A commentary and resource on Law and Sexuality by Professor Chris Ashford and guests
The excellent Lesbian and Gay Foundation website features a news item for gay men’ in Manchester – particularly those men who use the Rochdale Canal towpath for cruising. The Canal runs through the City and the Gay Village (as the name ‘Canal Street’ might suggest) and has a long history of cruising and an often uneasy policing history.
This story is striking for not saying ‘stop cruising’ (which previous press releases from GMP have suggested) but rather focusing upon the issue of safety. For me, this is a commendable shift in emphasis but even this story reflects the uneasy line that the Police find themselves walking when it comes to policing cruising locations.
The news item begins with context, noting that: ‘The Canal’ has long been a popular cruising ground but city centre regeneration schemes have caused an increase in complaints about ‘public decency’ due to the fact that many people live and work in the area.’
So we begin with a reminder of the price of gentrification. As the Canal Street area has become redeveloped, new apartments, businesses and even a school move in. This means that people might witness homosexuals or men engaging in acts regarded as ‘homosexual’. It’s a gay space, in which gay visibility must conform to certain – sometimes regarded as heterosexist – norms. Cruising become defined as an act of historical desperation. An affront to our new liberal assimulationist society. The absolute failure to assert a “we were here first” or “this is a queer space” philosophy within Canal Street continues to result in a high cultural and – as we increasingly see – legal price.
The story then goes into a pretty hardline section, revealing the purpose of Operation Limehouse: PC Sam Tennant of the Village Neighbourhood policing team based at Bootle Street, Manchester says:
“Over the last few months, officers from Operation Limehouse – which has been established to help address an increase in reports of Anti-Social Behaviour along the Rochdale Canal tow-path – have spoken with many people at Piccadilly Basin Undercroft, providing them with crime prevention advice and have found the vast majority of people are willing to discuss matters with Police.
“However, there has been a persistent minority that seems determined to continue with illegal activity in the area.
“In the early hours of Saturday 18th February 2012, two arrests were made where one of accused was detained under suspicion of offences of Possession of a Controlled Substance, Assault Police, Section 47 Assault and Outraging Public Decency. The other male was arrested under suspicion of Outraging Public Decency.
“Whilst the first male has subsequently been charged for the aforementioned offences, the second admitted his actions at the scene and as a result was de-arrested, receiving a Caution for his behaviour.
“Operation Limehouse will continue and Police (in uniform and plain clothes) will continue to engage with the public in this location and anyone found to be taking part in illegal activity will be liable for arrest.”
So, in order to protect you, we will arrest you is the faintly barmy policing reality that affects men as part of this operation. The Police have clearly tried softly softly, and men – shock horror – continue to want to have sex in these dangerous locations despite the risks that are presented to them. At the same time, people are complaining – although the Police don’t provide figures – about the men cruising the towpath.
To some extent, I’m reminded of Lord Denning in Miller v Jackson which involved people who lived in houses adjacent to a cricket club complaining about cricket balls inadvertently landing in the neighbouring properties. You might think – as Lord Denning did – that if you buy a property next to a cricket club that it’s reasonable to expect the occasional sound of leather on willow and cricket ball on conservatory window. Similarly, if one chooses to buy an apartment in a gay village, overlooking a cruising site used for over a hundred years for men to engage in sexual encounters, that the occasional moment of erotic naughtiness is likely to be witnessed. However, just as Denning found himself expressing a dissenting view, so too do I in our current sexual paradigm.
The news story goes on to suggest that if you really must ignore us and continue having sex, please don’t let anyone see you – as that’s the key bit legally. A bit more on this and the question of safety would have been welcomed.
Operation Limehouse is once again a reminder – for I am struck by how many people need reminding and for whom this comes as a surprise – that policing resources continue to be deployed in the policing of men engaging in consensual sex in long-established ephemeral public sex cultural locations. Moreover, Limehouse reminds us of the competing agenda relating to safety, nuisance and equality that the Police must seek to navigate.