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Why did the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office target gay sex? | Editorial
The episode evokes 1950s and ’60s era prejudices.
A trail is pictured at Sydney Dover Conservation Park, one of the two parks where Operation Park Cleanup took place.
A trail is pictured at Sydney Dover Conservation Park, one of the two parks where Operation Park Cleanup took place. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Oct. 17, 2020

Did we just flash back to a time when law officers actively targeted gay men, an era that included vicious public shaming? That appears to be the case in Hillsborough County, where the Sheriff’s Office devised an undercover operation to entice men into agreeing to have gay sex. Not for money, mind you. Just an agreement between two consenting adults, but one of them happens to be a deputy. And after the arrest, the sheriff publicly humiliated the men, most accused of only misdemeanors. This loathsome episode reeks of prejudice.

The Sheriff’s Office set up what it called “Operation Park Cleanup” in Sun City Heritage Park and Sydney Dover Conservation Park. An undercover deputy would talk with a man in a parking lot or on a trail, and they would agree to have sex. When the man undressed or began engaging in sexual activities, a deputy would arrest him. Most were charged with going to a place with the intent to have public sex, a misdemeanor. Despite the sting’s name, the parks department hadn’t received any recent complaints about people having sex in the parks, according to an article by Tampa Bay Times reporter Jack Evans. The Sheriff’s Office hadn’t received any complaints either. So exactly what were they cleaning up? Talk about a solution looking for a problem — and a waste of tax dollars.

But it gets worse. The Sheriff’s Office sent the names and mugshots of the 11 arrested men to local news outlets and its social media followers, an unusual move for misdemeanor arrests. Sheriff Chad Chronister also condemned the men in video snippets posted to YouTube. “These vile acts by these men took place in a park, the same place where our children play,” he said. He also accused the men of using the parks as “their personal playground for their deviant behavior.” Never mind that none of the sheriff’s reports mention children in the vicinity, and neither of the parks has a playground. In just 30 seconds of video, Chronister employed two canards from the anti-gay playbook — that gay men are deviants and a threat to children.

The sheriff said his deputies were not targeting any specific group, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation and the proactive operation was to help “keep our community free from crime.” Publicizing the arrests acts to deter crime, he added. “It is not uncommon that we assign plainclothes deputies to ensure illegal activities, such as illegal drug use, drug trafficking or possession of illegal firearms, are not occurring throughout the county,” he said in a written statement to the Times Editorial Board.

But the sheriff’s tone — and his choice of words in the YouTube videos — hark back to a time when gay men had to live secret lives or risk arrest, beatings and losing their jobs. Police would raid gay clubs and then out the men to their families. Given the history, “Operation Park Cleanup” feels like election year pandering, a dog whistle to the slice of voters who still make “gay” jokes. Either that or the sheriff didn’t know that his statements would make him sound like a law enforcement relic from an ugly, bygone era, instead of a principled leader.

A sheriff’s spokeswoman called any allegations of prejudice absurd. But why target gay sex? Plenty of heterosexual people engage in public sex. In fact, the idea is often used for comedic effect — Fonzie after all wasn’t playing Tiddlywinks up there on Inspiration Point. Will the Sheriff’s Office be sending undercover deputies out to entice young women on spring break into having sex on a beach — and then use them as props to ridicule? We won’t hold our breath.

Law officers should be proactive, but burning valuable resources to entice men into committing a misdemeanor that apparently no one had complained about smacks of anti-gay bias. The men aren’t sexual predators or drug kingpins or bank robbers. They didn’t steal anything or menace anybody. And no one other than the deputies witnessed the behavior, at least none of the sheriff’s reports mentions other witnesses.

Yes, people should refrain from having sex in public. But targeting gay men and then singling them out for condemnation and ridicule makes the sheriff and his office look like bullies who revel in bigotry. The sheriff should know better.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news