In the late afternoon, as the sun dips over traffic-clogged Parramatta Road, a park in Sydney’s inner west comes alive.
Kids kick balls while couples walk dogs and earnest joggers lap the oval.
At dusk, the park’s patrons return to terrace houses and flats nearby. Parramatta Road’s commuters head home too, and the traffic’s din drops to a hum.
But the park has not seen its last visitor.
Like many parks, in all sorts of neighbourhoods, men come to this corner of inner Sydney after dark.
They are quieter and more cautious than the area’s daytime users.
And more single-minded.
Waiting in the grandstand, one man -“ Michael -“ says he comes here for convenience but Scott, 36, is more blunt.
Walking along the oval’s perimeter at about 11pm, Scott says he comes here to have sex.
It’s generally different sex to sauna sex or bar sex, because you tend to get guys that identify as straight, and I like that, he says.
Scott, who has used beats since the age of 14, is one of many men who meet in public places for sex.
In about an hour-and-a-half last week, around 10 men cruise the park.
Other beats are busier: Scott says he sometimes sees up to 50 people at another Sydney cruising spot, Marks Park in Tamarama.
It is that pretty stretch of headland overlooking the Pacific Ocean that has drawn attention to gay beats again of late.
About 15 years ago at least two men met their deaths after late-night visits to Marks Park, probably the victims of gangs of homophobic teenagers.
In handing down her findings about two of those murders last week, Deputy State Coroner Jacqueline Milledge discussed the contention surrounding gay beats.
She spoke of those who supported beats’ existence but also referred to one gay man’s testimony during the Marks Park inquest.
My philosophy is very simple, the witness said.
A lot of gay guys don’t agree with me but I believe it’s all over red rover. You know the days of going and doing beats, searching for partners.
I believe that we need to look at these things and say -˜okay, these are the problems, right, we need to send the message out that we shouldn’t be going down to these parks because it’s too dangerous’.
It’s a strongly expressed point of view, but hardly universal: despite documented cases of violence and the emergence of the internet as a cruising tool, beats remain an important source of sexual and sometimes social contact for men, not all of whom identify as gay.
That’s the experience of Baden Chalmers, an Education Officer at ACON, who has run a Sex-On-Premises-Venue workshop, which included beat users.
Chalmers said beat users span the range of ages and sexual identities.
They identify as gay, they identify as bisexual, they will identify as straight, he said.
And while internet cruising sites have had some impact on the role beats play, sex in public places continues to appeal because it is anonymous, convenient and free.
Coming out of a public toilet or taking a walk through a park still gives those guys who need to have some curtain of secrecy about their activities, to have that option to say -˜well, I was just going to the bathroom or taking the dog for a walk’, Chalmers said.
Compared to logging on to the net, [at a beat] the person they are going to be having sex with is there, it’s right up-front.
But are beats today still as dangerous?
The inquest witness certainly thought so, but it is difficult to draw a conclusion either way.
Whilst we do get a number of reports relating to violence at beats, it’s hard to get a really accurate picture of what goes on because a lot of men who use beats aren’t necessarily out, Somali Cerise, Coordinator of the Lesbian and Gay Anti-Violence Project (AVP) said.
The AVP has received eight reports of beat-related violence in the past six months, from incidents of verbal harassment and physical assault to extortion attempts.
There’s been a character who’s travelled all around NSW and Victoria in the last few years who’s been pretending to be a cop and getting money out of people, Cerise said.
The experience of beat users at Camperdown last week suggests certain beats are riskier than others.
Scott had only experienced violence once in more than 20 years of using beats, at a park in Sydney’s inner west in 2003, sitting in my car and having a group of guys bang my car.
They were just young guys that were calling people fags.
He had also heard of severe bashings at the same place, and has not returned.
Michael said he had never experienced violence in 12 years of using beats, but he was always very careful, while two other men at the park, who would not comment further, said they had never had a problem at beats.
During the coronial inquiry, some suggested beat-related violence was still under-reported because users continued to distrust police.
People are worried that because sex in a public place is illegal in NSW, they feel uncomfortable about coming forward in case there are any legal repercussions, Somali Cerise said.
Certainly, the relationship between victims of gay-targeted violence and the police was delicate at the time of the Marks Park murders.
One [inquest] witness gave an account of approaching the police after his own victimisation only to be told that the police would not be involved in -˜domestics’, the Deputy State Coroner Jacqueline Milledge said.
There is no doubt that that was the belief in the gay/lesbian community.
With police marching in Mardi Gras and Gay and Lesbian Liaison Officers at most police stations, has this belief changed?
Milledge thought so, pointing to improvements in police attitude to gay and lesbian-targeted crime.
But she recommended further refinement of the police’s beat-related policies, something that could lessen risks for beat users like Scott and Michael.
Whatever violence occurred in the -˜80s or today, no-one doubted men would continue to meet in public places for sex.
There will always be a need for beats, Baden Chalmers said.
There will always be people who don’t feel comfortable labelling themselves as gay or looking for male-to-male sex in a sauna or at Stonewall or wherever.
I think they’ll always be around.