It’s 1:30 p.m. on a chilly afternoon at the south end of Aquatic Park, and about 15 men are engaging in a long-standing tradition in the remote and secluded area – cruising for casual sex with strangers.
The small parking lot at the end of Bolivar Drive is filled with cars. About half of the drivers still sit behind their steering wheels, attempting to make eye contact with the drivers of other cars who are slowly circling a small roundabout covered with trees, shrubs and bright, green grass.
Just inside the park, in a seemingly continual cycle, a lone male emerges from a grove of trees that separates the park from the railroad tracks, walks quickly to his car and drives off. Another car pulls into the available space and its driver, in turn, disappears into the same grove of trees.
For 30 years the south end of Aquatic Park has been known as a gay cruising spot. The area has been convenient for the activity because of its seclusion and easy access to Interstate 80 from the Ashby Avenue on and off ramps.
But an increase in park use by joggers, Frisbee enthusiasts and children is quickly making the traditional cruising area obsolete, according to Parks and Waterfront Director Lisa Caronna.
In recent months the city has initiated a multi-departmental strategy to curtail sexual cruising in the area.
“Our goal is make sure the park is safe and friendly and our policy is that we do not condone public sex of any kind,” she said. “This is a historic activity but not an appropriate one.”
In the last year, the new Dreamland for Kids Playground and Frisbee golf course have brought new users to the park and Caronna said that once the Pedestrian Bridge across Interstate 80 opens up, the southern section of Aquatic Park will see a huge increase in use with bicyclists and pedestrians populating the park’s pathways to access the bridge.
“The police have been making sure there’s no one in the park after 10 p.m. and maintenance crews have been trimming back some of the heavy underbrush where people tend to meet,” she said.
In addition the Department of Health and Human Services is concerned because the casual sex that men are engaging in is considered to be high risk for contracting HIV.
According to Leroy Blea, the city’s HIV/AIDS Program Director, outreach workers have been distributing condoms and information about the prevention of AIDS on a weekly basis in the park since March 2000.
“Our work is focused on HIV prevention,” Blea said. “But besides risky sex, the people who participate in public sex environments are also vulnerable to police harassment, fines and being mugged.”
Dr. Fred Conrad, who has rowed on the lagoon in the center of the park every day for the last six years, said he has seen a decrease in cruising activity in the last six months since the police and parks departments have begun to discourage it. But he said it still goes on. Especially on weekend afternoons.
“It’s not unusual to see 20 to 30 men down there on weekends. I mean this is a lot of people, all guys,” Conrad said. “The number of guys down there is so great that you couldn’t go down there with your family and sit at the picnic tables and get out a picnic lunch. The atmosphere is too foreboding.”
The Waterfront Commission has been considering a series of possible solutions to the problem including more education and outreach, enforcing the parking and park closure regulations and modifying the roadway to discourage illegal parking.
Commissioner Claudia Kawczynska said for the last 30 years the city has either not had the resources to address the problem or has ignored it.
“It’s an area that hasn’t been well-used by the general public and the city has neglected that part of the park for a long time,” said Kawczynska who frequently visits the park. “It might be one thing if people were cruising during the night but there are literally people there 24 hours a day.”
Kawczynska said new parking signs, upgraded roadways and increased use by the general public will discourage cruising in the park.
Blea said that many men who curse for anonymous public sex are often not openly gay, some are married with families, and generally have no other way to meet men.
Frank Gurucharri, the director of the Pacific Center for Human Growth, a nonprofit that provides a host of services and support groups to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning individuals, said these individuals are faced with a particular dilemma.
“They wouldn’t come to the Pacific Center because they don’t identify as gay or bi, which can leave them unable to access information that will help them understand the risk they are in and the risk they are putting others in,” he said.
Gurucharri said that men cruising for casual sex are often motivated by sexual isolation and loneliness.
“If you can go to a support service and get support from other men it’s a powerful alternative to casual sex,” he said.
Blea and Gurucharri have been discussing the possibility of creating a group support center in the Health and Human Services Department that’s open to everybody. Such a place, Gurucharri said, would be a comfortable place for men who have sex with men but don’t identify themselves as gay or bisexual.
But according to Blea there is currently no funding available for such a project.
For more information about support services available at the Pacific Center for Human Development call 548-8283 or visit its Web site at www.pacificcenter.org.