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.
"There was a lot of mistrust about what this whole program was really about," agreed Ferguson. "We really had to do a lot of sensitivity training on all sides. It took a long time, and we're still not there yet."
A life-shattering arrest
Therapist Jerry Buie, who is openly gay, counsels men arrested by Salt Lake police and referred to the Healthy Self Expressions program. His patient breakdown represents a cross-section of Utah men. About 40 percent are married, he estimated. The average length of those marriages is 23 to 24 years. More than 75 percent identify themselves as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His oldest client was 89 years old, his youngest was 20. Less than 1 percent of the men Buie treats have had substance-abuse problems.
"Most of these guys have absolutely nothing on their record," he said.
For many men, their arrests break open a secret compartment of their lives they have worked to keep hidden from wives, children and the community.
"We're talking about a class B misdemeanor being a life-altering crime," Jones said.
Parker declined to be interviewed for this story, but his experience highlights the drastic impact such an arrest can have. After learning the Deseret Morning News was printing a story about his arrest for soliciting sex from an undercover male police officer, Parker abruptly walked off the House of Representatives floor in the middle of the 2003 legislative session and submitted his handwritten resignation to House Speaker Marty Stephens.
"(Cruisers) don't identify as gay," said Michael Mitchell, who is executive director of the state's gay/lesbian political action committee Unity Utah. "It's a part of their lives they cut completely off, and just to throw them in jail does a great disservice to not only them but their families."
Living a lie
John, who asked that his last name not be printed, led a double life before separating from his wife in 1988 and living openly as a gay man. Before coming out of the closet, John appeared to be a typical Utah man. He was born a sixth-generation member of the LDS Church, served a proselyting mission and was married with four children. But under that shell, John, now 57, said he'd struggled with an attraction to men since age 3 or 4.
"I was just fascinated by the male body," he recalled.
He married his wife in September 1968 but struggled in private for two more decades with his ongoing attraction to men.
"I only knew two people who were gay, and I was not like them, so I figured, 'I'm not gay,' " he said.
John's struggle to identify with openly gay men is typical of many males his age, experts say.
Most of Buie's clients are middle-age men. Cruising among men in their 20s and younger is much less common now, he said. Buie and others in the gay community say that may be indicative of society's increased acceptance of homosexuality. John and other males his age grew up in an era when being openly gay wasn't widely accepted.
"Many of these older men didn't have permission to deal with sexuality as juveniles," Buie said.
John's first sexual encounter with another man came in April 1971. He was fresh out of the military and had a job reading gas meters in Salt Lake City. After finishing his job early one day, John strolled into a magazine shop.
"You could tell there was a group of guys there looking at the magazines and getting excited, and I found that quite exciting myself," he said.
After John left the shop about 20 minutes later, one of the men in the group followed him up the block.
"We ended up having an experience," John said, recalling the ensuing guilt.
"I didn't want to do it, yet the attraction was still there," he said. "It helped to perpetuate the secrecy and the isolation of that part of my life."
Before ending his marriage and active participation in the LDS Church, John had served as ward executive secretary for three different bishops, Elder's Quorum president and counselor in an Elder's Quorum presidency. Despite his sexual forays, he continued attending the temple, a place that allows only upstanding members who are following all of the church's standards and commandments including shunning any homosexual relationships.
"You're waiting for that tap on the shoulder to invite you out," John said.
John's double life continued until 1988. His son had just left on an LDS mission.
John went to a Salt Lake gym, met another man and went to a park with him.
His wife was suspicious when he got home 1 1/2 hours after the gym had closed. She eventually confronted him, and the two separated in October of that year. Their divorce was final by the following April.
Breaking the law
A few years later in 1993, John was arrested for cruising in Sugarhouse Park. He has been arrested twice since then, most recently in March, when he engaged in a sex act in front of an undercover Salt Lake City vice officer in the steam room of a local gym.
In the 10 years spanning his three arrests, John has noticed a subtle change in the way the justice system treats park cruisers.
"Back then, you were basically a child molester and more into pedophilia than just someone who enjoyed sex with the same gender," he said.
During his court appearance following his 1993 arrest, John recalled the judge taking particular delight in demeaning and humiliating him. The judge read the charges out loud in front of a crowded courtroom filled mostly with people who were appearing on traffic violations, John said. After the verbal berating, the judge fined John $500, placed him on six months probation and ordered him to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases.
"It was very embarrassing extremely embarrassing," John said. "It seemed like the whole focus of it all was to embarrass you and make a spectacle."
The public flogging, however, did little to keep John from cruising. He was arrested on the same charge three years ago in Alexandria, Va. Following the arrest, John says he was treated much the same way by Virginia law enforcement.
After moving back to Utah more than a year ago, John continued cruising at local gyms until his arrest in March.
John said he did notice a definite difference when he appeared in court on the charges. The judge allowed John to waive a formal reading of the charges, sparing him the repeated humiliation of being labeled in front of a courtroom full of people. John said the court's treatment of him after his latest arrest was "one of the better experiences for me."
"There was a more civil way of treating me," John said. "It's a more human way of dealing with this. I think they're learning that cruising is not just about the sex."
So what is it about?
Why some men, many of whom don't openly identify themselves as gay, cruise is complex. To say that cruising is only about sex would a be gross generalization, say those familiar with the practice. There are varied levels of cruising some of which are more about meeting other men who can relate to the inner turmoil over one's sexuality. Sex isn't always the inevitable conclusion. In fact, some men who go to well-known cruising spots simply sit in their cars without speaking or engaging in sex with other men. The need for an emotional bond drives many of them.
"Really, what cruising is all about, yeah, the sex is there, but it's more to make a connection," John said. "Especially here in Utah. You can't go to priesthood meeting and talk about your personal problems, where you can meet somebody at the park and just talk about the frustration you're feeling. It's not necessarily the sex, it's being able to talk to someone else who knows where you're at."
Perhaps to a certain degree, men cruise public bathrooms for the same reasons teenagers used to spend their summer nights driving up and down State Street.
"I think what starts out with a social aspect of 'how do I get connected' becomes sexualized very quickly," Buie said.
Police and public health officials worry about cruising's effect on health and public safety. Police and prosecutors express concern over the possibility that a child playing at a park could walk into a public restroom and witness a sexual encounter between two men. During a recent operation at a Salt Lake park, vice officers arrested eight men in the space of three hours for engaging in lewd acts in a public restroom. Less than 100 yards from one of the restrooms, two groups of children were playing football and soccer.
Besides being illegal, having unprotected sex leaves cruisers susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases, a cause of great concern for Ferguson's Utah AIDS Foundation. The new focus on addressing the reasons for cruising has helped address that health concern, Ferguson said.
"We were going and saying you need to wear a condom," Ferguson said. "They didn't care about that. . . . Until we had conversations with guys that were cruising, we didn't understand that."
Sexually transmitted diseases aside, cruising can be risky in other ways.
"You play a cat-and-mouse game, and it's a dangerous game," John said, recalling the time he met a man who appeared to be making sexual advances toward him at a local gym. John approached the man and was assaulted.
"He put a half or full nelson on me. I passed out," John recalled. "He was standing over by the door ranting and raving homophobic rants and saying, 'If you ever do anything like that again, I'll break your (expletive) neck.' "
Buie's counseling sessions aim to desexualize the desired connections of men like John. Buie avoids dictating what kind of lifestyle his clients should lead. Whatever their choice, the point is to teach men that sexual rendezvous in public restrooms are physically and mentally unhealthy ways of dealing with their same-sex attractions.
"I try to put in perspective that, for whatever reason, homosexuality gets defined as purely a sexual thing," Buie said. "Socially, that's where the emphasis is. What I try to do is, if you will, desexualize what it means to be gay. What I ask people . . . is 'What are your values? What is your sense of who you are?' "
For John, that has meant becoming an openly gay man. He hasn't cruised since his arrest in March and now fills his days with work and numerous outside activities. When he does face the urge to cruise again, John goes through a mental checklist using the acronym HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, tired).
"All of those things were things that I'd misinterpret as I needed a fix," John said. "I learned to do more introspective thinking. If I satisfied all those needs, then generally that drive to go to the park would subside. However, if the feeling for the need was still there, then the theory was it's still OK to go to the park to cruise, but take it somewhere else, take it home."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company