Touch at Your Own Risk

Bloomberg administration scrambles to clarify affectionate behavior policy in park on piers

You can kiss, you can hold hands, and you can hug, but fondling your partner’s nipples is prohibited in city parks.

“I think the most important thing is that it is the policy of the city of New York to allow people to express themselves in an affectionate manner holding hands, kissing, hugging, whatever that may be, so long as it doesn’t cross the line and become sexual activity prohibited by parks’ rules,” said Anthony W. Crowell, special counsel to Republican Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Crowell’s statement to Gay City News came after the newspaper called concerning a complaint from Paul Gerena, a Manhattan massage therapist.

Gerena was in the Hudson River Park at the end of Christopher Street on May 9 where he saw a Park Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officer tell two men to cease what Gerena said was affection.

“They were just being affectionate with each other,” Gerena told Gay City News. “This park enforcement guy came to them and said, ‘You can’t touch this guy. It’s not allowed.’”

A second PEP officer was summoned who agreed with the first that the behavior was a violation of parks’ rules, according to Gerena. The couple then left the park. The first officer, identified as “B. Victone,” intervened with another gay couple later that afternoon, Gerena said.

“Then about two hours later, two friends of mine, two young kids, got told the same thing,” Gerena said. “I go there to be at peace of mind. They can’t get away with this… We have a right just the same as anybody else.”

One of the two men in the second couple spoke by telephone briefly to Gay City News to confirm Gerena’s account but did not respond to repeated calls seeking further detail. Gerena said he had seen PEP officers do this before.

“They did this last year,” he said.

City Hall is admitting to only one of the incidents and standing by the PEP officer. PEP provides security under contract with the Hudson River Park, which is administered jointly by the city and state. Crowell said a woman with a child saw two men, one shirtless and sitting, the second kneeling, “fondling the nipples” of the shirtless man. She reported this to a PEP officer.

“The officer observed it,” Crowell said. “He thought it fell within the prohibition for disorderly behavior and, after observing it, he just asked them to refrain from doing so.”

Parks department rules state: “It shall be a violation of these rules to engage in disorderly behavior in a park. A person in any park shall be guilty of disorderly behavior who… engages in any form of sexual activity” though the rules do not define “sexual activity.” The PEP officer could have issued a ticket, but did not.

City Hall appears to be very sensitive on this matter. Gay City News called the city parks department for comment, but it was Crowell who responded. He then made several additional calls to the newspaper to point out, among several items, that the parks department had never before received complaints of this nature from any taxpayer or city official.

In a phone interview, Crowell told the newspaper, “It is not the policy of the City of New York to, in any way, prohibit or interfere with normal sexual activity.”

He then insisted he had said “normal affectionate activity.”

After first declining to comment, The Empire State Pride Agenda, the statewide gay lobbying group, issued a statement.

“We are glad the city has clarified its policies in this area,” said Joe Tarver, ESPA’s communications director, in the statement. “While it is impossible for us to know all the circumstances around this one incident, the city has heard our concerns and parks officers are now aware the community expects to be treated fairly. Should it become evident in the coming weeks that park officers are singling out members of our community in an unfair manner, we will go back to the city and have discussions about what steps will be taken to stop this practice.”

Other community leaders were none too happy to hear about the incident in the park.

“If there is one place in the world where same-sex couples ought to feel free to be affectionate, it is in the West Village,” said Clarence Patton, acting executive director at the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. “This is behavior that straight people engage in all the time. It only becomes a problem, and this is something we are all aware of, is if it is happening between same-sex couples. It really does raise some serious flags.”

Democratic City Councilwoman Christine Quinn, a lesbian who represents Chelsea and the West Village, expressed outrage.

“The issue here is whether or not the PEP officers are treating LGBT couples differently from heterosexual couples,” she said. “I have heard of no report of heterosexual couples being told to refrain from affectionate activity in the park. The law is very clear in the city. City employees cannot treat LGBT people differently than other New Yorkers. It sounds as though that that is what is happening on the West Side waterfront and the Bloomberg administration has an obligation to immediately cease this discriminatory behavior.”

In 2003, community activists charged that PEP officers were requiring transgendered people who were using the same park to produce identification to verify their gender before they could use the public bathrooms there. There have been no more complaints since then.

“They said their policy would not be checking IDs,” said Melissa Sklarz, co-chair of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Committee of Community Board 2 and a long-time transgender rights activist. “As far as I know it’s been resolved. If it’s happened again, I haven’t heard about this.”