Charleston's public gay spaces have slowly disappeared. Do we need them back? 

Cruise Control

click to enlarge cpc.criswell.jpg

Shelby Criswell

In January 1984, a 21-year-old named Curtis Pernell hopped into another man's car at the Battery. They drove to Mt. Pleasant, where Pernell pulled out a gun, forced the man to drive to Patriot's Point, and jacked his car. A few days later, Pernell staked out the park for another vulnerable victim. He forced a different man parked at the Battery to drive around, took his wallet, and eventually drove away with his car after the man climbed out to call for help.

According to a News & Courier report dated June 15, 1984, Judge Lawrence E. Richter, who eventually sentenced Pernell to 20 years in jail for crimes committed throughout the Charleston area, hinted that his offenses might have been motivated, or at least facilitated, by the practice of late-night cruising near the park.

"All people are entitled to equal justice under the law," the judge told the paper.

For gay men living in Charleston before Will & Grace launched two openly gay protagonists into American homes in 1998, before Lawrence v. Texas legalized gay sex in 13 states — including South Carolina — in 2003, and well before Obergefell v. Hodges granted committed gay relationships the same benefits as straight ones in 2015, the sometimes dangerous but often gratifying act of public cruising was one recourse for men who weren't ready to face the wave of intolerance and legalized discrimination heaped on those who dared to be open about who they were.

The risky practice was the subject of the 1980 drama Cruising starring Al Pacino. (The film was panned by critics and gay activists, who complained about the portrayal of its gay characters.)

By far, Charleston's most bountiful cruising ground was White Point Garden. The historic park at the tail end of the peninsula wasn't always the idyllic tourist escape it is today.

click to enlarge RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith

After World War II and into the '90s, it wasn't uncommon to spot a solitary man at the park, smoking a cigarette, and leaning suggestively against a railing well past sunset. Or two sharing a bench near the eastern end where the trees were taller, according to those familiar with the practice.

In Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex, author Pat Califa names a few liminal spaces where the combination of favorable architecture and accessible foot traffic make for the perfect erotic stage: "a motel room, a bathhouse, a bar, an adult bookstore, a car, a public toilet, a dark and deserted alley."

A dubious website listing several cruising spots in the Charleston area checks off almost every box.

The I-26 eastbound rest stop in Ladson, which is included in the list, was once the hottest cruising ground in the area. A hole in the chain link fence led to a meeting spot that was considered by at least one AIDS activist to be central in the spread of HIV in the area, according to the News & Courier. It was featured in Bob Damron's Address Book, a gay travel guide, along with two rest stops in Columbia, one in Gaffney, and one in Spartanburg.

"The problem in Charleston is, there is a very sizeable number of married males, for that matter in Columbia too, who are out on the prowl for 'interesting' sexual experiences of a homosexual type," read an article in the paper dated July 2, 1982.

click to enlarge Harlan Greene is working on a project to catalog and archive Charleston's gay history at CofC - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Harlan Greene is working on a project to catalog and archive Charleston's gay history at CofC

White Point Garden at the tip of the Charleston peninsula, surrounded by stately homes and the picturesque Battery walk, is this Southern gem's central landmark. With prime spots for leisure and seclusion, some say it was tailor-made for this type of use.

"You were down there to catch a breeze, which people did do, but it was also a very public and private place at the same time," says historian and College of Charleston librarian Harlan Greene, who is embarking on a project to archive and catalog Charleston's LGBTQ history. "You always had an excuse as to why you were down there late at night."

Greene, 65, says friends would pick him up for drives near the Battery to "go see who's queer" while he was still closeted in the early '70s. He likens the body language used in cruising to ballets, and the insecure men who circled the park inside their cars to birds of prey.

The celebrated gay writer Armistead Maupin talks about cruising the Battery for drunk, married men in his autobiography Logical Family, released last year. Marion Square was another Charleston cruising ground immortalized in literature. In a poem named after the public park, Murray Bennett wrote of two men, a Northerner and a Southerner, who met before they were interrupted by a guard asking, "Where are you boys from? Move along! It's night!"

click to enlarge SHELBY CRISWELL

Greene also identifies the old Navy base in North Charleston — with its overflowing supply of young sailors — and the south end of Folly Beach as passé prowling grounds.

In Policing Public Sex: Queer Politics and the Future of AIDS Activism, a transcript of a discussion between two entrepreneurs highlights the importance of dedicated places for sexual expression for a group used to looking over its shoulder. The December 1995 talk took place in New York, amidst efforts by public officials to dismantle public sexual institutions.

"We are talking about sex and the limitations placed on us as lesbian and gay people, when and where we can have it, as well as when and where we can talk about it," said Jocelyn Taylor, the co-creator of The Clit Club.

"After so many centuries of sexual oppression, it makes tremendous sense for us to shed light on personal sexual expression of lesbians, gays, heterosexuals, bisexuals or transgender people — private, public, or communal," added Lidell Jackson, co-creator of a monthly sex party in New York named Jacks of Color, created specifically for men of color.

Since then, personal ads on Craigslist, Backpage, and online gay dating pioneer Adam4Adam have birthed apps with an even quicker response rate: GROWLr, Scruff, Grindr, and its straight(er) cousin Tinder.

click to enlarge SHELBY CRISWELL
  • Shelby Criswell

Meanwhile, legal, political, and social victories for the LGBTQ community, the normalization (and appropriation) of gay culture, and public decency campaigns have transformed once essential physical spaces into relics.

Those public efforts can be seen in Charleston's decision to shutter public restrooms at White Point Garden and Marion Square.

"The actions of the 'gay' community and coincidental vandalism in the toilets left the city with little alternative," reads a News & Courier article dated Aug. 21, 1976, referring to White Point Garden.

'Charleston Evening Post' dated Aug. 21, 1976 - CHARLESTON EVENING POST ARCHIVES, CHARLESTON COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY
  • Charleston Evening Post archives, Charleston County Public Library
  • 'Charleston Evening Post' dated Aug. 21, 1976

An Aug. 19, 1983 article in the Evening Post points to the restrooms at both White Point Garden and Marion Square turning into "centers of homosexual activities" after the city slashed custodial jobs, "a development that persuaded the city fathers to close the facilities."

Capt. Brian Ambrose of the Charleston Police Department says he's only encountered public hook-ups about three times since he started as a patrol officer in 1997, and all were straight couples.

Between 2010 and 2015, CPD only recorded five instances of "public sex" in a total of 79 sexual exposure incident reports and 35 prostitution reports. Four of those five instances were classified as prostitution. Between 1995 and 2000, before smartphones and dating apps hijacked relationships, both types of reports were almost twice as frequent (160 for indecent exposure and 78 for prostitution), though it is unclear which ones were written for public sex.

"White Point Garden per se, or Battery Park, I didn't see a lot of that when I was in that area, but I do know of it being a meeting place, same thing for heterosexual couples," Ambrose says, describing it as a "place of opportunity" where people feel a sense of seclusion.

click to enlarge Real estate agent and activist Charlie Smith, 58, sees the loss of some aspects of gay culture as a side effect of growing acceptance - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Real estate agent and activist Charlie Smith, 58, sees the loss of some aspects of gay culture as a side effect of growing acceptance

These spots gave rise to a sense of community for users and gawkers alike. For better or worse, they have been all but decimated.

Charlie Smith, a real estate agent and co-founder of the Charleston-based advocacy group Alliance for Full Acceptance, says he noticed gay people consciously moving out of the public sphere after he returned to Charleston from Miami in 1996.

"When these websites started to come up, it kind of permanently altered the personal contact scene we had in the '90s and '80s," said Smith, 58. "I saw a shift when people were coming out less and less [because of] internet stuff, dating sites, Grindr. When you could get instant gratification, why go to a bar and have to pay parking?"

Smith has fond memories of the Garden & Gun club. The King Street disco had a sign welcoming all types of people, and it was the first time he remembers feeling like a business was willing to protect him should anything happen, even if he was still "very closeted" at the time.

Nowadays, younger LGBTQ crowds are less likely to venture out into the city than they are to spiral into a loop of apps.

click to enlarge RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith

"When we were fighting, we were fighting for change," Smith says when asked about the changing tides within the LGBTQ community. "We got it, but what people didn't realize was, at some point when you get that change, the next generation won't remember the fight because they weren't there, and that's what we're seeing here. That's natural."

Not that the fight is exactly over.

In South Carolina, LGBTQ people still run the risk of being fired, evicted, harassed, or refused service because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, according to the AFFA. A proviso tucked into the state budget passed last month allows publicly funded adoption agencies to refuse services that go against "sincerely-held religious belief or moral conviction." Still, some lawmakers seem insistent on enshrining discrimination into state law. S.C.'s estimated 107,000 LGBTQ adults were collectively slapped in the face in February, when six GOP politicians filed a bill mocking same-sex relationships and, in so many words, tried to revoke their right to marry.

The Trump administration also notably sided against LGBTQ protections last year. The Justice Department, headed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, filed a "friend of the court" brief on behalf of a company sued by a former employee who alleged he was fired after telling a customer he was gay.

click to enlarge SHELBY CRISWELL

The fight has now gone virtual, and recent developments suggest that online spaces are just as vulnerable to fear-mongering, erasure, and violence as physical ones.

In the Russian republic of Chechnya, for example, apps like Grindr are being used to bait gay men into dangerous situations, where they are then beaten, blackmailed, and sometimes raped.

Once a hub for married, closeted, and "discreet" men, Craigslist shut down its personals section on March 23, two days after the Senate passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act-Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act package, a controversial bipartisan law that targets some of the more inconspicuous — and raunchy — listing websites that were pivotal in the sexual awakening of LGBTQ youth. Backpage, a website long plagued by accusations of enabling child sex trafficking, was seized by federal agencies on April 6.

Newspapers, including this one, rarely run personal ads anymore. Interestingly, the City Paper hasn't included a "Best Place for Public Coitus" category in its annual "Best Of Charleston" issue since 2004, when Waterfront Park took home the prize.

But relationships are just one aspect of queer culture that has been affected by a rapid and uneven absorption into mainstream American culture, an issue familiar to all marginalized groups elbowing their way to equality.

click to enlarge Daniel Brinker, 34, owns Dudley's on Ann, the only gay bar left in town - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Daniel Brinker, 34, owns Dudley's on Ann, the only gay bar left in town

Smith's real estate business, once focused on helping LGBTQ customers stage their houses to avoid homophobia from potential buyers, has now grown in scope to include just about everyone looking to sell or buy a home in a nice neighborhood. Lowcountry AIDS Services, an organization inextricable from Charleston's LGBTQ community, rebranded itself as the more palatable Palmetto Community Care earlier this year. Even Dudley's on Ann, Charleston's only decidedly gay club, has recently made a conscious effort to court more diverse, non-gay patronage, according to owner Daniel Brinker, who remembers at least five gay bars in town when he first moved to Charleston from Cincinnati in 2009.

"We kind of changed the business plan a little bit to not just be marketed to gay people, because had it been just a gay bar, the business would've failed by now," Brinker told the City Paper.

The new order has its own significant drawbacks. Dating apps, and the social media accounts attached to them, are ripe for public shaming and abuse. Along with the isolation of scrolling through endless faces focus-tested to fit a specific standard, there's enough evidence to suggest that the pendulum might swing back to more organic forms of meeting.

"I think younger people are getting away from [apps]," Brinker said. "I think it's coming back to being about meeting in person. Meeting for the first time, having a first date at the bar. I think it's more normal and more acceptable that the bar is becoming more of a social place to unwind or hang out and dance."


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