The see-saw sits beneath a crescent moon. Dog owners have deserted the place. Yuppies hit the sack, unaware that the parks around them are alive. They play host to all kinds of saucy and sordid happenings. Bushes whisper and fences groan from unlit nooks. The beat is open for business.
There are beats at most parks in the inner west. Or rather, there has been a beat at most parks at one time or another. The beat is necessarily a mobile culture, for it falls prey to police and local councils alike. Police break up the beat with their batons, and councils follow with their lighting. They are the foot soldiers of morally indignant ratepayers, but their quest to dissolve the beat is both futile and immensely harmful.
A beat is a place where gay male sex is undertaken covertly and often anonymously. It is an enduring feature of gay culture since time immemorial. It is, in part, a product of a society in which gay sex remains stigmatised by the mainstream. It is a place where some queer men go to escape the subtle, though pervasive, regulation of the bedroom. By having sex outside the home one can implicitly excise the act from one’s sense of self, but it is also the product of gents seeking a thrill.
Whatever an individual’s motivations for attending a beat, it is a phenomenon that continues to develop. Websites such as Men 4 Sex Now and apps such as Grindr have introduced a degree of versatility that has allowed beat-goers to evade detection by sharing intelligence. This is a far cry from times past, when homophobes would attend known beats to do violence to queers. The case of Scott Johnson, who was murdered at a beat at Manly in 1988, is a well-known instance of such violence. Elsewhere, in Putin’s Russian, social media is increasingly used to lure queers to cruel fates.
Yet the greatest risks at today’s beats lie elsewhere. A beat is not a place at which safe sex is prioritised. This is sometimes because of the perceived thrill of risk-taking, but more often because of the sense of urgency associated with hooking-up outdoors. This sense of urgency is significantly increased by the threat of police intervention. In this way, the safety of those at a beat is undermined: protective measures (condoms) are ignored and prudent enquiries – “are you STI free?” – are not made. Moreover, police intervention fails to achieve any meaningful public good. After all, the children are in bed and the dog has been walked. Police intervention, then, is instead motivated by homophobia and it ultimately compromises public safety.
When Scott Johnson was found dead in the eighties, the police deemed the affair a suicide. It has been only in recent times that the evidence has been allowed to speak more clearly. A lesson can be learnt from that sorry story. It is that a homophobic response is not the path to truth and justice. When it comes to the beat, the lesson is that risk minimisation is more important than placating yuppie sensibilities.