By Seth Hemmelgarn
Bay Area Reporter
Decades ago, men in San Francisco who wanted to hook up with other men had limited options. There were bars or places like city parks, but wherever they went to find each other, there was often a risk of police harassment and arrest.
Now, with more acceptance of gays, and the ease of hooking up via mobile apps like Grindr and websites like Adam4Adam, it may seem like visiting the outdoors for sex is a thing of the past. But it’s not.
Based on interviews with several gay San Francisco men and visits to the city’s parks, men of all ages are still cruising in the city’s outdoor spaces. Among other reasons, they find the Internet inefficient, and they like being outside. Often, the men said, they’re just looking for oral sex.
The fact that men still visit the parks to hook up is likely common knowledge to many. One man in Dolores Park told a reporter who admitted to not being intimately familiar with the scene, “You’ve never been up here? I find that hard to believe.”
However, others, including police, are unaware of how much it still happens.
At about 4 p.m. on a recent Sunday afternoon in Golden Gate Park’s western edge, a band played on the lawn of the Beach Chalet Brewery and Restaurant. The eatery is located close to Ocean Beach and the park’s iconic windmills, which have been known for years to draw men who’re looking for sex.
Nearby, just outside the park’s soccer fields, Jeff, 67, lingered by a tree with the top few buttons of his plaid shirt undone.
Jeff, who didn’t want his last name published, said he comes to the area “a couple times a week” to “suck dick and chase after men, get some exercise and smoke some weed.”
He added, “I’m an old-fashioned cocksucker and not very anal … That’s why I survived the plague,” referring to the AIDS epidemic that killed thousands of men in the city beginning in the early 1980s.
As Jeff, a semi-retired chef, spoke, about six other men paced around silently within a few feet of each other, waiting for someone who interested them.
Jeff said he first cruised in the area about 25 years ago, and he sees fewer people there than he used to. He attributed the decline to the recreation and parks department clearing out greenery. A spokesman for the agency didn’t provide comment for this story.
Most of the men near him appeared to be in their 50s and older, but Jeff said he sees men of all ages in the area. There was one man who didn’t seem older than 35 who declined to speak with a reporter. That was the case with several men who appeared to be looking for hookups in the city’s parks but either wouldn’t talk or said they didn’t know anything about cruising.
Another part of Golden Gate
A short walk away from Jeff, near the intersection of John F. Kennedy Drive and Bernice Rogers Way, several men who appeared to be 50 or older stood quietly or walked around slowly.
This was the area where, in July 2012, San Francisco resident David Borowy, 55, was found dead with his pants down around his ankles. His death was initially considered a possible murder, but the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s Office eventually determined he’d had heart disease and died of natural causes.
A few days after Borowy’s body was found, several men near the site talked about how the park had been a well-known cruising spot for years. When a reporter returned on a recent Sunday afternoon, it appeared that its popularity hadn’t diminished.
Bryan Anderson, 65, who’s gay, was talking to another man near the clump of trees where Borowy’s body had been found. Anderson said he’d come to the park out of “boredom” and to get some exercise. He was “semi”-cruising, he said, but “not expecting thrills.”
Asked about going online to hook up, Anderson, who said he’d first had sex in the park in 1989, said he has roommates who are younger than him and “live on the Internet.” For him, “60 percent of it is getting out of the house,” he said.
There didn’t appear to be police officers in either area of Golden Gate Park, and the cruisers didn’t seem worried about encountering any. When the Bay Area Reporter requested an interview with Captain Sharon Ferrigno, who heads the San Francisco Police Department’s Richmond Station, which oversees most of the park, a staffer referred questions to the police media-relations unit. SFPD spokespeople didn’t respond to an emailed interview request.
Captain Greg Corrales, who’s been with the SFPD for 44 years, heads Park Station, which oversees parts of the Haight and Castro neighborhoods. The station’s territory includes Buena Vista Park, which has a reputation for being cruisy.
Corrales said he’s never dealt with the issue of gay men cruising in the parks himself, but “the attitudes of the police department have certainly changed in the past 40 years.”
“When I came in the department” police “went through various parks trying to catch people engaged in sexual activity,” he said. “That mentality hasn’t existed in decades in this department.”
“I think the general public has become more enlightened, and cops are part of the general population,” Corrales explained. “Cops have become more enlightened as the years go by.”
He said nobody’s been cited at Buena Vista Park this year for having sex.
“We do not get any complaints” about men hooking up in the parks, said Corrales. “I don’t believe it’s going on anymore.”
He said if it is, it’s being done “discreetly.”
“If we don’t get complaints, it doesn’t exist, as far as we’re concerned.”
Top of the hill
In recent years, Buena Vista Park has been associated with the June 2011 death of Freddy Canul-Arguello, 23, whose burned, mostly naked body was found with a partially melted recycling bin on a park hill. David Munoz Diaz, 24, has been charged with strangling Canul-Arguello to death during a sexual encounter. The two men had known each other prior to the night they met up and headed to the park. A prosecutor in the case has said the motive was robbery, but Diaz’s public defender has called the death “a terrible accident.”
Just before sunset on a recent Sunday night, a handful of men lingered near the top of the lush, hilly park, which is at the edge of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and offers spectacular views of San Francisco and the bay.
One man leaned against a wooden rail for several minutes. The man, who’s 40 and didn’t want his name published, said he preferred visiting the park to going online for hookups.
“It’s unfortunate how we have become disconnected,” he said. “… It’s so much easier to meet somebody and smile.”
On the day he spoke with a reporter, he said he was looking for “just a good old-fashioned hand job.”
He doesn’t have intercourse in the park, he said, partially because “I wouldn’t want to see myself face0down with the police coming around the corner.”
But for Christopher Wood, 25, being found out is part of the appeal.
Wood, a receptionist, cruises in the park because “there’s something really erotic about it. Obviously, the idea that you might get caught, but I don’t know, it’s just really hot to be outdoors,” he said in a phone interview.
He said he goes to the park for sex “two or three times a month” and usually goes to Golden Gate, but sometimes he goes to Buena Vista.
“There’s not usually a lot of talking,” Wood said in describing how encounters begin. “It’s glances. You give somebody the eye. Usually, depending on when you go, you have a pick of a few guys. If you’re not interested, you just keep walking.”
Wood moved to San Francisco from Seattle about a year ago and said, “I feel like there was more action” in the other city. There, he said, he saw a lot of wedding rings on men in the park, and it seems there’s more of a need to be secretive about gay sex.
“There’s still a lot of ‘hush hush’ around being gay and gay issues” in Seattle, said Wood, “whereas in San Francisco, I feel like you can talk about anything at any time. It’s safe.”
As with cruisers in Buena Vista, it seems men looking for hookups in Dolores and Collingwood parks don’t have much reason to fear the police, either.
Officer Ted Lattig, the gay LGBT liaison for Mission Station, which oversees the parks, said police haven’t received complaints about sex in the parks and haven’t patrolled for it recently.
“If it’s been happening, or been a problem, the people in the neighborhood aren’t telling us about it,” said Lattig.
He’s more concerned with “people overindulging at the bars” or doing drugs and becoming more likely to be victims of crimes like robberies.
Most of the men who spoke with the B.A.R. weren’t worried about becoming victims of robberies or other crimes in the park, but Lattig indicated he does worry.
“In any major city, if you’re out past 2 in morning in the park, that in itself can be risky behavior, cruising or not,” he said. “No one here is judging that, and I’m very aware that in the gay community, cruising can be viewed as a celebration of who you are … It’s your sexuality, and you’re having a connection with a person, even though it might be very short, very quick.”
Lattig, a longtime Castro district resident, recalled a period about 10 years when he would drive past Collingwood Park around 4 a.m. on his way to work.
“I would see a few guys standing out there waiting to get picked up,” he said. “I haven’t seen that in quite some time, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”
During a visit to Collingwood Park at about 1:30 a.m. on a Sunday in September, the sidewalks around the fenced-in park near the heart of the Castro were practically empty.
Kevin Casey, 57, who’s gay, was standing on the Diamond Street side of the park with a friend. Casey said that when he moved to San Francisco more than 25 years ago, the area was “scandalous.”
“I knew I was not in Ohio anymore,” said Casey. Now, though, the area is “very sanitized.”
On the night he spoke with a reporter, Casey said he was hoping to go into the park to smoke pot, but he couldn’t find an opening. The last time he engaged in sex there was about six months ago.
“I just crept into the park to take a leak,” he said, but ended up getting head. “I was shocked that such a thing would still go on.”
Gay Supervisor Scott Wiener, whose District 8 includes the Castro, said in an email, “I haven’t received any complaints about park cruising,” and the practice didn’t motivate his recent legislative proposal to establish consistent closing hours for the city’s parks, from midnight to 5 a.m.
At about 10:30 on a Monday night in late September, a 32-year-old homeless man stood by the Muni tracks in Dolores Park, just beneath the pathway on the western edge of the park that’s known for cruising.
He frequently hooks up with other men in the park. That includes men he’s sure live their lives as straight, based in part on how self-loathing they seem after sex.
Despite the fact there’s no lighting in much of the park, and rats were scurrying around nearby, the man said, “For me, this is one of the safest places I know. I know the dynamics. I know what people are looking for. I’ve had a lot of fun here.”
However, he added, “If you really think you’re going to have a solid relationship” with anyone you meet there, “you have to understand this is where you met them, and this is what it is.”
Other parts of the Bay Area have their cruisy spots, too.
Julian Clift, 50, said he’d heard about men hooking up at Berkeley’s Aquatic Park since the 1980s, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that someone from the White Horse, an Oakland gay bar that he frequented, told him where to look. Eventually, the 50-year-old medical records technician went so frequently that fellow bar patrons nicknamed him “Bush Queen.” He quit going in 2007 after his husband, with whom he’d had an open relationship, passed away and “my libido died,” he said.
Asked why he’d gone to the park for sex, Clift said, “Because it was there. Because I was younger. Because I was horny.”
Seth Hemmelgarn is an assistant editor at the Bay Area Reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.