by Yasmin Nair
Recently, Chicago's North Side paper Inside ran a story about Montrose Harbor's Magic Hedge that should cause concern among LGBTQs. The Hedge is a man-made bird sanctuary, created on a former nuclear missile site; it's also a cruising area. The Harbor is on a famously artificial lake shoreline. Last year, police arrested nearly 70 men for 'public indecency.' ( www.wctimes.com/gay/lesbian/news/ARTICLE.php ) . Now, resurrecting complaints about cruisers supposedly disturbing migratory birds, the Chicago Park District will add fences and 'No Trespassing' signs, allowing the police to 'clear the area of illegal trysts in a simple and effective way.' The headline refers to cruisers as 'gay prostitutes.' ( www.insideonline.com/site/epage/26127_162.htm )
'Gay prostitution' incites sexual and moral panics. The idea that gay men have anonymous sex outside their homes reinforces fears about them as the originators and carriers of AIDS. As for prostitution: In a sane society, sex work/prostitution would be legal. Regardless, cruising rarely involves money.
Cruisers often self-identify as men who have sex with men, not as 'gay.' Cruising suspends divisions between classes, races, sexualities, and gender identifications. Cruising has always been an integral part of queer culture, but it's under attack by gays fixated on respectability. Arrested men might plead guilty to save themselves from exposure. Their differing social, economic and sexual identities make them unlikely to organize as a constituency and more vulnerable as targets of harassment.
And there are the birds. The caption to Inside's photo of the harbor reads: 'Along with migrating birds, peace may return to bird sanctuary.' Peace and birds? A photo of a gull strangled by a stray condom couldn't evoke more sympathy. Like the swallows of Capistrano, the birds of the Magic Hedge are proof of nature's cycle of life.
In contrast, cruising is criminalized because it's perceived as a non-procreative and unnatural activity. It's frequently referred to as 'public sex,' reinforcing a distinction between personal and private. Sex at 'home' is more valued than sex 'outside.' But as LGBTQs know at our cost, that distinction does not always work in our favor. We are always only one arrest away from being imperiled in our private spaces.
We'd like to believe that sex only occurs in 'committed' relationships. The truth is that sex is infinitely varied in its pleasures and can be quick, silent, and anonymous. Most of us have fantasized about or engaged in fleeting encounters. Cruising allows straights and queers to commingle and part, without placing constraints upon each other. Against the cold tiles of a public restroom or in the leafy enclave of a bush, who cares about sexual identity?
We should acknowledge the pleasures of cruising and sex in 'public' venues instead of criminalizing them. Public sex can bring us our first sexual encounters. And what would sex look like without voyeurism?
Opponents argue that children should not be exposed to sex in public. But cruising is usually silent and secluded. The thrill lies in sex with someone whose name you never care to know. It's highly unlikely that a child will see something but if so, why not simply explain the circumstances? Children are resilient and able to make sense of complicated scenarios. Do we fear them learning that people have sex outside their bedrooms? Do we feel such panic when they see straight couples grope and kiss in public?
Cruising is neither gay nor prostitution. Criminalizing it will not make it disappear, especially since straights like it too much. Cruising defines a healthy sexual culture, queer or straight, and it's a reason why we choose to live in cities. Cities are where we exercise anonymity, dispense with some identities and adopt others and, yes, engage in trysts. Lose all that and we might as well be stuck in the desert of suburbia, with its carefully trimmed bushes and its utter lack of sexual magic.
Which brings me back to the Magic Hedge. It's a lovely and justifiably treasured space, but the talk about preserving its 'natural' beauty is growing tiresome. Given its history, it's fair to say that the sex is its oldest and most natural feature.
Nair is an academic and writer in Chicago, who likes birds. firstname.lastname@example.org .