Independence Park - Homosexual Domain

INDEPENDENCE PARK

           

May 1989 marked the completion of the renovation of Spiegel Park, including replacement of the benches, restoration of the greenery, putting up street lamps and paving asphalt paths. In a speech at the dedication ceremony of the part, Hanan Ben Yehuda, then head of the Tel Aviv Development Fund, stated that the lighting in the park was especially strong 'in order to eliminate negative elements accustomed to spending time there.' Spiegel Park is the southern part of Independence Park; the 'negative elements' are a population of gay men, who subsequently shifted the focus of their activity to the northern section of the part.

            Independence Park is an area where gay men seek partners for sex. The activity is known as 'cruising' - looking for sex in someones home, or within the confines of the park itself. The adoption of parks as a location for sex is not, of course, a homosexual invention; however, the lack of legitimate public spaces, and in many cases the shortage of safe private places as well, have transformer Independence Park into a central component in the life experience of this population group. My interest in Independence Park was awakened by certain voices in Israels gay and lesbian community, who appear to prefer, as it were, to sweep 'the Park' (as gays from all over Israel refer to it) under the carpet. By contrast to these voices, I have sought to clear the Parks name, to release it from the threatening image and the connotation of gloomy, isolated coition often ascribed to it. I planned to describe it - as I in fact first perceived it - as a sort of urban gay paradise.

            Independence Park, while first and foremost a cruising site, has other social functions. It is a place for social meetings, without the noisy herds which choke the bars and clubs (it should be noted that the social aspect of Independence Park is quite strong, relative - for example - to parks in large Western cities). For many, the Park is a way of socialization into Israels gay culture. It can be a source of support for people in certain stages of the coming-out process - a place where one can go without being exposed, and yet feel that one is 'not alone'. The relative flexibility of the behavioral codes, the darkness and protected spaces, the convenient opening hours, and the fact that there is no need to pay at the door or to spend any money whatsoever - all of these contribute to the fact that the Parks population is extremely varied from the standpoint of socio-economic standing, ethnic origin, nationality, education and age - much more than the commercial pleasure spots for gays.

            From conversations with men who visit or used to visit the Park, I have learned that reality is more complex. The Park is all these things, but it has another side. The attitude of the men I spoke with, toward the Park was much more complex than in the case of bars or clubs - where, lets face it, you either like them or you dont. Their attitude toward the Park oscillates between love, hatred, dismissal and nostalgia... and sometimes all of these are expressed by the same person. Why, then, has Independence Park become such a controversial symbol within the gay community - as opposed to, say, various clubs which also constitute sources of casual, anonymous sexual contact?

            The answer to this question would at first seem to be self-explanatory. However, instead of an unequivocal response, I would like to suggest a way of observing the Park as a special kind of space, a space more 'queer' than other gay-oriented spaces. The 'queer' identity adopted by some of the various population groups of sexual minorities represents an undermining of the concept of identity as a stable parameter. 'Queer' is a substitute for particular identities, such as gay/straight, lesbian, bisexual and the like; it expresses a basic objection to heteronormative concepts and patterns. As an alternative, one may discuss the way in which the Park is established as a code or symbol denoting a stable, regular identity within gay/lesbian political dialogue.

            A park at night is generally viewed as a male-oriented and threatening place, especially as it carries the connotation of 'deviant' sexuality. Planned city parks may be considered the expression of humankinds attempt to 'restrain' Nature, to confine it within clear, controllable boundaries. Gay sexuality, on the other hand - especially its casual, public and anonymous aspects - denotes the failure of that attempt. The encounter between the city park and gay male sexuality expresses the paradoxical cultural contrast between the 'natural' and the 'bestial'; the location of both within one space makes Independence Park, for many people, a place from which 'those who value their lives keep away' - as District Court Judge Sara Sirota said, during the trial of suspected perpetrators of a robbery in the Park several years ago.

            By virtue of the dangerous, male-oriented image of parks and gardens by night, they have become popular spaces for erotic adventures in homosexual and sado-masochistic literature and iconography. This image helps create the erotic aspect of activity within the Park - but it is not the only factor; the nature of the space itself also contributes here.

            Commercial night spots are defined, delineated spaces which advertise themselves as 'homosexual spaces'; they entail absolute separation between the 'straight' space outside and the 'gay' space within, and the transition from one to the other is generally abrupt. The space of the Park, on the other hand, is much less defined. It has several 'official' entrances, marked on city maps; but one can also get in via unmarked paths trodden by many years of use. To a great extent, it is the gays who define the borders of the Park (I use the word 'gays' for convenience, although not all the men who cruise the Park apply that definition to themselves).

            There is something magical about Independence Park at night. The darkness hides the dirt and neglect revealed by the brightness of day; the lighting on the trees and bushes creates dramatic effects of light and shade, and the feeling is one of absolute isolation from the urban environment surrounding the Park. As regards the 'feel' of the Park, the atmosphere which it conveys, the way it works on the body - and several men actually spoke of a sense of 'transformation' when they enter the Park - the process can begin on the way to the Park, or start and end within the confines of the Park itself.

            The various entrances to the Park dictate different types of body language. The 'main' entrances call for deliberate entry, standing tall, but there are also entrances through which one slips inside, not before ascertaining that the coast is clear. By contrast to the entrances of the commercial spots, which often attract the eyes of many bystanders, the Park can be entered more subtly, in a gradual penetration of the space. The various areas of greenery, the lighting and topography (and what they do, or do not, enable) also dictate different modes of physicality. On the main paths, for example, the body is in motion, displayed on view; presence in these areas is likely to lead to encounters which begin with verbal contact. In the dark areas of impenetrable bushes and on the narrow paths between them, the body is much more elusive; communication here will probably be much less verbal - a look, a gesture of some sort, may lead to quiet conjunction. Rejection, too, can be expressed without words, by looking away or even turning ones back. Thus, the special nature of this space not only takes part in creating the erotic dimension and the fantasies, but redesigns the body and the interaction between bodies. From this point of view, anonymous sex in public places is not an 'expression' of male homosexual sexuality, but it is a main component in its creation.

            The relationship between the male gay community and Independence Park, then, is one of mutual creation. The Park, as a specific physical space and a space within the mind, creates the homosexual body, identity and sexuality within it. The gay male population - both the men themselves and their identification with the place - creates the Park as an imagined space and a symbol, but also as a physical space with alternative paths and entrances. Apparently, they tend to 'take over' the Park a bit less at its southern end, as may be observed from comparison of the various areas within the Park. (It should be noted that the design and functional elements which shape homosexual physicality in the Park can also serve as means of supervision of the body - for example, by cutting back the greenery or adding lighting.)

            In the area of sexual geography, the term 'queer space' has been adopted to designate spaces where a positive attitude prevails toward expressions of homoeroticism. But not all these spaces operate in the 'undermining' manner which the term 'queer' is intended to denote. Independence Park, by virtue of the nature of the space, its accessibility to various groups, and its ability to undermine heteronormative patterns, especially through engagement in homosexual relations in the open public space, is a place which truly reflects the concept of 'queerness'.

            I consider 'queer space' to be a heterotopic space, to use a term defined by French philosopher Michel Foucault.  Foucault distinguishes between two types of places which maintain some sort of relationship to the other sites of culture, but in a way which undermines, neutralizes or transforms the relationship which they reflect. One is the Utopian space, which does not occupy a real spatial location; the other is the heterotopic space, which is a kind of Utopia made real, a space which maintains a relationship of reflection, but also of inversion and disorientation relative to all the other spaces in which we live. Foucault classifies heterotopic spaces as 'heterotopic spaces of crisis', reserved for those whose relationship to the society in which they live is one of crisis (his examples include adolescents or menstruating women), and 'heterotopic spaces of deviance' (such as mental hospitals and prisons). Independence Park may be viewed as a heterotopic space of deviance, which undermines the heteronormative configurations of culture.

            The fact that all the men in the Park are there for (more or less) the same reason (and in the dark) causes the Park to become the safest open public space for the externalization of gay male sexuality. At the same time, the Park is also the least safe public space, because being in the Park means being marked.

            At the same time, if we consider the Park as a place where identity is created in a manner specific to the space and the relative places where those who operate within it come from, the Park undermines the concept of identity as a stable categorical denotation. This is because there are men who come to the park in order to feel 'gay' (some of the men stated that they feel more 'at home' in the Park than in any other place of entertainment, knowing that everyone there is there for the same reason); but there are others who come there precisely in order not to feel gay, because the Park, which is not an official, declared location of homosexual activity and has other uses as well, helps them leave the definition 'open'.

            The concept of gays and lesbians as a 'community' has become prevalent in Israel in the last few years, predominantly within the gay/lesbian community, but outside it as well (I was even asked once where the 'Community' offices are and who heads it). The concept of 'community' in Israeli gay/lesbian speech refers to a certain population which can be called upon in time of need and whose members maintain a central, stable and permanent identity of homosexuality or bisexuality. With respect to other sexual minorities, the limits of the 'community' have always been open to controversy.

            Examining the function of Independence Park as a symbol enables us to consider this phenomenon from the other direction as well - the direction which transformed the Park into a symbol of political radicalism, which counters the liberal approach with an antithetical 'truth': a 'true' gay man is one who does go to Independence Park. 'I went to the Park,' said a homosexual artist in an interview appearing in the gay/lesbian paper Pink Time. 'I asked myself questions; I coped with it. I tried to understand what was attractive and what was repellent about it. Im not one of those gay artists who try to be pure and dont get their hands dirty, meaning that theyre terribly intellectual and terribly tucked away in their safe houses.' The quote shows not only that there is a 'correct' and a 'less correct' way of experiencing the Park, but that this diversity of ways also creates a difference within the community. This may be why, among the men I asked to interview, some were rather ashamed to admit that they do not go to the Park.

            The political dialogue on 'identity' and 'community' not only establishes Independence Park as a symbol - not merely a 'cruising space' - but keeps attendance records according to the groups and sub-groups which visit the Park at different times of the day or night. The entire experience of the Park is encapsulated in a compact code which denotes an entire lifestyle and symbolizes a fixed, defined identity. One of the men I spoke with claimed that he has stopped going to the Park, and justified this choice by stating that hardly any sexual activity takes place there. In light of other things said in the same conversation, I had the impression that this claim may be a response to the radical demand to go to the Park, a demand at times accompanied by emphasis on the wide range of sexual activity which takes place within it, as part of a more sexual, more 'masculine', model of male homosexuality.

            Visitors to the Park find different strategies of coping with it for themselves. A statement by one of the subjects reflects the ambivalence of a place which, even if you are not there by choice, is 'yours'. 'At a certain point,' he said, 'I was troubled by the fact that I spend so much time in the Park. Then I said to myself: Lets suppose I were a rich man and owned an estate. I would undoubtedly spend the same amount of time walking in the estate gardens.' In other words, one can also come to Independence Park to 'own the estate' of ones identity...

 





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