Nature setting lures controversyArea's wooded terrain becomes contested ground for 2 groups at odds: Bird-watchers and gay men seeking sex
By Josh Noel | Tribune staff reporter
October 24, 2007
Luis Munoz, an avid bird watcher of 12 years, has seen a remarkable range of rare winged creatures this fall migration season, including the Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow and the red knot.
He also has come face to face with one species he hopes never to encounter again but knows he will: the Chicago cruiser.
As sure as Munoz and his fellow birders can find an array of lovely birds in the area's most densely wooded spots, they also routinely find men trolling for casual sex.
Birders and cruisers have found value in the same patches of land because not only do they attract scores of birds, but they also allow for partial privacy and chance encounters in a public setting.
In cruiser communities, birding areas are known to be prime hook-up spots.
"It's bad, dude, real bad," said Munoz, 47, a Chicago police homicide detective who began birdwatching during a trip to Yellowstone National Park. "I've been confronted a couple times, and I've seen a few things happening. Like guys in the middle of some things."
Many of the birders' favorite areas, such as the Magic Hedge at Montrose Harbor and several Cook County Forest Preserves, are littered with used condoms and discarded wrappers.
Chicago and Cook County Forest Preserve police said they have long been familiar with clashing cultures, but that cruising is difficult to combat despite patrols, arrests for public indecency and the occasional undercover sting.
At best, birders said, the cruisers are tasteless; at worst, birders said they feel uneasy amid occasional leers and advances.
Birders said the cruisers are generally easy to spot: men without birding gear, such as binoculars, sketch books or birding books, who wander the less populated trails with deliberate gaits and searching eyes.
"The whole thing is eye contact," said Sgt. Phil Greco of Chicago's Town Hall district, who has ordered stings at Montrose Harbor. "They look at each other and stare each other down. If they feel comfortable, they wander off and do what they wish to do."
Several men at the Magic Hedge fitting the description of cruisers appeared to welcome some sort of interaction when approached on a recent Saturday afternoon.
But when told they were speaking to a newspaper reporter, they said they were not looking for sex. They all declined to give their names or discuss cruising, even though some said they were familiar with the practice.
Cruisers have their defenders, who make several arguments: cruising is a part of healthy adult sexuality, police are heavy-handed in pursuit of arrests and crackdowns smack of homophobia.
Birders said they have seen scrawled signs in the Magic Hedge saying, "Humans over birds."
"Historically, these charges have been used as discrimination against homosexuals," said Jon Erickson, a Chicago lawyer who has defended cruising suspects. "I've never seen a straight couple charged with public indecency in Branch 29 court."
Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), the city's first openly gay alderman, said police are wasting time by trying to combat an activity "that has been going on a hundred years."
Several of his constituents in the heavily gay ward have complained about entrapment during police stings, he said. He called those people "victims."
Police "are playing a game," said Tunney, whose ward includes the Town Hall police district. "Is this really a priority when we've got violent crime on the street?"
Yasmin Nair, a freelance writer who has defended cruising in the Windy City Times, a Chicago gay newspaper, said public sex allows "one to negotiate sexuality outside the domestic and restrictive normative ideas of sex."
Offended birders should simply look the other way, she said.
"I would say just move your binoculars -- look for the red-breasted robin," she said. "It's not as if they do it in the open where someone has to step over them."
Munoz said that while birding in a Chicago police T-shirt, he once was propositioned.
"This guy walks up to me and says, 'How's it going?' I'm thinking the guy's a birder," Munoz said. "Then he goes, 'Want to get lucky?' I said, 'Excuse me? Can you read my shirt?' He says, 'Yeah, but do you want to get lucky?'"
Munoz said he declined.
Birders also complain about cruisers at Jackson Park on the South Side and in North Side and southwest suburban forest preserves.
"There are places I totally have to avoid because of the cruiser population," said Wes Serafin, 57, an Orland Park pharmacist and avid birder. "You walk into some of the places and these people follow you around waiting for you to approach them. It's creepy and I resent it."
Cook County Forest Preserve Police Chief Richard Waszak said his agency made "50 to 60" public indecency arrests of both men and women this year, though department spokesman Steve Mayberry said more arrests are made of men.
"We're not a motel," Waszak said. "But they figure it's a lonely place and that they can do what they do."
Police and birders met in 2004 to devise a plan for Montrose Harbor. The result was a series of bright orange ropes strung inside the woods with signs that crossing the boundaries would be a misdemeanor offense.
"It's a little better than where it was," said Joe Lill, president of Chicago Audubon Society. "Before the ropes, it was a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10 for 'cruiseability.' Now it's maybe an 8. But on any warm day, it's still going on."
The approaching cold weather will reduce the problem for a few months, but birders said cruising is as sure to return as the leaves. Though cruising dipped after the ropes were set up, it nudged back up this year, Lill said.
"It's probably time to...put up more ropes," he said.
Greco, the police sergeant, said plainclothes officers carried out multiple stings by posing as birders and watching what happened in the woods. He denied that officers have approached potential targets and offered sex.
"What we're looking for is public indecencies," he said. "People go there to take graduation photos and things, and you get these goofballs in the bushes. ... It's really a job the officers don't necessarily like doing, but they feel it's important."
People behind the orange ropes are ticketed, he said, while people seen in the act are arrested and charged with public indecency. There are about 10 times as many tickets written as arrests, he said.
"We get guys begging for mercy because they are married and from the suburbs," Greco said. "You can't let personal pleas affect your professional decision."
Some birders said they have tried talking to the cruisers about taking their activities elsewhere, but that dialogue hasn't done any good.
"Gee, I wouldn't want to be in there doing those things when 100 people are coming by with binoculars and looking into the bushes," Lill said. "But it doesn't seem to bother them."