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The Case for Decriminalizing Gay Sex in Public Parks

Near the end of 2016, police officers in southwest Toronto set up a sting operation to catch men who have sex with other men (MSM) in Marie Curtis Park. It was called Project Marie and it “led to 89 charges against 72 men”, mostly charges for trespassing and engaging in a prohibited activity.

Afterwards, Toronto’s LGBT community called out the cops for targeting gay and bisexual men and shamed the media for conflating MSM with pedophiles in their interviews with teary parents who talked about strange men eying their children.

The Toronto cops claim they weren’t targeting gay men, they’d just received community complaints about people having public sex at all hours. But urban planner Jen Roberton wonders whether the same time and money would’ve been spent targeting heterosexual couples.

In a recent article that Roberton co-wrote with anti-violence advocate Marsha McLeod, the two call sex in public parks, “a longstanding tradition in urban centres,” adding that some homeless and closeted people “may frequent parks for sex because they do not have access to an indoor space for sex” or “other means of meeting other MSM.” They consider sting operations such as Project Marie a form of sexual violence in their use of coercion and forcible punishment through sex.

A summary of the article states:

public sex doesn’t represent a public safety issue and communities overreact to its presence. The police justify their actions as “taking back” the park for families and children, but much of the cruising takes place when families aren’t in public places like parks anyway.

“An effective way forward,” Roberton said, “involves planning that balances the needs of park users who do not wish to see explicit sexual acts, with the equally essential needs of queer people to have spaces to express their sexuality, in which they will not be traumatized and violated.”

Roberton says that they’d like to see public sex decriminalized as its legal repercussions often have long-lasting effects on those that incur them (such as public shaming and financial penalties); they’d also like MSM and other marginalized communities to have a voice in how to address the issue. And since people will keep having sex in public sex for the foreseeable future, Roberton and McLeod also think parks should consider how unlit areas and additional bushes can help keep sex hidden from those who’d rather not see it.

They mention that in Vondelpark in Amsterdam, public sex is legal as long as you “limit the sex to evenings and nighttime and stay away from the playground.” But their primary concern isn’t providing MSM a place to get laid. Rather, they want to protect marginalized people from homophobic police practices and physical violence, the kind that queer-bashers sometimes inflict on men who just want to get off.

(featured image via David Goehring)