Gay Cruising Stings in 2015? Yes, They’re Still Happening, and Yes, This is Mass Incarceration
co-written by Andrew Extein and David Booth
Believe it or not, gay cruising stings still happen. The Washington Blade reports that just last month 12 men were arrested in a park near Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, a once-popular gay vacation spot, on multiple criminal violations including offensive touching, criminal solicitation, lewdness, indecent exposure and loitering to engage in or solicit sex. Young undercover officers pretended to be cruising for sex in order to make arrests with the intent to curb the same-sex activities at this particular spot.
Officials claim to have received complaints about the sexual conduct in this part of the park. Parks and Recreation Natural Resources Police Chief Wayne Kline says that “this operation is a response to a serious and longstanding problem with lewd and indecent public behavior…Such behavior will not be tolerated in a public area within a Delaware State Park.”
Potential penalties for these misdemeanor crimes include a year of jail time and a fine of a few thousand dollars. Two arrests within three years could also lead to lifetime registration as a sex offender.
The men range in age between 49 and 82, a demographic less inclined to use online cruising apps such as Grindr, and more likely to visit old-school cruising grounds such as the ones they were arrested in. Local news sites have publicly listed the full names, ages, and charges of each of the 12 arrested men.
The gay community should be extremely troubled that this type of gay cruising sting is allowed to happen. While some might argue that public sex is distasteful and should be eliminated, gay men should be disturbed that they are being singled out as a criminal class in need of policing and containment. These stings don’t happen to heterosexuals; this is very specifically a tactic that targets gay men. The stings don’t even target gay sex necessarily, as merely being around the cruising spot is criminalized as “loitering” with “intent” to engage in sexual activity. Criminal guilt by association to a presumption of sex is not what the gay rights movement should tolerate in the era of gay marriage and equality.
The sting at Rehoboth Beach isn’t alone. There have been a number of recent cases of law enforcement targeting gay men for alleged cruising. Over a one year span from April 2012 to May 2013, 18 men were arrested for exposing their genitalia in a park bathroom in Florida. In June 2013, 10 men were nabbed for “deviant sexual activity” at local parks in Alabama, which is code for same-sex sexual activity according to Alabama law. Only one of the men was previously arrested for loitering. Law enforcement in Lincoln, Rhode Island arrested five men for alleged lewd conduct back in May 2014. Law enforcement in Ohio arrested six men for illicit sexual activity in June 2014. Other wooded spots in Delaware have also been targeted. In March of this year, two men were arrested for allegedly soliciting sex at Massey’s Landing. Four months later an additional two men were arrested at Redden State Park.
These incidences do not include what we have previously reported: In 2007, 40 men were caught in Johnson City, Tennessee. Another 500 men were stung over a period of five years, from 2002 to 2007, in the Salt Lake City area. In 2008, 24 men were netted in Huntsville, Alabama and an additional 19 men in Palm Springs the following year. With arrests in the double digits, 2011 was a banner year for Kent County, Michigan and Kansas City. The list is ongoing.
The language used to describe at least one of these stings is troubling commentary on the existing gay bias in law enforcement. Per law enforcement in Springfield, Ohio: “to rid the family-oriented park of the illegal element” and “site for illegal acts in the underground community of sexual solicitation.” Apparently, law enforcement thinks queers are seedy, inherently criminal and inhumane creatures waiting in the leafy confines of a public park to spring on unsuspecting families. They also coldly acknowledge that gay men who cruise are deserving of entry into the harsh criminal justice system, as one sheriff states: “We’re going to make sure that this element understands that if you come…to this beautiful park that the person you’re trying to solicit or engage in sexual activity with may be an undercover officer. And if so, you’re going to be arrested.”
How have we allowed this to happen? The recent focus on activism around gay marriage and military inclusion erases issues such as homophobic policing. Cruising stings aren’t the only way queer people are being targeted today. Trans women, especially trans women of color, are policed at incredibly high rates. Michael Johnson, a young black gay man, was recently sentenced to 30 ½ years in prison for having unprotected sex. One gay man in Staten Island was just beaten and called a faggot by homophobic officers in an especially violent attack. Sex workers and their clients are arrested in prostitution stings. Queer youth are prosecuted for consensual sex at rates higher than their straight counterparts. Police use gay apps and sites such as Grindr and Adam4Adam to entrap gay men by posing as minors and initiating sexual conversations. In the eyes of law enforcement, queer people are fair game for harassment, violence, and persecution.
Stings such as the one at Rehoboth Beach signal a war on sex that fuels mass incarceration, similar to the war on drugs. While drug laws are being repealed, sex laws are exponentially growing. Sex offender registries have bloated to 800,000 people and counting. Just recently a Florida couple was arrested for allegedly having sex on a public beach, resulting in a 2 ½ year prison sentence for the man and lifetime sex offender registration for both of them. If we don’t address the expansion of laws policing sex, then we can’t expect to reform the criminal justice system. Sex stings, sex offender registries, and queer policing are part and parcel with a violent system of mass incarceration that affects everyone.