Boston Cops Take on Vandalism, Assaults in Park... But ’Public Sex’ Makes the Headlines

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Sep 25, 2009

The tall reeds of Boston's Fens are scenic, but can harbor dangers like muggers, or unsavory activities like drug transactions.

They also have historically been a place where gay men could meet. Though times have changed since the days when gays had little recourse but to cruise in public places, remnants of that culture persist in the Fens, and along with a heightened police presence to discourage drug deals and robberies, there is a concern that gay men might also be targeted.

While some decry the "public sex" that takes place under cover of the Fens' abundant screen of plants, others worry that old patterns of stereotype and prejudice might also come into play. Such things have happened before, as when Massachusetts State Police allegedly attempted to keep a gay man from using a public restroom based, according to a Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders Web posting, on presumptions about gay men and their conduct in such places.

GLAD took that case to court, resulting in a General Order to state troopers that instructed, "officers should not order someone to leave a public area in the absence of unlawful conduct."

A Sept. 21 Boston Globe story quoted Anti-Violence Project oif Massachusetts president Don Gorton, who summed up concerns by saying, "Our experience in the past is that whenever police go into a gay cruising area, civil rights problems result."

Added Gorton, "Oftentimes when there are reports or concerns [about crime], the police go in and sweep everyone out. They say, 'Leave.'

"And that tends to deny gay men access to public land," continued Gorton. "And that's discrimination.

"That's the danger we're trying to avoid."

One legal view of outdoor sex is that if the act is not visible to passers-by, it is not "public," and therefore not liable to criminal prosecution. The thick, tall reeds keep liaisons out of public view--though not always: the Globe article contained a claim from Fenway Garden Society president Tim Horn that he had personally observed a male couple engaged in sex acts.

Horn applauded the increased police presence, saying that more families were now using the park.

Issues of legality and discretion aside, sex in the Fens poses irritations for those who maintain garden plots there. The Boston Globe story noted that gardeners with spots in the back Bay Fens' Victory Gardens have long waged a running battle with the litter left behind by trespassers, rubbish that includes used condoms and even articles of discarded clothing.

Though the heightened police presence in the Back Bay Fens was welcomed by local residents and gardeners, the gay community feared that it presaged police harassment for men who might be looking to meet up in the rushes--or even against men who happened to be there for other reasons, such as the very gardeners whose property is putatively being kept safer by the enhanced police presence. The Globe story cited claims that gardeners have been approached by officers demanding to know what people are doing in their own garden plots.

A Sept. 10 Bay Windows article posted at EDGE quoted a Victory Gardens plot owner who also happened to be a gay man who had sought out companionship amongst the rushes.

The man was quoted in the article as saying, "The police presence is unbelievable."

Though the presence of police cruisers has increased most markedly since the end of mounted police patrols in the park, the man claimed to have noticed a gradually increasing police presence for some time.

"Over the years, it's been an incremental, systematic--it seems like to me it's been a planned thing," the man said.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino "couldn't come out and just, boom, close [the gardens]," the man added, "he'd get too much bad press from the gay community--so it's been just little by little."

Added the man, "It's more or less a harassment, wanting to get rid of the gay cruising."

City Councilor Mike City Councilor Mike Ross acknowledged the historic roots of the cruising culture at the Fens, saying, "It's obviously a long and complicated issue that goes back to a time in Boston's history when members of the GLBT community were forced underground, forced out of licensed establishments--literally had to hide out."

Added the councilor, "Knowing that history, we've had a couple of meetings and included members from the police force who are liaisons to the GLBT community, and patrols have been increased in the Fens."

But concerns from the gay community have to be balanced against the rights of property owners. Noted Ross, "I'm getting complaints from people who are tired of seeing human remains, frankly, in their gardens. You know, needles, condoms, condom wrappers. And in the morning they come back to their garden, and they're cleaning this up.

"There's also a legitimate danger," added Ross. "We've had assaults that have occurred out there."

Vandalism has also been a concern of late, although there is some disagreement as to whether the surge in damage to property is the cause for more police patrols, or a form of protest against the heightened patrols.

AIDS Action, which works to stem the spread of HIV, does outreach work in the Fens. A statement from the group was quoted in the Bay Windows article.

"We have been informed by [the Boston Police Department] of their beefed-up presence due to an increase in assaults and robberies in the area," the statement, issued on Sept., read in part.

"We support BPD's efforts to ensure public safety as they have always supported our efforts to reduce the impact and magnitude of HIV/AIDS," the statement added.

A longtime garden society member, Charles Martel, was cited in the article as saying that although there has long been a certain level of vandalism, the damage to property has sharply increased recently--perhaps as a reaction to the heightened patrols.

Martel shared the view that police were more interested in addressing problems like drug dealing and drinking in public than in harassing gays.

Ross also noted the vandalism, saying, "I just did a walk-through the other day with Superintendent Dan Linsky, where we walked through the Fens and saw the aftermath of forty or fifty gardens that had been destroyed.

"To me, it looked like retaliatory action for the fact that there's people who want the park to be secure and safe, and they don't want to have to come and clean that stuff up in the morning," Ross said.

"I agree with those people. They shouldn't have to. And their parks should be clean and should be safe."

For some, issues of drug dealing, vandalism, and robbery pale in comparison to the possibility that gay men might be cruising in public.

The anti-gay group MassResistance posted an item on concerns raised by the increased police presence, portraying those concerns as being solely motivated by a desire to defend "the 'civil rights' that people have to engage in public sex."

The item went on to characterize a Globe editorial as promoting public gay sex.

The editorial actually read, "The [gay] activists, no doubt, remember the days when urban police looked for excuses to expose and humiliate gay people.

"But attitudes have changed, and Boston police take a low-key approach toward trysts in the Fens. They don't seek to harass or arrest anyone in the high weeds who takes precautions against being seen by passersby. That's consistent with the laws on public sex.

"But police aren't promoting a Saturnalia, either. If anyone in search of anonymous sex is discomfited by the sight of police cruisers or bike patrols, they should get a room."

Read text at the MassResistance site, "Consistent with laws on public sex??? We don't think so.

"It's more consistent with deals that the police departments have made with homosexual activist groups over the years, particularly the radical (and publicly funded) legal group Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD)."

Without citing any figures, text, or sources, the group's site claimed that, due to gay groups' concerns, "the Boston Police apparently backed down pretty fast."

Nothing in the content the site quoted indicated that the enhanced police presence in the Fens had diminished.

The site also denounced Don Gorton as "one of the organizers of the gay-activist attack on Park Street Church last spring."

The so-called "attack" was a demonstration protesting an "ex-gay" event at a Boston church, which included chanting and bullhorns places against church windows.

Warned an earlier item on the demonstration, "This is the America that the homosexual movement has planned for YOU!"

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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