On policing the bushes in Malcolm X Park

Malcolm X/Meridian Hill Park (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In the 1980s, half my lifetime ago, I met a beautiful deaf man on the Metro and we exchanged comments on a notepad he carried. “I know a place we can meet,” he wrote, and described the LBJ Memorial Grove across the Potomac River. I didn’t like that suggestion. “Why don’t you come to my place,” I replied. He looked horrified and shook his head. The next time I saw him was on the escalator to the street on the north side of Dupont Circle. I made a gesture of greeting; he gave me a look of fear and shook his head. He was with his wife.

I thought of that fellow when I read in the Washington Blade that the Park Police were entrapping gay men cruising for sex in the bushes in Malcolm X Park — or Meridian Hill Park, to use its more bourgeois name. The park has been known for half a century as a cruising spot favored by black gay men. Maybe I should call them MSM, for “men who have sex with men” but don’t necessarily identify as gay. But I know from conversations over the years that at least some of them identify as gay but enjoy mixing a little transgression with their sex.

As my old Metro encounter suggests, I was never inclined to “do it” in the bushes. The prospect of thieves and plainclothes officers would have dissuaded me even if I had had the urge. I had a home, and if I met someone I wanted to be intimate with, that is where I was inclined to take him, perhaps after meeting for coffee or lunch to get to know each other better. But part of the appeal of the bushes was the anonymity and the attendant transgression and risk — a walk on the wild side.

Back in the day, officials cut back the bushes around the Iwo Jima memorial, also across the Potomac, because of the sex happening in them — more specifically, because of disapproval of such encounters. There was also a wooded hillside above Rock Creek known as the Black Forest where the late Blade photographer Doug Hinckle once photographed a discarded condom during the Gay Pride festival, which was held in an adjacent field.

In an even earlier time, years before Stonewall, in the 1950s, Lafayette Park was a prime cruising ground, and police entrapped men there — including Buddy Hunt, the son of Wyoming Sen. Lester Hunt. Sen. Hunt shot himself to death in his Senate office after henchmen of Sen. Joe McCarthy blackmailed him over the incident.

Over the years, GLAA would occasionally receive inquiries from people seeking lawyers specializing in such cases after getting arrested. There were ads in the Blade for such lawyers, and I relayed that information. As an activist, I answered press inquiries on the subject by saying I discouraged such liaisons out of safety concerns, and that only safety concerns, not moral ones, should motivate the police.

That, I believe, is the standard we should still uphold today. There should be no entrapment and no moral policing. As always, the specter of children is raised to justify such arrests. The men in question are not “doing it” in front of children. They are going into the bushes. Someone speculated that one possible impetus for the arrests may be complaints from residents in high-rent apartments overlooking the park expressing disapproval of the cruising they observe.

My response to them is similar to what Frank Kameny might have said decades ago: if our constabulary has nothing better to do than police the bushes for people having too good a time, then we can do with fewer police.



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