Cruise Control

At approx. 1015 hours on 12/31/03 I saw a white male driving a white Ford Taurus. The male backed his car into a parking spot to my left. I was also backed in. The male began reading the paper in his car. He continued to make eye contact with me while reading the paper. After about 5-10 minutes the male got out of his vehicle with some trash in his hand. He approached on the driver’s side window. When I rolled down the window the male asked me how I was doing. We engaged in a conversation about work and the holidays etc. I told him it was my first time in the park. He said he comes down to the park once in a while. I asked him if he wanted to get in the car. He said, “If you got time.” After a short discussion over what I was reading I asked what he was “up for.” He said he didn’t know. After standing for a few minutes, I told him he could get in if he wanted to. He said, “You’re not a cop, are you,” in which I responded no. He said, “You need to be careful around here.” The man said he was going to throw his trash away and then he would sit in the car for a little bit. He walked over to the garbage can, came back, and sat in the front passenger side seat of my vehicle. . .

There was a few minutes of looking around, then he said, “Well, do you want it or not?” I asked him again what he had in mind. He said he wasn’t sure. I asked him what he was in the mood for. He then asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I didn’t care, I would give or receive. He said, “I like to receive, myself.” … I took my department-issued badge out of my pocket and told him he was under arrest and to take a walk over to the van. —St. Paul Police Department Incident Report

Especially in the last twelve months in the Twin Cities, closeted husbands, naughty clergymen, and oversexed gays have been caught hard at it in parks, rest stops, health clubs, and even the basement bathroom at the Southdale Mervyn’s. Since the dawn of gayness itself, sex has been exchanged in this obscure yet public ritual. In the straight world, “cruising” calls to mind eight-track tape decks and muscle cars on Main Street. In the gay world, cruising has mostly come to describe the practice of men meeting in public places for fast, anonymous sex. And the history of cruising provides a much more instructive survey of the culture clash between gays and straights than the relatively recent controversy about same-sex marriage.

Mostly, the clash takes place when straight people try to stop gay men from doing it. Ironically, this requires police to seduce gay men in public. In 2003, responding to community complaints that men were having sex in public view, St. Paul police set up decoy operations in Crosby Regional Park, along the river south of St. Paul. Most defendants arrested here are eventually charged with misdemeanor indecent exposure, lewd conduct, and loitering. Father Edward McGrath, a priest from Rochester, was not so lucky when he encountered a decoy at Crosby Park on a spring day in 2003. According to court documents, he “cupped the officer’s genitals in his hand while slightly squeezing them,” bringing on a charge of fifth-degree criminal sexual assault. Though McGrath was acquitted of the charges last March (District Judge Joanne M. Smith found no evidence that the decoy officer had not consented to the contact, and had, in fact, encouraged it), the damage to the life and career of a Catholic priest need not be described.

Even Father McGrath may seem lucky compared to William Plaine. Plaine was the first American on record punished for what, judging by the number of offenses alleged, could only have been cruising. In his History of New England, Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop reported in 1646 the following about Plaine: “…he had corrupted a great part of the youth of Guilford by masturbations, which he had committed, and provoked others to the like above a hundred times.” Community service had yet to become the fashion in sentencing guidelines. The “monster in human shape,” as the magistrates described him, was hanged in New Haven.

William Plaine was certainly not the world’s first cruiser. “Australopithecene,” said Jean-Nickolaus Tretter, when I asked him to date the practice. Tretter is curator of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender collection at the University of Minnesota Libraries. If a history exists of anything gay, it’s here. Located eighty feet underground at the Elmer Andersen Library, the Tretter Collection in GLBT Studies is, depending on one’s point of view, either a gold mine or a cesspool of gay history, artifacts, memorabilia, and minutiae. Reporters and researchers make regular use of the archive, and Tretter said it has also become an indispensable resource for anti-gay activists seeking to document the sins of homosexuality. Security is tight, the humidity and temperature controlled. In the event of fire, sprinklers could damage surviving materials, so smoke detectors instead trip a system that evacuates oxygen from the air. The gnomish, bespectacled Jean Tretter himself took me down the elevator shaft and through the airlocks for a tour of the archive. The Tretter Collection began as a hobby, but outgrew Tretter’s St. Paul apartment when he gained a reputation for accepting orphaned materials. Boxes of gay Americana, gay pulp novels and ’zines like Holy Titclamps started showing up on his doorstep “like abandoned babies,” he explained.

For an ostensibly covert activity, cruising has left a surprising paper trail. Tretter has found turn-of-the century newspaper ads for what were euphemistically called “friendship clubs.” Another of his treasures is a preserved green carnation. “This was an identification symbol for cruising in the nineteenth century, especially in Victorian England,” said Tretter, adding that this is most likely the signal Oscar Wilde would have used when he cruised St. Paul’s Rice Park in 1878, after an opera date with Bishop John Ireland. “Using specific symbols for cruising is probably about four to six thousand years old,” Tretter said. Perhaps the most popular of these symbols is the now clichéd hanky code. “You would find the standard old-fashioned 1940s hankies that look like the back of a deck of cards,” he explained. “Depending upon the color and depending upon the pocket you put it in, it told what your particular preference was sexually. It was cruising taken to its ultimate. Because you could look at this guy and say, ‘OK, he’s wearing a red hanky in his left-hand pocket. He must be into…’ whatever it was, what particular type of sexual act. Some of the old travel guidebooks actually published the codes.”

Other signals have been far more subtle, said Tretter, especially in modern times. “Say you’re at Southdale and you’re on an up escalator and you see this really cute guy on the down escalator. You would start whistling the tune to, say, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ You would stop halfway through. If he picked up the tune and then finished it, you knew that he was cruising and he was interested in you.” Another popular signal at one time was a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes placed on a bar and stood on end. A man could reply by doing the same with his pack.

Tretter spoke of these elaborate rituals mostly in the past tense. To hear it from the St. Paul police, cruising has indeed lost much of its celebrated subtlety. Though he admits that the criminal sexual assault charge against Father McGrath was a bit of a reach, Sergeant Jerry Vick of the vice unit says that decoys at Crosby Park were having too easy a time of it when they first cracked down. “Last year, they [cruisers] were very aggressive. You wouldn’t even say anything and guys would grab you or expose themselves.” When I mentioned I would be visiting Crosby myself to observe the scene, he cautioned me. “You’re going to be like a blonde walking past a construction site.”

Further evidence that the delicate exchange of cruising signals and codes has given way to a coarser approach can be found at a website called It’s an adults-only site with a warning that begs minors to stay away for the sake of everyone involved. For straight folks who have ever wondered exactly what some gay men do in the privacy of a public restroom, it supplies a thorough, graphic education. For gay men, it is a detailed guide to “cruisy” locations all over the world, giving specific addresses, phone numbers, and ratings. There are numerous locations in the Twin Cities.

Comment threads supplied by cruisers are often a bit pedestrian, like “I had trouble finding the parking lot described here. Better directions would have been helpful.” Others go into more detail about the kind and quality of action. One enthusiastic cruiser described a scene of “close to thirty guys” on a Thursday night. These explicit comments can sound like absurd, X-rated eBay recommendations. “Two guys were practically sucking [everything] that was put in their face. I’ll definitely be back!”

Entries for Crosby Park last spring, flagged with red “Heads Up!” tags, documented the decoy activity that bagged McGrath and many others: “Several arrests were made here in the last week, with undercover cops leading men on and then pulling out the badge as soon as a touch starts. Three arrests, including two priests, hit the news. It’s bad enough they had cameramen walking around filming for the TV stations…” “Undercover activity has greatly increased with lots of entrapment. It’s not safe at all anymore…”

It was probably inevitable that when cruisers headed for the web, those devoted to stopping them would follow. The City of St. Paul’s anti-prostitution website, which publishes the names and mugs of suspected johns, has been so popular that the police department has now readied a website to publish the photos of men convicted of cruising-related crimes.

“Putting them on a website is like putting them on a fence,” said defense attorney Randall Tigue of the plan. Tigue represents an Eden Prairie man arrested at Crosby. Despite his objections, Tigue believes the website meets the constitutional test. What is most troubling about such additional penalties, he said, is that most men who are busted for cruising have not actually committed a crime. “It’s the use of police to manufacture a crime,” he said of the decoy operation that caught his client. “It’s the defendants who are the victims and the police who are the perpetrators.”

Because a large number of cruisers are closeted men, a website posting may be the cruelest penalty of all, said Minneapolis defense attorney Jerry Burg. I met with Burg over coffee near his downtown Minneapolis office to talk about how his clients become entangled with the law. Burg is gay, and after coming out he started getting cruising cases by referral. He is now half of Heltzer & Burg, a firm specializing in the many and varied legal needs of GLBTs.

Some of Burg’s clients have become suicidal over the prospect of far less exposure than the website. “One of my very first clients in the early nineties was a gentleman in his sixties who had called me for an appointment,” recalled Burg. “And then he called from the hospital. His wife had found him nearly dead from carbon monoxide asphyxiation. That really slapped me.”

“About fifteen years ago we had someone commit suicide over getting a citation,” recalled a Minneapolis officer who asked not to be named. Minneapolis has its share of cruisy spots that generate perennial complaints, but this officer wondered about the wisdom of St. Paul’s website. “Is it worth that? I don’t think so. These guys are consenting adults. I don’t see them as sexual predators.”

Even so, the St. Paul website is only the latest in a series of escalations in the way the capitol city deals with cruising crimes. Most authorities use local indecent exposure ordinances against cruisers, and often handle the offense with a ticket. But a couple of years ago, defense attorneys started seeing a new number in charges originating in St. Paul. It was Minnesota statute 617.23. At a glance it reads much like a typical municipal ordinance against indecent exposure, citing as guilty any person who, in a public place, “willfully and lewdly exposes the person’s body, or the private parts thereof” or “procures another to expose private parts.” The statute also contains subdivisions for violations in the presence of a minor under the age of sixteen and intentional confinement of other people witnessing exposure.

What sets the statute apart for cruisers is the “enhancement” feature. Simply put, a previous conviction for the same offense elevates a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor. Other enhancements can lead to felony charges, which in turn can lead to sex-offender registration. While the felony enhancements are triggered by the act of restraining another person or the presence of minors, attorneys like Burg are nervous. It was only two short years ago that Lawrence v. Texas overturned sodomy laws that had forced consenting partners to register as sex offenders in some states. Jim Rasor of the Rasor law firm in Royal Oak, Michigan, said that he knows of at least three cases in that state where laws similar to 617.23 have led to registration for cruising crimes. But even if a cruiser is unlikely to trigger the felony enhancements in the statute, the planned website looks like de facto sex-offender registration to many defense attorneys.

Another escalation in cruising enforcement is mandatory booking. “St. Paul and Fridley are now requiring that defendants come in and get booked—formal booking with fingerprints and photographs,” said Burg. The St. Paul City Attorney’s office refused to discuss their motives for the practice, or any of the city’s other anti-cruising efforts, but Burg noted that the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension only accepts records accompanied by fingerprints. He also sees no coincidence in the fact that BCA records are the source for employers doing background checks: “It’s a way of bringing these offenders into that database and upping the ante in terms of the consequences. For most of these guys, the real negative that will happen to them is if they apply for a job with a thorough background check.”

It’s been more than a year since the cops and cameras put Crosby Park on the “Heads Up!” list at The park is reached by a steep drive intersecting Shephard Road near Cleveland Avenue. The road goes past the Watergate Marina before leading to three separate parking areas, all of which offer good views of approaching traffic. The park itself covers one hundred and sixty acres of Mississippi River bottomland and forest, stitched by nearly seven miles of foot and bike paths. With its remote location, urban proximity, and public facilities, it’s a cruiser’s trifecta. And it doesn’t take much of an eye for action to see that plenty is still going on. Single middle-aged men back their cars into parking spaces and roll down their windows, making it possible for another car to drive forward into the adjacent space, lining up the driver’s side windows for a chat. A pair of men emerges from the wooded paths and wordlessly separates, each walking to a different car.

Like many other idiosyncrasies of gay culture, gay men tend to cite closeting as a major factor behind cruising. I had several conversations on the topic with Travis Stanton, editor of the Minneapolis GLBT magazine Lavender. Stanton said that even though only a small percentage of gay men cruise, closeting can play a role in the development of sexual habits. “While in the closet, gay men are unable to discuss relationships, desires, or even who they find attractive. Consequently, there is often a sense of sexual freedom upon coming out,” said Stanton, adding that in many cases, “the coming out is only to one’s self.” For closeted men, the anonymity of cruising may be a practical necessity as much as an act of sexual discovery.

Stanton also observed that anonymity brings thrill-seekers into the game. “For some, there is a voyeuristic, exhibitionist motive. Those individuals believe the sexual experience is heightened by the risk involved with public sex.” It is this feature of cruising that has generated almost as much friction within the gay community as it does with law enforcement. In public image and public policy, today’s mainstream gay agenda is same-sex marriage rights, all day, every day, and straights have heard the news. Cruising does little to cultivate the wholesome family image promoted by gay marriage advocates. “There is a definite rift in the gay community between some who feel it is important to present the public image and those that feel being gay does not automatically make them public representatives of the gay community at large,” said Stanton.

Yet another controversial look at cruising seeks to explain it biologically. Syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage, for example, has argued that the fabled male sexual imperative has generated habitual promiscuity in the absence of (also fabled) female restraint. A Minneapolis man who has been arrested for cruising (speaking on condition of anonymity) put it this way: “If straight men could cruise women the way men can cruise men, they’d be doing it all the time.” I encountered this declaration a number of times while talking to gay men about cruising, and the consistent implication is that straight men don’t simply because they can’t.

“I believe this image is slightly flawed, but it may account for a small percentage of the men who participate,” said Travis Stanton of the theory. He also pointed out that straight sex is everywhere. It gets depicted on billboards, in diamond ads, sitcoms, rap videos, and Top Forty hits. “And don’t tell me that men and women don’t park and have sex in cars,” quipped Randall Tigue.

“Straight cruising takes a more public and certainly more socially tolerated form,” concluded Stanton. “The concept of make-out point is as American as apple pie, but if the rendezvous involves two gay men, rather than the captain of the football team and head cheerleader, it’s prosecuted as if the two were selling crack to kindergartners.”

Without civil rights laws to protect gay couples from evictions and job loss for simply taking someone home, cruising, paradoxically, was the original safe sex. Oddly, gay efforts to be more like monogamous heterosexuals are now more threatening to anti-gay activists than lewd conduct in public view. The conservative Minnesota Family Council devotes most of its energy these days to supporting state Senator Michele Bachmann’s constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage. But president Tom Prichard was uncharacteristically short on opinions when I asked him what he thought about the escalating cruising enforcements in St. Paul. “Just enforce the law, I guess,” was all he had to say.

If the religious right fails to see imitation as the greatest form of flattery in same-sex marriage, cruisers are finding it’s an even worse deal that decoys have become more and more practiced in the art of seeming gay. Unlike prostitution busts, where the financial transaction defines the crime, cruising decoys must encourage some sort of sexual activity to take place to make the arrest. Jerry Burg says that because of this gray area, vice decoys depend on escalating their provocations to produce the desired results. He says that an undercover cop will sometimes actually ask his target to expose himself, to “show me what you got.” And to get him to do it, an officer has to talk and act like he is himself cruising. It’s “not the kind of language you hear on ER. They’re talking sex language.”

“Not just anyone can do it,” said Sergeant Brian Rogers. Rogers coordinates vice enforcement with the Minneapolis Park Police. He carefully selects and trains decoys because, he says, “We want to make sure we deal with these people in a professional and courteous way.” Rogers also doesn’t favor the harsher measures across the river. The Minneapolis Park Police citation for “prohibited conduct” can be settled out of court. Cruisers are not booked, he says, and they can settle their fines on the spot, like a traffic ticket. “These guys are different from guys exposing themselves around the lakes to women and children. Those are the guys you want to get.”

But no matter whom they are looking for, tumescent men prowling lavatories and parks will most likely be considered a nuisance long after they gain the right to marry the kindred souls they meet up with. And so they will be busted. And despite the less-punishing approach in Minneapolis, they “go into a complete panic right away. They can’t pay [the fine] fast enough and just get out of there,” said Rogers.

Or, as Jerry Burg explained, “They’re feeling incredibly stupid and manipulated because they thought they were with somebody who wanted to be with them.”