opinion
7 min

Is the queer community ready to defend public sex?

Identity, community, and privacy arguments may not be sufficient for Project Marie

A demonstration on Feb 20, 1981, following the bathhouse raids in Toronto. Some activists say police tactics used in Project Marie parallel those used in the raids. Credit: Gerald Hannon/Body Politic

As the community response to the police crackdown on men cruising for sex in Marie Curtis Park continues to unfold, I’ve been thinking about the past. It’s what I do; I’m a historian.

Back in the mid-1990s, I wrote a series of articles for Daily Xtra on the queer history of public sex in Toronto, including a piece about park sex. It details the long history of men having sex in the city’s parks — the oldest case I discussed dates back to 1913 — and the equally long history of the policing of sex in public.

Marie Curtis Park has its own history. Even the police know this, with one officer noting that “we’ve really got our work cut out for us. This has been something that has been so ingrained in the area for decades.”

When it comes to policing and public sex, it’s the same as it ever was. Or is it?

I detect some subtle but significant shifts in the way police are framing their practices in “Project Marie.” In particular, I’m struck by how the police are at pains to point out this is not about “sexual orientation,” to use their phrase. As the spokesperson for Toronto police put it, “I don’t think this has anything to do with the sexual orientation of those involved.” Rather, she says it’s a “type of behaviour that is not welcome in our public spaces.” Another officer said, “I want to make it very clear that the purpose of this project is not to target any one specific orientation or anything like that.”

In a certain way, the police are right. Men who cruise parks for sex, then and now, have a range of erotic identifications, not all of them gay. But I’m fairly certain the police aren’t offering a primer on the non-identitarian notion of MSM, or “men who have sex with men.” Rather, the police are anxious to reassure us this is not about sexual orientation in order to avoid accusations of homophobia and harassment.

According to police, it’s about “lewd behaviour” and “sexual activity in public,” irrespective of the erotic preferences of those engaged in such activities. Activists have countered that this is a smokescreen designed to obscure “an old-school queer-catching crackdown.” This is undoubtedly true, but if our analysis stops here, I worry we may be missing something important.

As the police shift the conversation from sexual orientation or identity to behaviour and activity, we are at risk of being out-maneuvered, for our movements and communities remain based on identity. Historically, queer identity and community have been cornerstones of our resistance. Activists responding to Project Marie have been quick to make the historical parallels to the 1981 bathhouse raids and the Pussy Palace raid of 2000.

Many of the men arrested in 1981 did not identify as gay but the bathhouses were so identified, so it made perfect sense to pitch it as a police attack on the queer community as a whole. This was tremendously successful as the pushback against the police mobilized thousands, including many who’d never stepped foot in a bathhouse.

“Many of the men arrested in 1981 did not identify as gay but the bathhouses were so identified . . . This was tremendously successful as the pushback against the police mobilized thousands.” Pictured is a demonstration following the bathhouse raids.
Body Politic File Photo

The defence of men arrested in the 1981 raids also made strategic use of the way bathhouses exist on the uncertain threshold between public and private space. The arguments rested not upon a right to public sex, but on the men’s right to sexual privacy. It was not for no reason that the activist group to defend the men was called the Right to Privacy Committee, though it certainly broadened the notion of privacy well beyond its liberal and legal formulations. Similarly, key to women’s resistance after the Pussy Palace raid was how the presence of male cops violated their right to privacy.

In both the bathhouse and Pussy Palace raids, the focus was on the police while, for the most part, activists skillfully skirted the more contentious issue always lurking in the background: public sex. And therein lies the rub — sex in parks and other public places makes it much more difficult to hide behind the bushes, as it were, of identity, community and privacy.

Parks are not exclusively queer spaces, and it’s tricky, although not impossible, to mount a defence of privacy in public (though anyone who’s had sex in a park knows that most people seek out relative seclusion). I think the police understand all of this perfectly well, and it is one of the reasons they are so interested in shifting the public discourse from the sexual orientation of those searching for sex to the more stripped-down fact of sex in public, plain and simple.

It would appear the queer conversation about public sex, strategically deferred for many decades, has come home to roost.

But there are obstacles to having this conversation, perhaps the biggest being there’s no consensus in our community around public sex or police. We got a glimpse of this in the negative reaction of many white queers when Black Lives Matter protested during Pride to draw attention to the discriminatory policing of people of colour and to the wisdom of inviting the police to parade with us. If nothing else, hopefully the Marie Curtis Park debacle will disabuse white queers of the notion that police attitudes have fundamentally changed and that sexual policing is somehow a relic of the queer past.

When it comes to public sex, I fear that many of the same white queers who believe the police are here to serve and protect us all regardless of race or sexuality are among those who also wrap themselves in the respectability of marriage and the morality of monogamy.

For those who keep their sex lives within the non-promiscuous parameters set for them by Pierre Trudeau in 1969 — two people only, and only in the privacy of their bedroom — how interested are they in curtailing police action against public sex? Will they rally by the thousands to defend queer public sexual spaces like they did in 1981?

There were only a few dozen protesters at the queer counter-demo in Marie Curtis Park on Nov 19. This has something to do with the location, but I suspect it’s also related to the normalization and depoliticization of queer communities over the past three-and-a-half decades.

Maybe I’m selling the happily married short. I’ll reserve judgment until we see if those who dwell within the charmed circle of marriage step up and speak out for those on the sexual margins, or whether they’re content to leave park “perverts” holding the bag.

And what of the police? They have been quick to point out that their operations in Marie Curtis Park are an effort to involve the local community in policing. Many in the queer community will recognize this. It’s what the police like to call community-based policing, which really means the conscription of communities in their own policing without any actual community control over the priorities and practices of the police.

The introduction back in the early 1990s of police-LGBT liaison committees was another version of the same thing. In the Marie Curtis episode, the police did not even bother to consult the LGBT liaison committee because, as they keep insisting, it’s not an issue of sexual orientation.

A few dozen protesters showed up to the Walk the Beat event in Marie Curtis Park on Nov 19, 2016, to demand police accountability for the sting and stand in solidarity with the men charged.
Nick Lachance/Daily Xtra

But this is where they are wrong. It is an issue of sexual orientation, only the orientation is heterosexuality. It’s about heterosexual families (and, no doubt, some of their homonormative counterparts) and their right to enjoy public park space free from the disturbing sight of undomesticated sexual pleasure. This, of course, is not how they’d put it. They are much more apt to say it’s about protecting children from unwanted sexual activity and its detritus in the form of used condoms.

None of this is to say there aren’t real issues when it comes to the use of public park space. Men of colour getting carded just for hanging out in a park is a real issue. Women feeling unsafe walking in a park alone is a real issue, but the community isn’t up in arms over that injustice. There are those who sexually harm children. This is also a real issue, but much more so in the homes of nuclear families than in the parks they surround. 

None of this is to say that men have an inalienable right to sex in public at any time and in any place, either. It is to say that there are multiple and conflicting claims over the shared use of public parks — and to insist that the erotic use of space is one such legitimate claim. Unsurprisingly, the police don’t see it this way. They prefer to talk about “legitimate” and “illegitimate” park users, and we know who they mean.

Many residents don’t see it this way, either. One woman, adopting the language of the police, said, “I don’t care what your sexual orientation is; if you’re having sex in a public place, it’s inappropriate.”

“None of this is to say that men have an inalienable right to sex in public at any time and in any place. It is to say that there are multiple and conflicting claims over the shared use of public parks.”
Secondarywaltz/Wikimedia

The terms of the debate are shifting. This is not 1981 or even 2000. A critique of the police institution seems no longer likely to gain much traction at a time when many white queer people embrace the police as part of the community. And the right to sexual privacy now sounds more like a quaint advertisement for queer marriage than an effective rallying cry against the policing of sex in public.

As police and public discussion shifts toward the “legitimacy” and “appropriateness” of “lewd behaviour” and “sexual activity in public,” the old queer standbys of identity, community and privacy may no longer serve us so well in the struggle over sexual space.

But make no mistake, the struggle over public sex is on. When straight families start marching at night in something that resembles a perverse mash-up of candlelight vigil and torch-wielding mob to “take back the park,” the battle lines have been drawn.

The time for the long-delayed conversation in our own communities about public sex has come. The question is, are we ready to have it?