Washroom And Park Arrests
This information sheet will help lesbian, gay, and bisexual groups cope with washroom and park arrests in their communities.
Public parks and washrooms have long been popular meeting places for gay men, since well before gay liberation, and before gay bars, clubs, and more developed social networks were available as viable alternatives. The risks were considerable – both from thugs looking to assault and rob gay men who were unlikely to press charges because they feared exposure of their sexual orientation, and from the police seeking to locate and prosecute homosexuals.
Homophobia, the prejudice against homosexuals, continues to be a factor leading men to seek out meeting places more anonymous than gay clubs and organizations. Most of the men arrested in washrooms and parks do not identify themselves as gay, are in heterosexual marriages, and are very closeted in terms of acknowledging their homosexual feelings. Because the men are not known to the gay/lesbian organizations, the police are able to make a number of arrests without the gay and lesbian communities being aware that the arrests are being made. The community is then taken by surprise when the police make announcements to the media.
For the people arrested, the repercussions are devastating. Generally, they plead guilty and pay a fine, plus pay a lawyer, and hope that it will be kept quiet. In recent years, newspapers and the police have been better about not publicizing names; however, anyone interested can look at court dockets and get the names that way.
If information about the arrests gets out, the men arrested may suffer broken homes, and loss of their jobs, as well as social isolation. Even if the arrest is kept quiet, the anxiety experienced by the men is enormous, and there have been a number of suicides. Also, men who have been convicted will then have a criminal record and run the risk of having that exposed if they attempt to cross an international border or are arrested again.
For the police, the repercussions are advantageous. By increasing their arrest and conviction statistics, they gain financial and public support. Since most of the men arrested do not fight the cases, these are easy arrests and convictions.
For the most part, the gay community suffers adverse publicity, and it has been noted that incidents of “gay bashing” seem to increase after publication of mass arrests. Attempts can be made to turn the publicity to advantage by using the exposure to bring up other issues, but this is difficult. Also, the issue of washroom arrests is a very divisive one within the lesbian and gay communities.
Washroom arrests usually follow extensive video surveillance, in which the police use expensive equipment supplied by the Ontario Police Commission to observe activity in washrooms. Often police hide outside washrooms and observe activity through two-way mirrors or through air vents. The police usually claim that the surveillance results from a complaint, but since they do not have to provide evidence of the complaint, it is possible that police undertake the activity for their own reasons.
Park arrests usually result from police activity very close to, if not actually, entrapment. The arrests are often for “communicating for the purposes of prostitution,” when a police officer may behave in such a way as to encourage someone to ask a price or to offer money for sexual favours. Arrests have also been made for indecent assault when a policeman behaves provocatively and then arrests someone who touches him. Usually, there is another policeman nearby, sometimes in hiding, who can act as a witness – this makes it very difficult for the arrested man to defend himself in court.
Police also hide in parks, or undercover police may follow men around, until they are able to catch them in an act the police feel justified in calling “indecent.” Entrapment-type techniques have been known to take place in public washrooms, for example, when a policeman stands at a urinal acting provocatively until another man makes a sexual gesture.
Usually the arrests occur at the time of the incident, but police have been known to send letters to men or to visit them in their homes after several months’ surveillance. Generally the police will wait until they have a number of arrests before making the arrests public.
Often the arrests will first come to the attention of a gay group when someone who has been arrested phones the gayline anonymously to ask what he should do and to get the names of gay-positive lawyers. A list of lawyers should be at hand to give to these callers right away, because it is unlikely they will give their names so they can be called back, and it is entirely possible that they will be too frightened to call back themselves.
It is very helpful for men arrested for the first time to talk with someone who has been through the experience, so if the gayline has someone who is willing to provide this kind of peer counselling, that name and/or phone number could be given to the caller. Callers should also immediately be given the names and addresses of alternative meeting places, such as clubs, baths, and social groups, to give them the opportunity to meet people without taking the risk of being arrested.
Support groups for men who have been arrested would be very helpful, but they are difficult to establish because of the extreme anxiety of the men and their desire for anonymity. Counselling and/or counselling resources should be offered to the men, in case they suffer break-up of family, loss of job, etc., as a result of the arrest.
The men should also be told that a plea of “guilty” will result in a criminal record – many are not aware of this. These are very difficult cases to fight in court, both because of lack of cooperation on part of the men arrested and because the men are usually alone, whereas the police will often have a witness. It is helpful if a lawyer familiar with these cases can speak with the group.
If a group receives any calls about arrests, it can be assumed that many other arrests have also been made which no callers have reported. It can also be assumed, therefore, that the police will soon make a public announcement of the arrests. When calls are received, the phoneline counsellor/group should try to find out where the arrests are taking place and publish a warning in the organization’s newsletter or on bulletin boards. It might also be helpful to publish advice on what to do in case of an arrest (see the end of this document).
Although it is best not to antagonize the police, there is no harm in trying to meet with them and discuss alternatives to arrests, such as the posting of signs warning that the area is subject to surveillance and/or random patrols by uniformed police officers or security guards.
If your group has resources and people with time, a courtwatch programme could be set up. This involves people with some basic knowledge of legal procedures spending time in the courts, watching the dockets. When cases come up involving washroom and park arrests, the courtwatcher can advise the defendant of resources available to him and procedures he will likely encounter. By observing cases, the courtwatch person can gain knowledge on how the cases are being treated and can help develop strategies to fight the cases.
The media usually respond to park and washroom arrests with enthusiasm, and it is likely that representatives from local lesbian/gay groups will be asked to comment. It is best to be prepared in advance, because either defending the activity or condemning it will draw criticism from inside and outside the lesbian and gay communities.
Media attention can, however, be used as an opportunity to describe the kinds of pressure lesbians and gay men face in our homophobic society and to raise general public awareness about the issues surrounding sexual orientation and AIDS. This can also be an opportunity to increase public awareness of your organization and what it does.
If the police have refused to meet with you to discuss alternatives to park and washroom arrests, you can point out to the media that these methods of prevention have been successful and cost-efficient in other areas, and that you suspect the refusal of the police is based more on their desire to increase the number of arrests than an actual desire to discourage the activity.
You can also note the homophobic and discriminatory nature of these arrests: if the police were to encounter the same kind of activity between heterosexuals on a lovers’ lane, they would simply ask the people to move along and would not arrest them. The repercussions for the people arrested should be highlighted, and it should be pointed out that the punishment does not fit the crime, particularly since this is a victimless crime (which might also provide the opportunity to point out that homosexuals are no more likely to molest children than are heterosexuals). As well, police response here can be contrasted with police response to crimes such as violence against women, especially domestic violence, which tend to be treated lightly.
Written by: CLGRO – Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario
When Talking With The Police *
- Be polite.
- You have the right to remain silent. To avoid problems, we suggest giving name, address, and where you’re going, if asked.
- You don’t have to go anywhere with a police officer unless under arrest or for a breathalyzer test.
- If you are the driver of a car, produce your driver’s licence, insurance ownership, and give details of any accident.
- Give your correct name. Don’t resist.
- The Canadian Charter of Rights requires the police to tell you promptly why you are under arrest.
- You have the right to call a lawyer.
- Remember: anything you say may be used against you in court – and probably will.
- Note names, badge numbers, licence numbers, car numbers of police officers and witnesses.
- Write out a complete account of the incident as soon as possible under the heading “For my lawyer only”.
- If you need assistance, or feel you have been treated inappropriately, contact your local gay/lesbian/bisexual group.
* This guide “When Talking To The Police”, is taken from the Right To Privacy Committee’s newsletter Action! vol. 3, no. 3.