Queers in Nanaimo say one of the city’s few cruising areas is being destroyed under the guise of constructing a fish-spawning channel at a cost of a million dollars.
Richard Nellis says Bowen Island Park has been a sexual playground for both queers and straights since the founding of Nanaimo in 1852.
“It’s a paradise,” he says. It was “fantastically beautiful.”
But now, he says, the area is being ripped apart by tractors and backhoes.
“They came and brutalized” the area and left big, gouged holes in the ground, he says. Now “it’s all exposed earth and rock,” and the private, gay sex areas have been destroyed.
Nellis suspects the construction project was intended to drive queers out of Nanaimo’s main gay cruising area.
“This destruction is a major blow for the Nanaimo gay scene,” he says. “Every gay person that’s ever been there is horrified.”
“There’s nowhere else to go,” he adds.
The city maintains the work has nothing to do with targeting queers.
A spokesperson for the Nanaimo Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture confirms the city is “trying to enhance the park” with upgraded trails, interpretive signs and the addition of a fish ladder to help coho salmon reach spawning grounds.
But even as parts of the 130-acre park are being ripped up, plans for the work are still in the conceptual stage, Richard Harding admits. A feasibility study for the work is due Mar 22.
Nellis says he’s been told the project is intended to create a channel for fish to breed and to restructure a duck pond area, too. But he’s not buying it.
“They already have a fish ladder,” he says.
Besides, Nellis continues, the destruction of the queer area began about a year ago with the demolition of an interpretive shelter where queers used to gather out of the rain.
“That was the first oppression,” he says.
Then picnic tables in the area where queers would sit and chat were removed.
“Then they cut down the trees which shelter everybody from the car headlights at night,” Nellis says.
Before that, he says, everything was hidden. “Nobody could see anybody else making out,” he explains. “Mostly it was just cocksucking.”
Now, he says, “the love nests-it’s like bombs were dropped from the sky.
“It’s a harebrained, heterosexual scheme,” he says. “It’s a million dollars for a few minnows. Gay spawning vs minnow spawning-take your choice.”
Harding maintains the work is not an attempt to displace any park users. “We’re not trying to oppress anybody,” he says.
But no one should be having sex in the park anyway, he adds.
“Any type of sex is not permitted in the park,” Harding says. “It’s a public park for everybody.”
Though Harding confirms the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is also involved in the park work, he cannot say what the total budget for the project is.
However, documents for the 2006-2010 Nanaimo capital plan show $3 million set aside for a Bowen Park complex expansion and retrofit in 2010, $45,000 for the Bowen diversion channel this year and next, and a general allocation of $1.123 million for parks trailway development and rehabilitation in the next four years.
While development tactics have been used to get queers out of parks in the past, Vancouver gay historian Robert Rothon says the Nanaimo case sounds more like bad planning by a development-gung-ho civic government.
“Unless the parks board receives an awful lot of complaints from the public, I would doubt this would be a form of oppression,” Rothon says.
The RCMP in Nanaimo can’t say if they’ve received any complaints about activities in the park. Since the park does not have a physical address, Const Jen Allan says the detachment cannot compile statistics for it. Asked if she could provide anecdotal information, she said it would not be possible without the statistics.
Still, Rothon questions why the city did not wait for the feasibility study before sending in the heavy equipment.
“It sounds like a waste of taxpayers dollars,” he says.
What’s more, Nellis adds, the city is unwittingly attacking one of its tourist attractions.
Nellis says gay men coming off cruise ships have told him they will find Nanaimo guys on the internet and then meet them at Bowen Island Park. Now those opportunities are being destroyed, Nellis says.
According to internet listings, there are also Nanaimo cruising areas at Colliere Dam and Woodgrove Mall.
Nellis has a message for Nanaimo’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture: “Take your monster machines and go home.”