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Sympathy and resentment
Alan Rosenberg, President of the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard of Charlotte, counsels a group of men struggling with their homosexuality. Like so many men in their position, he began cruising for sex with other men while still trapped in a marriage to his wife of 25 years. Rosenberg says his sexual journey began in a health club, where he had his first sexual experience with another man. It was totally by chance that the man sought him out, Rosenberg said. Rosenberg was full of questions. Where did men go to meet for sex? What were the signals they used to communicate their intentions to each other?
For the last seven years of his marriage, Rosenberg prowled the public and private places the man had told him about, as well as others he found on his own. Before he knew it, he says, he was out of control.
"It became a compulsive behavior," Rosenberg says. "I'd go to the bookstore where they had private booths and you used slugs or coins to rent them. After I'd go there I'd be so disgusted that I'd throw the slugs away and think, 'Here I am, this honest guy doing something disgusting.' But I'd be back there four hours later."
It took seven years for Rosenberg to work up the courage to tell his wife, children and friends that he was gay. But even after he came out, Rosenberg continued to cruise for a while. Like many men of his generation -- Rosenberg is now in his 70s -- he had had little exposure to outed gay men or gay culture. The transition was a difficult one for him.
"I had had gay sex, but I had no idea what it meant to be a gay man," he says. "I had to get adjusted to it." Often, he says, other gay men made him feel uncomfortable.
"If they were straight-appearing and masculine like the people I was accustomed to being with, it was fine, but if they were flamboyant I was uncomfortable with that," he says.
Rosenberg's experience with cruising and as a counselor has led him to the conclusion that many of the men who cruise may not yet have admitted to themselves that they are gay. Many of them, he says, probably have homophobic attitudes toward openly gay men.
"A lot of these guys going to the park don't think of themselves as gay," said Rosenberg. "They also feel it is not cheating on their wives if they are with another man."
Rosenberg's story is a familiar one to Charlotte psychologist Bob Barret.
"There is a married population of men out there who seek sexual contact with other men," Barret says. "But most of them don't want to interact with the gay community."
Barret blames much of this closeted behavior on what he terms society's repressive view of homosexuality but at the same time insists that it is not appropriate for gay men to be having sexual encounters in public places such as parks. It's risky, he says, and it can prevent the formation of healthy relationships.
"Many gay men tend to have their early sexual experiences in high-risk situations," says Barret. "They pair the arousal from the risk they're taking with their sexual arousal. Then when someone is having sex in a relationship, sometimes they aren't satisfied. They want the high edge to return."
Barret says the overt promiscuity of the cruising culture may have its roots in the self-doubt of many closeted homosexual men.
"Many gay men grow up with pretty strong doubts about their masculinity," says Barret. "One way they deal with that is to have sex with a lot of people. That sort of drive is problematic."
There is a sympathy that borders on resentment toward the cruisers by leaders of the gay community. Gay and lesbian leaders would like to strike down crime-against-nature laws often used to prosecute cruisers caught by police in parks and other public places, but at the same time, they insist that the behavior of cruising is unacceptable. Some even seem to resent it because it reflects badly upon outed gay men who socialize more publicly.
"It is really unfortunate that people think they have to hide their gayness and think that they have to seek out sex with a total stranger," said longtime gay activist Don King. "That's pathetic."
King says the situation the gay cruisers put themselves in is parallel to the one straight men who are married put themselves into -- except that those men have semi-accepted places to go seek out extracurricular sexual partners, like strip bars or other bars that their friends don't frequent.