Kindness is curbing gay cruising

S.L. police report progress with a therapeutic approach

Published: Sunday, Dec. 7 2003 12:00 a.m. MST

Lt. Kyle Jones, who oversees the Salt Lake Police Department's vice squad, meets with other members of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Liaison Committee in Salt Lake City. The committee developed a kinder, gentler approach to dealing with the problem of public sexual encounters.

Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News

They're not so hard to find if you know what you're looking for.

Go to any number of parks or public restrooms, and you'll find a subculture of men who aren't always what they seem.

Many are married with children, some are leaders within their churches and some, like former state Rep. Brent Parker, are leaders in the community. Behind their clean-cut, family-man facades, however, lies a complex inner conflict that pushes these men to seek out anonymous sexual encounters with other men in public places.

"It's a problem that cuts right through the middle of society," said Salt Lake Police Lt. Kyle Jones, who oversees the city vice squad that is responsible for arresting these men when they have sex in public.

Such encounters, which are typically referred to as cruising, are not a new social phenomenon — even in relatively conservative Salt Lake City.

"Park cruising is as old as time itself," said Don Steward, co-chairman of Salt Lake City's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered (GLBT) Liaison Committee. "It's not something that's happened overnight."

Historically, the practice has also pitted a largely homophobic police force against the gay community. This chasm led to misconceptions on both sides — law-enforcement agencies were too often lumping such men into categories with some of society's worst sexual predators, and the cruisers believed police unleashed a sweeping dragnet into one of the few places many felt comfortable expressing their attractions to men.

And despite constant arrests, the long-held stereotypes on both sides did little to solve the problem.

"We've been writing citations and citing these people for years and had no impact," Jones said.

A new approach

That started to change about three years ago. Frustrated by the number of men engaging in sex at Oxbow Park, a coalition of police, prosecutors, gay community leaders, government officials, therapists and public health officials met to discuss the problem.

"It became clear that we had been shooting ourselves in the foot," said David Ferguson, program director for the Utah AIDS Foundation.

Out of that initial groundbreaking discussion was born the GLBT Liaison Committee. The committee eventually developed a kinder, gentler approach to dealing with the problem. Instead of throwing men into jail for having sex in public places, offenders were allowed to participate in a therapy program called Healthy Self Expressions. The therapy is designed to help the men deal with their conflicting self-image in a healthier — and legal — way.

"You absolutely have to deal with it in a humanistic way to address the real problem," Salt Lake City prosecutor Sim Gill said. "Look, people hook up. It's not against the law to meet somebody — that's a human need. It crosses the line when there is a public behavior in a public place."

To enter the program, cruisers must first take responsibility for their crime by pleading guilty to the charge against them, typically a class B misdemeanor. The plea is then held in abeyance until the participant finishes the program and successfully completes his probation without further violations. During the program's two-year existence, 144 men have completed the program. Only four have reoffended. Currently, 48 men are enrolled.

"You respect somebody, you get these kind of results," Gill said. "You humiliate someone, you end up getting the kind of results you did under the old model."

The new approach, however, hasn't been without opposition.

"I got a lot of nasty phone calls from people saying, 'You're going after your own,' " said Paula Wolfe, director of Salt Lake City's Gay and Lesbian Community Center.

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