and told me, 'Turn around. You're under arrest.'"

The officer took Alex to the top of the hill to a clearing. There were about 10 law-enforcement cars up there, and about 15 other men who were being arrested. Some were in the back of a van. A couple of them were sitting on the grass in handcuffs.

"The van was already filled," says Alex, "so I went in a car with another guy. He started to cry. He was probably in his 50s. He begged them to let him go. Begged them. He says, 'I have a wife, and she doesn't know about me.'"

Alex's partner posted bail for him, but two months later they separated and sold their house. Each had to move into an apartment, and only one landlord would accept pets, which meant they had to give up one of their two dogs.

"My ex took Millie," says Alex, "but I had to put Bo to sleep. That day was the one that almost killed me."

"I realize I did something wrong. But that hurt more than anything," he says, trying not to cry.

Alex saw a counselor for the following year. He says his relationship with his ex was probably over anyway, but he regrets the way it ended. In one of his sessions, he wrote a letter to his ex and apologized. He also wrote to the arresting officer, asking: "What kind of a man earns his living by pretending to be interested in other men?"

He never sent the letters. But, he says: "I've accepted my responsibility for what I did. I paid for it, and I own it. And someday, he'll [the officer] look back on what he did. Maybe it's legal, but it isn't ethical."

In addition to his private practice as a therapist, William Kelly is a board member of the Gay Alliance of the GeneseeValley, and he says he notices a striking consistency in how deputies approach the men who cruise the parks. Typically, he says, the men are not caught in the act of having sex. Trained professionals have learned how to identify and lure them.

"It's a very aggressive policy the sheriff has put in place," says Kelly. "And a lot of gay men who are not cruising tell me they don't feel safe in the parks. I don't know the line between entrapment and aggressive solicitation. But the stories are very consistent. The sheriff uses different guys, but it is often a guy with a marine look. And you're walking in the park, and he makes eye contact with you. He's been trained to do this.

"He asks if you want to go somewhere in the woods, someplace that looks secluded, and then he may start rubbing his crotch or something like that. And he'll say something like: 'I'm kind of new at this; why don't you show me something? Help me out. Show me what to do.' That's it. The guy will either expose himself or reach to touch the deputy, and that begins the arrest."

And Kelly goes a step further: The tactics, he says, are a form of profiling. Lover's Lane, for example, was an accepted '50s reference for a place where heterosexuals could go to park and make out. And some heterosexual couples still go to parks like Highland and Cobbs Hill for a little action, but, says Kelly, they don't appear to be targets for stings. "You have a heterosexual couple who is just up there for a little fun or they're having an affair on their lunch hour, where do you think they go? But nobody is bothering those people," he says.

There is a distinction, according to the MonroeCounty sheriff's office. "Two men in the park holding hands would not be arrested. No," says Corporal Helfer. "It is not a crime. But masturbating in the park is a crime."

That argument, says Kelly, misses the point. "Look, no one is condoning this," he says. "If I were living by Highland Park, I wouldn't like this. There's a problem here, and I empathize with people who may see this and are offended by it. But if you applied the same standard and you had a really hot undercover female deputy go up to the average guy in the park and ask them if they would show them something, there wouldn't be enough room in the jails to keep them all."

And while the stings themselves may be complaint-driven, members of a neighborhood association bordering Highland Park was surprised to learn that the arrests were taking place. "We've never complained about that [men cruising]. What we did ask for several years ago was to close the park at night," says Mike Thompson of the Ellwanger-Barry Neighborhood Association. "It was all the cars that went up there after the bars were closing at 2 a.m. People go up there, and there's a lot of noise."

It's hard to assess how successful the stings are at reducing the problem, considering that they are expensive, labor-intensive operations, and the county faces a financial shortfall.

Rochester Police Officer Jim Hall, who is the liaison between the city police department and the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community, suggests that officials need to find a better way to reach these men than stings.

Because the county operates the parks, even those owned by the city, it's the county sheriff's department that handles the complaints, not city police. And, says Hall: "There isn't really a liaison or someone in my role in the sheriff's office, and it would help if there were. We do a lot of diversity training."

But, he adds: "It wouldn't entirely solve the problem, because these men are not really fully part of the gay community. They're not always out. They're not going to pick up a copy of the Empty Closet and bring it home and read about it. So an article warning them might not be seen."

Oppression and fear about homosexuality may cause many of the men to put themselves in compromising positions. "It's a very complex issue," says Todd Plank, community relations director for the Gay Alliance. "I don't encourage anyone to have sex in the park, because it is against the law. But I don't think the blanket arrests are the answer, either. These people are scared to death of being outed. I think if people feel safer about being who they are, they wouldn't feel the need to do this in secret."

Charlie Lytle runs a support group for men who are reevaluating their sexual orientation. Most of them are married, and Lytle says they have been wrestling with coming out --- in some cases, for years.

While he does not run the group out of the Gay Alliance of the GeneseeValley, he is one of several referrals the GAGV may offer if someone is arrested in the park.

"I try to ease some of this guilt they go through," he says. "I tell them they are not alone with their feelings. They're traumatized not just by the arrest, but by this forced disclosure. And they need to know the resources that can help them. People who are non-judgmental: lawyers, therapists. I know what it's like to come out and have to tell your wife and your children. Some people get to prepare for that conversation. With these guys, there's no option. They're forced to confront a lot of personal issues all at once."

One of the biggest issues for most men who have been arrested is the legal system. Most of them have no prior arrest records. They work. They pay taxes and, in most respects, are average citizens. But an arrest for anything involving sexual misconduct can have grave consequences. Most of the arrests fall under two types of charges: public lewdness, which is a Class B misdemeanor, and forcible touching, which is a Class A misdemeanor; and they can carry a fine with a maximum sentence of one year in prison.

It's difficult to keep the arrest a secret. Defendants may have to post bail, pay fines, spend time in court, and hire an attorney. There could be jail time. And it's not unusual for the media to cover the arrests. The Brighton-Pittsford Post, one of the suburban weeklies in the Messenger Post chain, regularly covers arrests and police activity.

"We do publish public lewdness arrests," says a company spokesperson. "It is our policy. We may not publish lesser crimes like check bouncing or traffic violations."

Most of the men do not spend more than a night in jail. But the problem doesn't end there. Usually, at the advice of their attorney, they plead guilty, hoping for leniency in the courtroom. A lot depends on the district attorney's office and which judge hears their case. Some judges seek time in the form of community service, and others ask for a psychological evaluation.

If the defendant is lucky, the charge is dropped to disorderly conduct, which is a violation of community ordinances, similar to spitting on the sidewalk or failing to clean up after a pet. But most of those convicted of a misdemeanor get a year of probation and a fine, usually under $500. Even if the charge is reduced to disorderly conduct, it will likely be on the condition that the defendant has no further problems during probation. If he does, the judge may reinstate the original charges on top of the new ones.

A routine criminal background check will probably turn up the misdemeanor conviction. And while they may be low-level misdemeanors, sex crimes have a way of jumping off the page for prospective employers and landlords. A criminal record that involves a sex crime might prevent the person from working in jobs that involve close contact with children, the elderly, or people with mental retardation.

"In my professional opinion, these men are targeted," says Jennifer L. Gravitz, an attorney who has represented more than two dozen of these cases in her 22 years of practice. "They are serious charges, because if you are found guilty, they bring with them a permanent criminal record. On an application, if you are ever asked if you have been convicted of a crime, the answer is going to be 'yes.'"

Although charges like public lewdness and forcible touching are not to the level of being labeled a sex offender, Gravitz says, "if you're a teacher, a day-care provider, a church organist, the perception is that if you have done this, you're a pedophile."

"It comes with tremendous stigma," she says, "and that is what is so damaging to these men. I have to admit that in my practice, I am an absolute believer in the constitution, that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The general public is also good at that, until it comes to sex offenses."

The men in these cases are usually so anxious to get the problem behind them that they rarely plead not guilty. In some ways, this permits the stings to go unchallenged.

"I've had some cases where I have told them, 'I would take this to court in a minute,'" says Gravitz. "But in most cases, these are folks with a lot to hide and a lot to lose. I understand their reluctance to fight this kind of charge, and it is one of my biggest disappointments in the criminal justice system."

"My nephew calls me up and says, 'Uncle Dominic, I'm reading about you in the Brighton-Pittsford Post.' That's how my family found out," says a man arrested in EllisonPark about a year ago. In his mid 60s and retired, Dominic (not his real name) had not been out of the closet until a few years earlier. He discovered that the parks were a place where he could go to meet other consenting adult men, and he had been going to parks for several years. Already the survivor of one heart attack, he says he thought he was going to have another when he was arrested.

"I thought I was going to die," he says. "I think I was wishing I would. I told the officer that I had heart problems, and he was real flip. He said, 'Don't worry, we've got all the equipment right here.'"

The court required Dominic to get a psychological evaluation. "I became so depressed," he says. "I could have fought it. I have money, but I wanted it to be over. For months, I just didn't want to see anyone or be around people. I stopped taking care of myself. I didn't do anything to take my life, I didn't contemplate suicide, but inside, I wanted it to be over."

"I ruined my life," he says, unable to hold back his tears.

His family was very supportive, but Dominic sensed that his neighbors were treating him differently. He knew some had read about him in the paper. Ultimately, he sold his home and moved to a different community.

Dominic continued to see a counselor for much of the following year, and he says some good things came out of the experience. "He [his counselor] talked me into telling my doctor that I was gay," he says. "I never would have talked to my doctor that way. And I took my first HIV test. I wanted to do it, but I was always too scared. I'm a lot more comfortable with who I am, and I have friends now. But I won't ever go in a park again. Not even for a picnic or anything."

As a mother and grandmother, Gravitz says she understands the public's concern. But she also struggles with the fact that some men in the gay community embrace anonymous sex with multiple partners. The tension this creates with the rest of society, and in particular with a judicial system that is not empathetic toward gay men, worries her.

Some of Gravitz's clients were fortunate enough to have cases dismissed, while others had to go to jail. "None of us wants to go to jail," she says, "because what they say about prison is true --- least of all, someone who is perceived as a sex offender or a male who likes to have sex with other men. And all of this --- for what? An exposed body part. They don't even consummate the sex."

In one assault and battery case she is handling, the victim has more than a dozen stitches. But the assailant will probably not serve any time, she says, and may not even end up with a criminal record.

Stings like the ones in MonroeCounty parks are happening all across the state and the country. A website called Cruise.com reveals striking similarities between the arrests made here and as far away as California. With so much anti-gay sentiment surrounding the debate on gay marriage, Lytle may be right when he says, "It may be more difficult being gay today than it was 10 years ago."

The RPD's Officer Jim Hall has been looking for a solution. "We all need to do a better job of outreach to the community," he says. "Our goal is to bring neighborhoods up, and when something like this is within the public eye, it becomes an annoyance. I'm not a fan of the arrests, but we have to find a way to let people know that there are other, healthier options out there besides going to the parks. We've been lucky so far that no one has been [physically] hurt. If we can educate people on better choices, this would be better for everyone."

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