opinion
5 min

Should gay men keep having public sex in Vancouver?

Cruising in Stanley Park and the new Jim Deva Plaza

Cruising in parks is nothing new and a staple fantasy, but is the scene dying out?

It may be a little early in the season for outdoor sex, but recent developments concerning Stanley Park’s darker corners, and discussions about the future of Jim Deva Plaza (brought back to the front burner by the West End Business Improvement Association’s recent posting for a plaza coordinator) have caused me to give more thought to the topic than is probably good for my old heart.

According to recent mainstream media coverage, some West End residents have recently discovered that there are people living in Stanley Park and that they are making a mess. They have also concluded, judging by the number of used condoms left behind, that people are actually having sex there. Safe sex to be sure, but sex. And that’s messy too.

So these worthy citizens are banding together to take to the park to clean it up. Park Board staff are trying to head them off before they trample the rhodos, and are finally getting down to the job they should have been attending to in the first place — taking out the trash.

But we’ve seen such “clean up” efforts in the past, and when needles and condoms are the topic of concern we often end up with a companion campaign to “clean up” the midnight habitués and inhabitants. And that, of course, can translate to sweeping out the homeless, the happy campers and the cocksuckers all with one big broom.

We can look forward to an interesting spring season down at dear old Lee’s Trail.

What does all this have to do with Jim Deva Plaza? 

My Daily Xtra colleague Andrew Shopland recently shared some musings about the future of that public space that I found thought provoking. He starts out with a concern, which I share, as to whether the Plaza will, like other public spaces in our city, be officially closed to the public at 10pm. If so, how do they plan to enforce such a closure, and how will they explain that to the throngs of after-hours queers looking for a place to enjoy one last moment together before staggering home (or down to Lee’s Trail)?

If Phil Moon ever gets the doors of Hamburger Mary’s open again, I can imagine the demand on benches and picnic tables right on his doorstep at 2am on a Friday night. Try telling that crowd that it’s time to go home!

Andrew then wonders: “. . . will Jim Deva Plaza be a space for cruising? Or will we be more concerned with ‘decency?’” and shares with us his own youthful experiences (not very long ago on my own timeline) coming of age and finding his sexual awakening in Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park. He points out, quite correctly, that sexcapades in public parks is a long and hallowed gay men’s tradition.

Let me make clear right now that I am no prude when it comes to — well, just about anything. Jim Deva and I used to share a story from our ancient past about the night we were both at the Taurus Baths when a patron suffered a heart attack and the attending ambulance team ran right smack into the middle of a full-on Friday-night-at-the-tubs orgy. Jim and I didn’t know each other at the time, but we both had vivid recall of the chaos of towelled and naked revellers darting for cover while the wide-eyed first responders gawked at us as they tried to find the stricken victim in a cubical or darkened corner.

As for Lee’s Trail and its many tributaries, if you can’t tell me where the tastefully nicknamed Gobblers’ Gultch was located, I don’t think you were ever there. But I was certainly there (and in Beacon Hill Park too), and in addition to some pretty excellent adventures — which I’ll spare you — I remember the night I was accosted while strolling the main trail by a young lad who fell into step beside me and proceeded to boast about how big his dick was. I began to get a bit nervous when he started in on how it was so big that it made his girlfriend bleed when he fucked her, and at about that point four other guys suddenly leapt out from behind a big old tree, and the chase was on.

I didn’t know I could run like that.

After a few panting moments I realized that there was no way I was going to outrun these vicious young louts, one of whom was waving a large stick (not a large dick) and I suddenly stopped dead in my tracks, turned on my heels, threw my arms up in the air, and shouted “stop right there!”

And they did.

Somehow, between my considerable size and visible rage, I turned the tables on the little horde of hooligans, grabbed the stick and tossed it into the bushes, and the gang dispersed.

I was back the following weekend. It was just business as usual on the trails in those days.

So don’t call me a prude.

But a forested park is not a public square and Andrew’s thoughts invite a deeper conversation about what it means to be fully sharing public space, and whether we are not somehow obliged to respect some public standards when we use those spaces. For Jim Deva Plaza, while dedicated to the memory of a champion our community, will be a space for the entire neighbourhood. It is our contribution to the public amenities.

What of “gay culture” do we give up by becoming a visible part of the broader community and claiming our place in public spaces?

Weren’t many of our cultural practices originally a response to the oppression and marginalization we have fought against, and so might we not reasonably be expected to give some of them up (sex in public toilets — really?) as we win those battles? I have no clear answers, but I think we should ask ourselves, and discuss.

I’m not suggesting we stop our late-night rendezvous on Lee’s Trail, and if the current “clean up Stanley Park” campaigns turns ugly and begins to focus on those activities, I’ll be among the first to speak out in support of today’s denizens of Gobbler’s Gultch.

But on the High Street, where we share a space with the neighbours, I think our expectations and our obligations are different.

Consider Mrs Patrick Campbell’s oft-quoted quip, “I don’t much care what they do, as long as they don’t do in the streets and frighten the horses.”

Is Andrew’s nostalgia for Beacon Hill Park, and my own for the halcyon days of Gobbler’s Gultch (I saw you there too) a harkening back to a time when our behaviour was driven by the lack of safe and wholesome ways to discover and explore our sexuality, or a petulant refusal to behave “decently” in public?

Is it time to stop frightening the horses? Or is behaving “decently” in public overrated and in need of a little petulant resistance?