Saturday, July 17, 2004

the loneliest animal in the forest
Back in the late 1980s, we lived near a large park downtown on the site of a former lake in which a sinkhole had opened and drained its waters years before. It was largely a swampy area and the parks department had created a series of trails and boardwalks through the area to allow people to appreciate nature in the midst of a city of over a million people. The park was adjacent to a housing project in which allegedly a good bit of drug dealing was occurring.  It was also the site of some homosexual cruising which local police claimed resulted in sexual acts being committed in park restrooms and in the bushes. I say allegedly because for all the hype that came out of OPD, the statistics rarely bore out the alarming incidence of crime the public was being warned of.
I was practicing law those days and we saw increasing numbers of misdemeanor city ordinance violations as the OPD sought to harrass ghetto kids they presumed were dealing drugs and gay men whom the presumed were planning sexual contacts in the parks. They prosecuted these targetted people through the use of obscure ordinances like "leaving a designated path" or "being in a park after sundown,"  broad charges which fit any kind of suspicious act. Never underestimate the power of the combination of a Calvinist religion, a Hobbesian anthropology and the power and authority of local law.
Most of the agents sent to sweep up these heinous criminals were undercover. Many wore revealing skimpy outfits designed to attract gay men or the beard and baseball cap uniform of the stereotypical drug dealer. These agents often hid in the bushes, wired for sound, waiting to spring their traps on those they saw as menaces to society. In addition to the irritation I felt as a public defender whose time was being wasted on bullshit city ordinance misdemeanor  harrassment,  the obsession with the city over sex and drugs (those things our puritan culture cannot deal with because they represent an unthinkable loss of control) played out in a more personal manner for me. My new jeep had been broken into in my carport and some things stolen from it. I called the police, they said they'd be over but none ever showed. I knew for a fact the undercovers were down in the bushes that afternoon because I saw them there. And after a couple of days when LEO never showed, I simply wrote the mayor a letter laying out what had occurred. I said that while the department was busy trying to bust misdemeanor departures from the path a mere block away, the felony occurring in my home was ignored. So what's wrong with this picture?
Years later,  a friend would tell me of the night his father had died. He had driven to a parking lot overlooking Lake Underhill a block from where I now live. A young man in revealing clothes had come up to his car, pounded on the window and struck up a conversation punctuated repeatedly with offers to engage in sexual activity. After about a half hour of this, my friend agreed to go somewhere with the man. Out came the wiretap and the handcuffs. There is no small amount of predatory motivation in this practice. Knowing this man was grieving the loss of his father and was in a state of vulnerability, the officer continued until he had bagged his game. Who protects us from the protectors?
The last event which gave rise to this post occurred about six months ago. The park where I often go to meditate overlooking Lake Underhill has become a notorious cruising and drug dealing spot, according to the OPD. Local television channels have secretly planted television cameras to record supposed illicit activities in the park. One day as I was meditating, a middle aged man from south Florida came up and struck up a conversation. At one point he suggested we might go into the park restroom. The purpose was fairly clear. Politely declining the offer, I told him that this was a very dangerous place to be doing what he was doing, noting the undercover surveillance. He walked away. A couple of months later, the latest confusion of police operations and entertainment appeared on the local "news" in the form of a story about the park. In the story, the reporter noted that the Orange County Sheriff's Department had created a website on which the photos of those caught in undercover operations like those at the park were posted. I could hardly believe tax moneys were being used in this fashion. So I looked up the site. And there amid the photos was the man I'd warned that day in the park.
I'm not sure what drives these men to engage in risky behaviors in public venues. I know that many are married. I know that others fear the public acknowledgement of their true sexual orientation. The closet has long been a refuge for those who want to have their cake and eat it, too. I'm guessing some like the thrill of doing something risky. I'm also guessing that some have such terrible views of themselves that the venue of a public restroom smelling of stale urine and feces acknowledges their low self-value.
But what I do observe about the many men I have seen in these parks is the absolute and profound sense of loneliness, often mixed with despair, that they evince. For whatever reason they are there, they are there seeking a shred of human contact, a momentary forgetting of their lives of lies. The poem that will be posted in a separate post has been ruminating for about 17 years since the days of living near that downtown park, the boardwalks long since removed by city fathers seeking "zero tolerance" (which usually translates to zero intelligence) of such heinous crimes as departing designated park paths. It speaks to the desperation of the liver of lies, the stupidity of their predators and the ultimate destructiveness of homophobia in a society that long ago should have figured that out.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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