Every place with a gay presence has had a place where men have gone to trickthe Ramble in New York City, Dolores Park in San Francisco and Union Station in Los Angeles are just a few.
Chicago is no exception. Numerous locations around the citythe restrooms in the old Marshall Field & Co. building and the Palmer House Hotel on State Street, the Lawson YMCA and secluded parts of Lincoln Parkwere legendary among gay men looking for relatively quick and easy sex. The Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary and Cook County forest preserves are current hangouts.
Frequenting these spots has always carried an element of risk, be it from police or gay-bashers. But for some men, the risks are worth it.
"Paul"not his real nameis an Edgewater man in his early 50s. He cruises near the bird sanctuary. While he said he doesn't consider himself an exhibitionist, he does get a rush from cruising in public.
"There's an element of 'hanging out' that's exciting," Paul admitted.
Men who have been caught cruising have found themselves up against local or state public indecency laws whether they actually were thought to have had sex in an arguably public place or, as is sometimes the case, were merely there seeking partners to take home for sex but were victimized by a perjurer who said they were actually having sex there.. The Chicago city ordinance says that any person appearing in specified public places with the person's private areas "exposed to public view" is subject to a fine of between $100 and $500. The Illinois statute defines public indecency as an act of penetration or sexual conduct in public, as well as a "lewd exposure of the body done with the intent to arouse or to satisfy the sexual desire of the person." The law defines "public" spaces as those where the conduct can reasonably be expected to be viewed by others.
Attorney Jon Erickson, who has defended a number of individuals against public indecency charges, pointed out a conundrum at the heart of some cases.
"There has to be an expectation that you'd be viewed if you are accused of public indecency," Erickson said. "But that expectation is not there if you are hiding in the bushes trying to make sure nobody sees you."
The history of cruising in Chicago
Attorney Ed Mogul has also represented gay men arrested for public indecency. He said public cruising in Chicago largely grew from some gay men's reluctance to set foot in gay bars, which for many years were regularly raided by city and county police.
"Back when the law against homosexuality [the sodomy law] was eliminated in Illinois (in 1961), a lot of people thought that Illinoisand Chicago in particularwould become a mecca for homosexualsand they were right," said Mogul. At the same time, police were aggressively watching over gay bars for signs of lewd behavior.
"If you were caught in one of the raids, your name and address were published in the newspaper; many lives were ruined," Mogul added. "It was safer for guys to go looking for sex in public places than it was to be in the bars."
Attorney and activist William B. Kelley described numerous ways bars diligently worked to avoid having their patrons arrested and having their liquor license revoked decades ago. Some forbade patrons from buying each other drinks, lest anyone be charged with prostitution. Patrons were also discouraged from close contact and same-sex dancing, he said.
It was difficult for bar owners to get around the harassment. In 1969, a bar called The Trip had its licenses revoked after authorities claimed the management had "overlooked indecency" on the premises.
"The bar had taken steps to protect itself and its patrons by closing on Sunday nights and organizing a private club," Kelley said. "You could get a membership card, come in, and use the dance floor. Police got hold of a membership card by stopping someone on the sidewalk and seizing it. Then they came in and made arrests."
Ultimately, The Trip won its case. But the arrests were "a police harassment tacticthere wasn't anything going on," Kelley said. "They wouldn't allow people to kiss or even get close to each other in an intimate way," except for the Sunday-night dancing.
"Those CPD [Chicago Police Department] busts in bars literally drove gay men looking for sex into the streets," added Mogul.
People who were afraid to be seen going into bars, Kelley said, "were not afraid to be seen going into Marshall Field's." But he was not convinced that the bar raids were the sole reason gays gravitated toward cruising spots.
"I've always thought they did it because of a preference for variety," Kelley said.
Numerous public spots sprung up on Chicago's lakefront. "There was an area just off Lake Shore Drive … between Lawrence and Foster," according to Mogul. "People would go in and just disappear behind these huge bushesit was a mixture of straight and gay men looking for blow jobs."
"Oak Street Beachthe retaining wall along Lake Shore Driveused to be a lineup of guys looking for sex at night," added Kelley.
Getting gay-bashed was an enormous risk.
Thugs would beat and/or rob men, often counting on their victims' being too embarrassed to report the attack. One of Mogul's first cases stemming from a cruising incident involved helping a man who had been viciously beaten by a group of young men wielding broken-off car antennas, for example. But police could be equally violent.
"The younger officers were especially vicious," Mogul said. "They seemed to be having some issues. The real police were interested in fighting crime. What police are interested in arresting prostitutes and homosexuals?"
In 1969, a 63-year-old man named Delizon Bush was arrested by CPD Officer John Manley on a charge of public indecency. Manley contended that Bush had tried to attack him, and Bush was acquitted of the public indecency charge but found guilty of resisting arrest.
But Bush was much smaller than Manley and had suffered numerous injuries.
"That got reversed on appeal. The judges obviously didn't believe Manley, because Manley was so much bigger and younger," Kelley said.
Police were going into parks and arresting men on the grounds that they were committing sexual acts. "Many times they were, but they were doing it in seclusion, and many times the police were interrupting them in ways they would never bother doing in an equivalent heterosexual situation," Kelley said.
The arrests weren't just taking place on the lakefront. A number occurred in various parts of the Cook County forest preserves, where county officials had established a so-called "lifestyle enforcement unit."
"It was mostly suburban homosexualsmost of them would leave their car in the preserve and go looking for sex," Mogul said. "The forest preserve would seize the car, too, and they would have to pay an impound fee, so it was basically a revenue raiser."
Cruising spots today
The preserves are still used for cruisingPaul said he visits occasionally: "It seems to be mostly married men or 'straight' men looking to get their cocks sucked or suck cocks themselves."
In 2010, Erickson defended a man who'd been arrested on a public indecency charge in the forest preserves but had the charges dismissed when a judge agreed that the county Forest Preserve District's public indecency law was antiquated.
The law read, "No person shall appear in any forest preserve in a state of nudity, or in a dress not properly belonging to his or her sex, or in an indecent or lewd manner, and no person shall make any indecent exposure of his or her person or be guilty of any lewd or indecent act or behavior in any forest preserve, or while in any vehicle within the Forest Preserve District."
He argued that the ordinance, which would also, for example, ban trans people from using the forest preserves, was unconstitutional. Additionally, the word "lewd" was problematic, having been out of favor with the courts for decades.
"It's so vague and open to interpretation," Erickson said, adding that the possibility of arrest depended on the mindset of the arresting officer. "'Lewd' means one thing to a police officer who's a Christian fundamentalist and something else to one who was a former San Francisco hippie."
The county promised to look into the wording of the law after the 2010 case.
"I checked and they kept their word," Erickson said. "It still says 'lewd' in the Illinois public indecency law, but its terms are more concretely defined."
Erickson said that a number of judges have been concerned with the constitutionality of public indecency laws, adding, "It's unfortunate because so many men that this happens to are embarrassed by it, so they just go in and plead guilty in order to get it over with."
He gets a public indecency case about every three months or so.
"They're not as common as they used to be, but they're still too frequent," he said, estimating that about 25 percent are from the forest preserves, while the other 75 percent usually are from the bird sanctuary.
"It seems to be politically motivatedsomeone in the bird sanctuary complains, usually a birdwatcherso the police cast a wide net and sweep up people who should not be swept up," Erickson said. The police have sent out "more-than-good-looking officers to lure gay menif they were straight men, it would be like they were sending out Christy Turlington." (Chicago Police Department officials did not return calls for comment by press time.)
He added that the arrests, however infrequent, are "a tool of harassment" against the community. "They don't arrest straights for doing the same thing out in the open at the beach."
Paul said he has only actually seen one person getting arrested in the sanctuary.
"From what I could see, they were someone who seemed 'off'they were calling attention to themselves. I think by keeping your eyes and ears open and conducting yourselves quietly, you can stay out of trouble."
He has been stopped by a police officer only once. Paul was beginning to fool around with another man in a parked car when the officer asked what they were doing. "I answered, 'Just chatting,' and he fortunately just said to take it home, which we did."
It's easy to spot the guys in the sanctuary for cruising, he added. Most are dressed either in clothes not cut out for an afternoon in the park, such as a suit, or wearing items that can be pulled off or opened up easily. In his experience, most of the guys in the sanctuary are usually looking to give or receive oral sex, though he's occasionally engaged in anal sex there. Paul is a top and insists on using a condom; some of his partners have protested, going so far as to refuse to engage in sex with him.
He has cruised in many placesthe gym, adult bookstores, the mall. He knows he is not the only one who finds it exciting, and he doesn't foresee himself changing.
"After [U.S. Sen.] Larry Craig was busted, gay rights people went on television to say that he was doing that because he was closeted, and that this sort of thing would stop if everyone could live openly as gay," Paul said. "I don't think sofor a lot of guys this is just human nature."
In 1982, the Chicago Police Department, under Superintendent Richard J. Brzeczek, issued this Training Bulletin for officers. Despite this bulletin, undercover arrests continued for many years in parks and bars. Courtesy of the M. Kuda Archives