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Bird-watchers and gay men square off in Chicago Park

By Karyn Chenoweth Oct 26, 2007, 6:51 GMT

Bird-watchers and gay men square off in Chicago Park

\'gay street\' at downtown Rome, Italy, on 02 August 2007. EPA/MASSIMO PERCOSSI

The Chicago Tribune is reporting a very strange story involving Bird-watchers and gay men who troll for anonymous sex in a popular park.

Reporter Josh Noel writes that avid bird watchers visit the park, seeing remarkable ranges of rare winged creatures especially during the migratory fall season, including the Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow and the red knot.

Unfortunately for the bird-watchers, Chicago gay male cruiser types are being spotted too.

The Bird-watchers routinely find men trolling for casual sex.

Noel writes: "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."

Apparently in cruiser communities, birding areas are known to be prime hook-up spots, according to Noel.

"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."

According to Noel, "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 say cruising is difficult to combat despite patrols, arrests for public indecency and the occasional undercover sting.

According to Noel, the birders said the cruisers are tasteless; birders said they feel uneasy amid occasional leers and advances.

Interestingly the observant Birders comment that 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."

Noel went undercover to see what the cruiser-watcher fuss was about.

Noel approached some prime cruiser suspects, but when he informed them 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.

According to Noel, Birders have been taunted by the gay cruisers with graffiti 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."

Offended birders should simply look the other way, say several gay rights activists.

According to Noel, 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."

Noel reports that the 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."

Noel notes the approaching cold weather will cause a natural decline in all activities in the woods.

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.

People behind the orange ropes are ticketed, he said to Noel, 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 to Noel. "But it doesn't seem to bother them."

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