Signs have recently cropped up on the beach by the English Bay bathhouse telling people to leave the park at 10 pm and not come back until morning.
While parks board officials say the signs are only intended to empower police should they need to kick rowdies off the beach at night, one gay man who’s been cruising in the area for 30 years says it could be the thin end of the wedge in cracking down on cruisers there and in Stanley Park.
Walter Muller says he noticed the signs by the old bathhouse at the foot of Denman St several weeks ago.
Concerned, he called the parks board office, where he was told the police had asked for the signs in order to control rowdies.
But, says Muller, rowdy partiers are only a problem perhaps one month out of 12, and then only during the summer.
“I thought: ‘You bastards, another sign. Do we need yet another restriction?'”
Parks board officials referred questions from Xtra West to queer parks board commissioner Spencer Herbert.
Herbert says Muller has a valid concern.
“I don’t like any kind of state intrusion, especially by a parks board,” he says.
Still, Herbert says Muller needn’t worry about the English Bay signs when it comes to cruisers.
Those signs are targeted at people who might use the parks for rowdy partying after club hours, he confirms. They’ve also been placed in the area where most problems occur during the summer fireworks.
“From what I can tell, the park board has for 30 years-if not more-had a curfew on parks from 10 [pm] to five in the morning,” Herbert says. “It’s not anything new. The only thing new is the signage.”
Current city parks bylaws, dated June 2005, say no one shall loiter in a park between 10 pm and 6 am.
Muller’s not convinced.
He still remembers the days when police regularly busted men cruising in the park in the 1970s. (Reports published in the Gay Alliance Toward Equality’s newspaper, Gay Tide, describe police officers harassing gay cruisers on the beach in the mid-’70s and hanging around the fourth floor of the English Bay bathhouse waiting to nab gays having sex.)
Muller says he’s worried the new signs will once again give cops the leeway to crack down on cruisers at the beach, the nearby bathhouse and in the park.
“I’ve noticed a resurgence to some degree in some areas of anti-gay sanctions, anti-gay activity. It’s done very surreptitiously, very quietly,” he says, pointing, for example, to the clearing of bushes in some Stanley Park cruising areas.
Herbert asked park officials how police would respond to infractions of the beach bylaw. He was told they would be dealt with on a complaint basis.
“Unless the police see a large group of people assembled in a park, they won’t do anything,” he explains.
It could even be a useful tool for protecting queers cruising after dark, he suggests. Police could use the signs to move along a group of potential bashers.
But, Herbert notes, if police decide to use the rules inappropriately “it could be a problem.”
“If I start hearing reports of crackdowns or things like that, I’ll be very disturbed,” he says. “Certainly, there’s better areas for police to be putting their resources and I think they know that too.”
If anyone has any concerns about discriminatory applications of these bylaws, Herbert adds, he wants to hear about it so he can advocate for the queer community.
Cruising is a fact of life in and around the West End, Herbert says. “I think it is generally accepted as long as people are discreet and they clean up after themselves.”
Local gay historian Robert Rothon says the English Bay beach area is definitely one of the city’s historical gay spaces. Still, he says, the concept of a park being closed after dusk is not new in Vancouver or the rest of Canada for that matter.
“The state tries to regulate conduct to run nicely,” he says. “And people go ahead and do what they’ve always wanted to do anyway.”
Queers using the parks for sex is just part of the “cultural black market,” he continues. “It’s a sexual cultural imperative.”
Muller says it’s not the first time the parks board has potentially targeted gay cruisers on the downtown beaches. Something similar happened with the fruit loop in the parking lot where Pacific Blvd meets Beach Ave, he says.
“All the trees were cut,” he recalls, and the city installed a gate at night about 10 years ago.
“There’s still people there, but it’s not very safe,” he sighs.
The parks board has said in the past that trees and brush are cleared as a matter of removing dangerous items for public safety.
Herbert is skeptical. If this is going on and is targeted at the queer community, it should stop, he says.
“If there’s no problem, I don’t see why [parks] would initiate such an activity,” he continues. “It seems discriminatory. Show the me the evidence of why this is necessary.”
As for the new English Bay signs, Muller concedes they may not be there to target gay cruisers. They could, in fact, be aimed at “the growing legion of homeless people who are also camping out in that area,” he guesses.
But homelessness is a fact of life in the West End and keeping the homeless out of the area is not fair, he says.
“The homeless people are here because they’re not safe downtown; they fear for their lives.”