Lurid, or Just Simple Honesty?

Gay men talk about public sex in The New York Times

Has The New York Times endorsed public sex among gay men?

Not exactly, but the newspaper did take an exceptional step in a September 21 story on a parking lot in a Queens park that is a popular gay cruising spot. It allowed the men who go there to talk about the activity as valuable and important.

“Some longtime lot regulars who are openly gay enjoy gathering to observe and narrate the forays and entreaties as they occur,” wrote Corey Kilgannon, a Times reporter, in the story. “The lot serves the lonely as well as the lusty, they said, helping men seeking friendship and a place to socialize and bond.”

The lot has been a hot spot for decades, “several older men” told The Times and one said, “I spent the halcyon days of my youth here. This place was paradise back then.”

The story noted that the lot may be also desirable for men who are married (though their spouse’s gender was not noted), those looking for quick and convenient sex, and those disinclined to go to a gay bar or sex establishment.

“I can’t tell you how many guys I’ve had here who were wearing wedding bands, with baby seats in the car and all kinds of kids’ toys on the floor,” one “longtime parking lot user” told the newspaper. “It’s on their way home and they don’t have to get involved in a relationship or any gay lifestyle or social circles. They don’t even have to buy anyone a drink or be seen in a gay bar. They just tell the wife, ‘Honey, I’ll be home an hour late tonight.’”

In the mainstream press, stories about gay public sex typically represent the men who enjoy it as criminals who threaten the community. Consider a piece that ran in The Bergen Record earlier this year about arrests for public lewdness in the New Jersey section of the Palisades Interstate Park. The reporter on that story, Leslie Brody, described the sex among gay men there as one of the park’s “less savory sights” and noted that “two Boy Scout camps border the park.” That children are near this activity is often a concern raised in such stories. The park police were solving the problem with arrests, according to the Record.

The Times is not immune to this particular bias. The Kilgannon story did use the standard cliché that children were playing nearby, but the story also went out of its way to note that nobody, outside of the men who enjoyed the lot activities, was aware of the goings on. The Times has done far worse on other occasions.

In a 2003 story that explored the lovers’ lanes that dot New York City, Steve Kurutz, a reporter, allowed heterosexual after heterosexual to discuss the glories and the value of those places and then gave readers this about a Brooklyn lovers’ lane: “The devolution of the lovers’ lane at Plum Beach is a vivid example of how changing mores have affected romantic hideaways,” he wrote. “A large, tree-lined rest area with a old-fashioned roadhouse, the spot was known to generations of Brooklynites as a spot to be affectionate or simply talk. According to [state Senator Carl] Kruger, however, the area degenerated into a haven for drug activity, prostitution, and, after its location was posted on the Internet, anonymous gay sex.”

In that piece, not only is gay public sex not good, it destroys that wonderful thing that straight folks have created.

Still, the Kilgannon story was condemned by the Empire State Pride Agenda. In a letter to the editor that was published on September 24, the statewide gay lobbying group said the story created “a distorted picture” and portrayed gay men as “lecherous.”

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation issued a press release that called the story “tabloid sensationalism” and said it used a “lurid tone.” GLAAD wanted The Times to speak to “public health officials, sociologists, and other credible experts. As it stands, the story appears to have been written more to titillate than to enlighten.”

In fact, what made the Kilgannon story so good was that it avoided any diagnoses and judgments other than those offered by the men who were playing in the lot. It let them speak for themselves. That is a rare media moment these days. Usually, the gay community does not get to speak at all.

Consider all the coverage of September 11, 2001. In four years, not a single story has noted that the first bomb ever set off in America by an Islamic extremist was in 1990 in Uncle Charlie’s, a West Village gay bar. It was a small pipe bomb that injured three people who were treated at a nearby hospital and released. That came out at the 1995 trial of El Sayyid Nosair, the man who placed that bomb, who was on trial for being part of a conspiracy to blow up New York City landmarks.

“The phenomenon is this is an angle that doesn’t appeal to the general public,” said Ken Sherrill, a professor of political science at Hunter College. “It’s not as newsworthy because it only affects an unpopular and stigmatized group so it’s not going to sell.”

Larry Gross, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, said the omission in the September 11 coverage was similar to the recent coverage on the sentencing of Eric Rudolph, a Christian extremist who set off bombs at the 1996 Olympics, two abortions clinics in 1997 and 1998, and an Atlanta lesbian bar in 1997. The bar bombing was buried in press coverage.

“An equivalent, or at least an analogy, is in most of the coverage of Eric Rudolph, the bombing of a gay bar seems to be left out,” Gross said. “Most of the times when I’ve seen news accounts they talk about the Olympic Park bombing and the abortion clinic… I would put it down to a sort of unconscious prejudice on the part of reporters and editors.”

The Olympic bombing offers a story that is untarnished by controversial issues and gives news consumers a story about pure victims attacked by evil.

“It’s a kind of shying away from the unsavory,” Gross said in explaining the press coverage. “My tendency would be to say there is a kind of pulling back from it as complicating or reducing the clarity or muddying the waters… Why complicate a clean story about innocent victims?”

The New York City media has seen a related phenomenon. On August 7, Alex Moore, an African-American man, was assaulted by a group of white men in Brooklyn who yelled racial slurs during the attack.

The Times gave us an 1,100-word story on the assault that noted it had taken place in a racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood. The attack was represented as tearing at the fabric of that neighborhood. The same issue noted in a 150-word piece that two gay men had been attacked in a bias assault in Chelsea. The incident, in the view of The Times, had no broader implications.

“Someone made that decision and that is where you can’t say that it was editorial discretion and say you are giving the people what they want,” said Clarence Patton, acting executive director of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. “You are creating what they want.”

In this respect, The Times may have been reflecting the values of the city. In late June, following the alleged bias attack on Glenn Moore, an African-American man, in Queens, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg held a press conference with Raymond W. Kelly, the police commissioner, and Richard A. Brown, the Queens district attorney, to denounce the assault. The mayor had no comment on the alleged anti-gay bias assault on Dwan Prince in Brooklyn earlier the same month even though that crime was far more serious.

“It’s almost like it’s everywhere with everyone,” Patton said. “The difference in the mayoral response in [Queens] versus [Brooklyn] was just striking… One of the things that was so problematic about the response was Dwan Prince was in a coma for weeks. It just made the disparity in the responses that much more glaring.”

It is also why the Kilgannon story was so refreshing. It was not the usual piece filled with predictable quotes. It was a story that gay men told about themselves. We heard from men who we do not talk to enough.

“Society doesn’t accept us and it’s hard to meet people, sexually or socially,” one “42-year-old graduate student from Queens” told Kilgannon. “You know, not everyone who’s gay lives in Manhattan and runs in packs like ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.’”