Not long ago, queer people had vanishingly few options for meeting up, finding romance and enjoying pleasures of the flesh. So it’s no surprise that cities around the country developed gay cruising spots, areas where men could congregate to meet and experience a little physical contact.
While it’s illegal to have sex where others might stumble upon you, it’s also a fact that repressive, regressive laws left LGBTQ people with few options for most of the 20th century.
Times have since changed, of course, and it’s no longer necessary for gay men to wander the trails of public parks to meet others also seeking a little fun. (That’s not to say it doesn’t still happen, of course.) And nevertheless, the memory of America’s great gay cruising spots lingers.
Here are 10 of America’s most popular gay cruising spots through the years:
1. Pershing Square, Los Angeles
Established as a cruising spot in the 1920s due to its proximity to other queer-friendly venues, Pershing Square, located in Downtown Los Angeles, is today undeniably ugly. (Hey, nobody ever claimed Los Angeles was a masterpiece of civic infrastructure.) But for decades Pershing Square had wooded areas that facilitated private rendezvous among men.
As always, authorities were determined to push queer people out of public life, and an eventual redesign discouraged foot-traffic, not just in terms of cruising but for neighbors as well. By 1952 it was officially a three-level underground parking garage.
As gay cruising spots go, today Pershing Square is nothing of the sort, instead better known for ice skating in the winter and — for local gay men — as the host of DTLA Proud, a Pride festival offshoot that fills the park with gay men like the good ol’ days.
2. Liberty Memorial, Kansas City
It should be no surprise that this massive phallus attracted a cruisy crowd. As far back as the ’70s — and probably even earlier, though the historical record is spotty — men would indicate their interest by driving around with their windows rolled down.
The area has since dried up a bit, due in part to police crackdowns and security upgrades at the nearby federal buildings, but the trails around this park still obscure onlookers’ views enough to provide privacy if you have your heart set on some alone time. Just remember to clean up after yourself — nobody likes a dirty park.
3. The Meat Rack, Fire Island
Comprised of the paths connecting the two communities of Fire Island, Cherry Grove and The Pines, it’s the locale that practically defined cruising. The Meat Rack is a wooded haven for queer sex dating all the way back to the 1950s, when the world was intent on arresting, beating and murdering us.
Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, the Meat Rack was a perpetual victim of police raids: “Every year there was this tradition of raiding the gay communities of Fire Island and arresting 25, 30, up to 40 fellas, and charging them with sodomy and other crimes,” says Karl Grossman, a journalist at the Long Island Press back then. The cops were hell-bent on exposing their arrestees as gay men, feeding the press their names and even where they worked. There were even Meat Rack arrests as recently as 2008, when men were arrested for getting it on in the bushes.
Hugely popular in the ’70s, it’s said that anyone could step into the Meat Rack and find a playful partner, day or night. (Anonymity was key, and at night lights of any kind were banned.) Even today, Fire Island visitors are able to take advantage of this most infamous of gay cruising spots.
4. Baker Beach, San Francisco
Beautiful views abound in San Francisco, and although the city has basically been converted into corporate housing for Facebook, there’s still plenty of gay fun to be had on the city’s outskirts. Baker Beach is your best bet for admiring the sun, sand and sea air, plus naked bodies on this clothing-optional stretch of land not far from the Golden Gate Bridge. (The nude sunbathing area is the beach’s north section.)
A clump of boulders found amidst one of the city’s most popular gay cruising spots provides a convenient place to slip away if you’re looking to escape prying eyes. And it’s conveniently close to the windmill in Golden Gate Park, as well as Marshall’s Beach, which are themselves hotspots for making a date.
5. Herring’s House Park, Seattle
Look up Herring’s House Park on a Google Map and you’ll see that it’s adjacent to a neighborhood labeled simply “Industrial Area” — always a promising sign for gay cruising spots. Check the parking lot nearby and you might see more than the usual number of lone men waiting in their cars; and the trails around the Duwamish lead in and out of cover in a way that provides plenty of privacy.
In recent years, environmental cleanup has meant more activity in the area, as well as an influx of visitors disinterested in romance. If you’re looking for a more intimate meetup, Cecil Moses Park and Westcrest Park just a bit to the south might be more your speed.
6. The Ramble, New York City
The Ramble is a 30-acre section of New York City’s Central Park (found in the park’s lower half, around 79th Street) that was one of the city’s — if not the — most popular gay cruising spots for decades. A popular anonymous meeting spot for gay men, many of them closeted, in the 1920s and ’30s it was also referred to as “The Fruited Plain.”
But as popular as The Ramble was among gay men for some decades, it also grew to be increasingly dangerous at night, as muggings and beatings became common. “I found, too, that the isolation from city street life which gives the Ramble its idyllic quality by day transforms it into a labyrinth of nameless terrors by night,” wrote Doug Ireland for New York magazine in 1978.
In 2019 you’re more likely to encounter bird watchers and people smoking pot among the trees than gay men cruising for anonymous sex. It’s New York City, after all, and the need to be secretive about one’s peccadilloes has more or less expired.
7. Vaseline Alley, West Hollywood
It’s an infamous (literal) alley, located just off Santa Monica Boulevard in the heart of West Hollywood, and for decades Vaseline Alley and the residential and commercial area surrounding it was one of L.A.’s most popular gay cruising spots.
Traditionally men would sit in parked cars along Vaseline Alley and wait for the right match to stumble along. Still today the alley sits behind some of West Hollywood’s most bustling businesses, like the local Gold Coast Bar and vintage shop Out of the Closet (and formerly the notorious head shop-slash-porn shop Circus of Books).
These days you’re perhaps more likely to walk upon a photo shoot taking place in Vaseline Alley than actual gay cruising, although this is West Hollywood, and really, in any town full of strapping gay men, isn’t anyplace a makeshift cruising spot?
8. The Dick Dock, Provincetown
Any gay man you run into along Commercial Street, the main drag of this super-gay Cape Cod village and resort town, is able to point you to “The Dick Dock,” a storied spot located underneath the same deck where the town’s popular tea dance takes place during summer months. Far from a secret, it’s a spot practically sanctioned by the town itself.
One of the city’s most well-known and popular gay cruising spots (second only, perhaps, to Herring Cove Beach), the Dick Dock is just a patch of sand while the sun is high and the tide is out. But once the moon is shining on the bay, out come the guys looking to get frisky.
On a good night, still today, a drunken stumble down to The Dick Dock could put you face-to-face with dozens of anonymous guys looking to get their rocks off. (Just watch where you step so as not to trip over anyone on their knees.) Depending on when you visit Provincetown, you may even encounter the occasional performance art gig.
9. The Piers, New York City
It wasn’t uncommon for closeted New Yorkers of the 1970s and ’80s to refuse to welcome a trick into their family abode (unsurprisingly, as his wife could be home), and refuse to step into one of the city’s many gay bars. Instead the piers along the Manhattan side of the Hudson River offered plenty of action. Violence wasn’t uncommon at the piers, as drug smuggling and prostitution were just as common.
Alvin Baltrop, who published a book titled The Piers, full of history and photos, has said the piers were akin to “the poor man’s Fire Island.” A daytime trip to the water could uncover nude sunbathers, openly gay men socializing or the occasional orgy.
10. Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C.
Even the nation’s capital is home to a few gay cruising spots, including this wooded area that after dark has long been a spot for anonymous hookups between men. A public park that dissects the city, Rock Creek Park runs along the Potomac River and was even documented in song by the Blackbyrds in 1975 (the track “Rock Creek Park” has the lyrics “Doin’ it in the park / Doin’ it after dark, oh, yeah”).
On sunny days Rock Creek Park is still a gay hangout, just west of Dupont Circle. It’s not until after dark when it becomes a cruisy spot, which is when your chances of running into a Republican politician sharply increase.
Which of these gay cruising spots have you been to? Are there any popular gay cruising spots you think we missed?
This article also features reporting by Stephan Horbelt