A grassroots project that began with picnics aimed at monitoring police harassment of men at beats — public places where men gather to have casual, consensual sex — is expanding, despite controversial beginnings. The issue is dividing the gay community and stirring debate on homophobia and the role of police.
The issue of beats and beat users exploded onto the pages of Sydney’s gay and lesbian newspapers — and to the forefront of queer community consciousness — in November 2008 with the launch of the Sydney Beat Project, now called the Beat Project. Initiated by beat users themselves in response to increased reports of police harassment, intimidation and mistreatment of men at beats across Sydney, it now monitors beats across NSW and has forged links with beat users in South Australia.
“We were concerned it would get back to the days when being a gay man was illegal, when police regularly harassed men at beats and used plain-clothed officers to entrap and charge men,” says project co-ordinator Richard Capuano, who regularly monitors police behaviour at his local beat in Sydney.
“It is common practice for officers to take down car registration details, and names and addresses when policing beats, even though guidelines indicate they cannot record personal information … simply because men are in an area that is a ‘known’ beat,” he says. There were also reports of men being searched, chased, threatened and manhandled by police or visited at their homes the next day — despite not being charged with any offence.
Concerned beat users began researching the laws governing public spaces and proper police conduct, and sharing what they learned. A core network of users supported by grassroots lobby group Community Action Against Homophobia now hosts regular Saturday night picnics to monitor police activity, raise awareness of the issue and inform beat users about their rights and responsibilities. The group has also created an independent reporting system to collect information on police behaviour at beats.
Wayne Morgan, an academic lawyer and senior lecturer in Law and Sexuality at Australian National University, says police have a long history of harassing men at beats. Their behaviour has long-term impacts on both the LGBTI community and beat users, who are already heavily stigmatised and vulnerable.
“It can lead to more internalised homophobia; in other words, feelings within beat users that they are the scum of the earth, that they deserve this sort of thing,” he says. “Also, it makes beat users and sections of the GLBTI community itself very hostile to police generally. It reinforces an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality which isn’t helpful to either side.”
Morgan says police harassment at beats can include “outright physical abuse”, bribery or extortion: “It speaks to corruption within the police force. I know of circumstances where police at beats have told beat users: ‘Well, you give me something — usually money, but sometimes it’s even sex — and we won’t report you. We won’t take down your number. We won’t hassle you in any way’.”
In reality, Morgan says, it is difficult for police to convict a person for beat use — so much so that Victorian police, discouraged by failed prosecutions, have virtually given up charging men ‘caught’ at beats. Laws vary from state to state, however judges in Victoria have ruled that sexual behaviour can only be considered an offence if it takes place in a public place and could reasonably be expected to be seen by a member of the public. If the person seeing the behaviour has to do anything unusual to view it, then the behaviour is not public and therefore cannot be an offence.
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“There have been cases in Victoria where men have been in a cubicle with the door shut, having s-x, and police have had to look underneath the cubicle or jump up and look above the door before they can see them having s-x. They’re not guilty,” he says.
Victorian courts have made similar decisions in cases where police had to search through bushes in order to see men having sex there. So despite intense scrutiny from some authorities, beat use is arguably not even an offence, says Morgan.
“Beats are one of those victimless crimes — if you want to call it a crime at all, and of course it is even debatable under law whether it is a criminal offence anymore,” he says. “Who gets hurt? Normally it takes place late at night, normally it isn’t an issue of endangering children… Usually it’s not even a disruption to the public because even if beats are in public parks or whatever, the most prevalent use is late at night.”
The problem, however, is that sometimes people do get hurt — namely, beat users who become victims of homophobic attacks. Beats are notorious for attracting gay bashers and thieves, with a number of murders, rapes and muggings occurring in and around ‘known beats’. The unsolved murder of Anthony Cawsey is one of the more recent cases to grace headlines.
Such incidents have prompted some to reason that it would be safer for everyone if beats were simply shut down. Morgan says the argument is “stupid and misplaced”, in part because it absolves police of their responsibility to ensure the safety of all citizens.
“If we have a problem with gay bashings, let’s deal with gay bashing,” he says. “Bashers know that beat users are far less likely to … go to the police than if they attacked a couple walking down Oxford Street or in Paddington [in Sydney] … Don’t stop men having sex. Stop bashers.”
But when the Beat Project began a campaign calling on police to do just that — to police hate crime rather than beat users — the reaction from the LGBTI community was not what they expected.
“Instead of actually addressing the issue of police harassment at beats, they [the LGBTI press] went in and attacked [the project],” Capuano says.
Some criticised the aims of the project, defending the right of police to move beat users out of public spaces; others accused project organisers of putting beat users at risk. In an editorial in Sydney gay and lesbian magazine SX in November 2008, Reg Domingo wrote: “[T]he highly public way in which CAAH has drawn attention to the issue could very well provoke more homophobic attacks against beat users.”
The resulting debate — which raged in articles, comments and editorials in Sydney’s gay and lesbian press — drove a wedge through the queer community, says Capuano: “A lot of people think it’s no longer relevant because we’re decriminalised… They think it’s a hangover from when we were illegal … so within the community its become a sort of shame… I think the gay community is struggling with itself over this issue.”
Beats have been part of Australia’s social landscape since the late 19th century. Historically connected to the oppression of homos-xuality, today beat use is thought to be in decline, largely due to the victories of the gay liberation movement. Indeed, greater acceptance of gay relationships and the decriminalisation of homos-xual activity mean men many gay and bis-xual men have abandoned beats for the safety and convenience of s-x-on-premises venues and online services like Gaydar.
This trend has caused some in the LGBTI community to argue that beats rightly belong in the dark and distant past. “Many beat users say beats should be celebrated as part of our history. I say we should no more celebrate them than European Jews would celebrate having to hide in basements and attics during WWII,” says Andrew Potts, a journalist and former opinion columnist for gay and lesbian newspaper the Sydney Star Observer.
“Beats today are a sad anachronism from the days when homos-xuality was illegal and gay men had no other options. In those days having your sexuality discovered could lead to many years in prison and the destruction of a person’s work and family life.”
Moreover, he says, beats “reinforce the worst sorts of stereotypes about gay men”.
“[B]eat users don’t have any sinister motives, however they are engaging in selfish behaviour with little regard for the communities in which they live. At some point people have to realise that they are living in a society,” he says. “[They] monopolise public spaces and facilities for purposes they were not intended for and take away the consent to be exposed to such behaviour from those who are there to use them for those intended purposes.”
While beats in regional Australia may still play a socialising role, Potts says, inner city beats are frequented by an “irresponsible minority” who are simply out to get a thrill.
There is no doubt some gay men use beats because they find them erotic, Morgan says, but this doesn’t paint an accurate picture of beat users in general. Firstly, he says, it is a myth that beats are exclusively or even predominately used by those most people would think of as ‘gay men’.
“I don’t think that you can define beat users as gay men … Obviously some gay men do use them but any man who wants to have s-x with another man — particularly if they identify as straight, particularly if they are married or have children — it’s that sort of person who is most likely to use beats,” Morgan says.
The availability of legal, gay-friendly venues makes little difference to these men — usually referred to as MSM (men who have sex with men) — precisely because they shy away from any identification with the gay community.
“If you’re a man who doesn’t identify as gay, you probably don’t even want to know the other beat user’s name, let alone meet him in a café for coffee. But you are quite happy to sit with him at a beat perhaps for an hour or more, having a chat, a cigarette, whatever,” says Morgan.
“A lot of their non-identification is because of homophobia … [These men] don’t even want to be seen in ‘gay areas’ or at the entrance to gay sex venues… They are also less inclined to use online services because it’s often hard to hide where you’ve been online.”
Beats offer users anonymity, convenience and speed, says Morgan, which is why they are extremely attractive to men who do not see themselves as gay or bis-xual and who may well be leading ‘straight’ lives in the ‘real’ world.
But while s-x is clearly one aspect of beat use, the unrelenting public and media fixation on the sexual activity at beats only adds to public misconceptions.
“It comes back to the stigma that men are only interested in sex. Not only do we have to deal with those negative connotations in society … but also within the gay community,” Capuano says.
“[T]rying to find someone to love you is really difficult whether you’re in the bush or in the big city… [Beats] are a way of socialising and assisting men to come out and explore their sexual identity, a way of meeting like-minded men. It’s not always about engaging in sexual activity.”
Brian*, a middle-aged beat user who describes himself as “quite conservative”, says beats “are anything other than a place for sexual encounters”. He wrote in an email to Crikey: “It has been my experience that they fill a real void in the life of many gay men, particularly lonely middle aged. On so many occasions I have seen such men just sitting and chatting and filling lonely spaces in their lives.
“Similarly, younger males looking for advice or consolation for any number of things from being outed, acquiring a sexual disease, depression, family issues and more recently, very stressed young men from ethnic backgrounds wanting to reconcile their sexuality with ethnic issues … the list goes on and on.”
He continues: “The knee jerk reaction from the police and officials is to shut down these places but is [sic] so doing they are creating real damage within the community. It should not be assumed that type of men who I have referred to will attend counselling services… The trouble is there is no advocacy available for this issue (and most other gay matters) as there is no political or community understanding.”
Two years on, the Beat Project is not just continuing; it’s expanding. Capuano says the project has made substantial progress engaging with police, local councils and other organisations to address crime at beats and increase understanding of beats and beat users.
“We have since developed a better working relationship with police and encourage officers to … maintain a standard of professional conduct when policing beats and work toward deterring vigilante behaviour and hate crimes,” he says.
The project has also had success in changing the behaviour of beat users themselves, Capuano adds. They vare now more aware of their rights and are less likely to escalate matters by panicking and running when they encounter police patrols: “The community wants the beat issue to go away but it never will. It’s been around for hundreds of years. Community attitudes will be community attitudes … The thing is to make sure that the beat users are actually being protected and kept safe. That’s our priority.”