IMMIGRANTS LOVE CITIES, and The Gays are no exception. We flock to cities for the same reasons other immigrants do: Jobs and resources are plentiful and there are people like us there, people who'll show us how to meet even more people like us. Being an ingenious people, we long ago devised a ritual to facilitate the meeting of similarly ingenious types: cruising. To this day cruising and public sex continue to be a popular form of recreation for urban homos. In the quest to expand what sociologists term "kinship circles," some people have even met their lifelong special someones this way.
But for as long as there has been public sex among The Gays (which, according to historians, has been around for as long as there has been public space), there have been gays standing up to condemn it (some of whom, of course, also engage in it). There are those who think public sex is good for The Gays. It helps us with important-sounding things like "identity formation," "community-building," and, oh, getting our rocks off. Others think public sex is bad for The Gays. Many gays are concerned about looking bad, and public sex makes us look very bad, because it gives The Straights the impression that The Gays are only interested in one wrong thing (sex!), and not interested in all the right things, like keeping our gutters clean and our driveways clear of old Impalas so that property values stay up. Some gays also think that public sex is really just a vestige of a time gone by, when being gay meant not having the self-respect or community support necessary to form meaningful relationships and open joint checking accounts.
But it's not negative views of public sex that has altered its landscape and led to its current emaciated state. Nor is it the fact that we have been "accepted," particularly by TV and movie writers and directors. Public sex is not on the wane because everyone is riveted by new non-stereotypical, non-defamatory representations of homos on Will & Grace, Dawson's Creek, NYPD Blue, or The Simpsons. Nor is it that we're all so busy shopping for flimsy lime-green things at IKEA. No, bigger forces are at work; forces that have to do with the assimilation of The Gays, but have even more to do with the assimilation of everyone.
The first large force is of course the AIDS epidemic, which radically changed the tenor and scope of public sex. The romance of public sex--the headlong abandon of the '70s that so many of us wish we could have experienced and so few of us are alive to remember--was extinguished by AIDS. Bathhouses and sex clubs across the country were closed; some by police or health department officials, some by the owners. For a time there was a retreat into domesticity, and a deep sense of fear about random encounters. Then drugs became available: drugs that allowed people with AIDS to live longer, and certain other non-prescription drugs (Special K, Ecstasy, GHB, etc.) that allowed people to forget about AIDS entirely.
More recently The Gays discovered a more private kind of public sex: Call it the new e-tail economy. Thanks to chat rooms full of horny men, a gay can now simultaneously be both an upright citizen and a sleazy troll. While enjoying your good consumer status--typing on a slick new computer, which makes you feel all fast and modern and clean--you can order up some booty to be delivered right to your door. Why kneel down in god-knows-what to blow a complete stranger in a park, when you can blow a stranger in the privacy of your own home with nary (one would hope) a used condom, wad of gum, or old KFC chicken bone in sight?
The second large force that has changed public sex is the crazy booming economy. Newly muscular real estate concerns have conspired to develop every available square inch of formerly open urban space. All this development leaves little room for cheap and easy diversions, such as public sex. From Seattle to New York, public places aren't so public anymore. The formerly ragged, falling-down edges of cities where queers used to meet-and-greet have now been colonized by boom-time winners. Cruisy parks like Seattle's Volunteer Park are now locked up at night and patrolled by police. Anti-loitering and panhandling ordinances (and the freaky uniformed Business Improvement District employees who enforce them) are squeezing out homeless people, poor people, and guess who else? Gay people looking to make new friends. Some academics and activists contend that these crackdowns on public sex are evidence that the government and the police target queers. But the police aren't targeting queers, poor people, or people of color--we're just the people standing in the way, hanging out on prime real estate. When there's money to be made off of formerly nonprofit zones, there's going to be less tolerance for goings-on in those spaces that might hurt profits. The police don't have their own agenda: They merely do the bidding of the city's government, which does the bidding of the city's financial interests, i.e. the money-makers who hold sway over what sorts of behaviors are tolerated in big cities.
Are gay people in, say, New York really so despised or so powerful that huge development concerns have mobilized to move them from their stronghold by the piers across from Christopher Street? No. Rudolph Giuliani doesn't care what people do to each other, but he does care about what they're doing to his bottom line. Quality-of-life campaigns like the one launched by Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran aren't motivated by a hatred for certain groups of people (the poor, the homeless, the queer) so much as by a really twisted kind of love--a predilection far more widespread and better accepted (though intrinsically far more repugnant) than same-sex love: the love of money.
Queers haven't consciously decided to give up public naughtiness in order to be counted as a valuable demographic. Lord knows we're not unified enough to reach such a consensus. It's not the trend toward nesting and child-rearing, or the abundance of legit gay gathering places (which have existed off and on for most of the 20th century) that is squelching public sex. Instead, the bull market is reaching into every corner of our cities, and every last old-economy warehouse district from New York's meatpacking district to Seattle's Belltown is filling up with condos and housewares boutiques. Public sex is on the wane because urbanites, gay and straight, are so caught up in the economic-boom mindset that we're willing to trade community and shared public life for any semblance of a guarantee (clean parks, open sidewalks) that our urban futures will be just as tidy and controlled as the recent upward march of the S & P 500.
Deb Schwartz, former senior editor at Out! magazine, has also written for the online publications Salon and Nerve.