Often disregarded as a thing of the past, beats are still around and very much a part of gay culture, writes Simon Copland.
Simon Copland

17 Oct 2016 - 4:09 PM  UPDATED 21 Oct 2016 - 11:39 AM

A place for those with nowhere else to go

Beats have a long history within gay communities. In years past when the vast majority of men who have sex with men (MSM) faced violence and ostracism, the confidentiality and access of beats made them the only space some people could use to get their rocks off. In the '60s and '70s - and probably long before - the beat scene exploded with men gathering in parks, toilet blocks, reserves, and any space they could find to get some good sex.

Although they were an opportunity for fun, beats also became a space of violence. Many of the gay bashings and murders recorded in Sydney during the '80s and '90s occurred at popular beats. The murder of George Duncan - which sparked a movement for South Australia to become the first state to decriminalise homosexuality - occurred at a famous Adelaide beat. As Deep Water: The Real Story shows, beats were also a place for police violence against MSM.  

As homosexuality has become more accepted and MSM have been able to find sex more openly in bars, sex-on-premises venues and on apps, it’s generally accepted that we'd give up the beat for safer options.

As a gay man, I have always been intrigued by beats, and yet, I've never actually gone to one. I've thought of them as a culture long-gone; places now only frequented by those desperately holding onto a dead scene. This perception, as well as the availability of options generally considered safer, have always stopped me from venturing to the beats in my area. And yet, while the predominant narrative today may be that beats are a long-gone culture, this is not the reality.

A culture that continues on

Many of the MSM I speak to agree that beats still provide an important place to gather, have fun, and get to know each other. Within the culture, there appear to be two distinct groups.

Sam, who attends beats on a semi-regular basis, rejects the idea that beats are dated or a thing of the past, saying: "I've heard arguments in the past that beats are a generational thing, and because it's easier to be out these days than it was 20, 30, or 50 years ago, MSM don't need to visit beats anymore”.

"That argument doesn't take into account that it's simply become a part of gay culture and some men - despite being able to find someone nearby on Grindr to f--k in the comfort of their own home - prefer to go cruising at a beat because that's what turns them on," he continues, adding that it also ignores men who are in the closet, "because of their religion, homophobia within their ethnic group or the fact that they're married!"

Aside from being important for MSM who are not open about the fact they have sex with other men due to oppression from family or the broader community, beats are also important for MSM who identify as straight.

Michael Whelan is the co-coordinater of the Sexually Adventurous Men (SAM) program at the Victorian Aids Council, which aims to provide sexual health advice to men who attend beats, among other things. Whelan explains:

"In 2016 beats are frequented by MSM who don't necessarily identify as gay. It's their way of stepping into exploring their sexuality with other men. They don't feel comfortable attending [Melbourne gay venues like] the Laird or the Peel, or even your designated sex-on-premises venue. They don't feel connected to a certain queer community or gay community, so it's their way of stepping into that.”

Whelan explains that this group presents a whole range of sexual health risks, primarily because they do not have a “backlog” of sexual education that is available to other gay men. There is also no capacity to provide that education on-site at the beat. This is one of the challenges the SAM project - and their website Down And Dirty - is trying to address.

Yet it’s not just closeted or straight men who are regular beat attendees; they're also still regularly attended by young gay-identifying men who want to maintain the culture.

Zac* explains that while "it’s true that a lot of guys who cruise are older," there are still "plenty of young guys who will keep beat culture alive."

This second group frequents beats for various reasons. Some get off on having sex in a public space, others find beats more convenient than the alternatives, while others enjoy the thrill of meeting someone completely anonymously.

And it's not just a few people. Steve Spencer, describing one beat he visits in Melbourne, says that "come 5pm on a Friday afternoon, it literally becomes five levels of fun."

"There are beats in the basement, and levels one, three, five, and seven. At times every cubicle at each toilet on those floors will be full, so the staircase linking them all becomes a cruise space in itself. It’s quite surreal!”

It’s not all just quick and dirty fun, though (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Beats are also places where MSM can meet different types of people and have experiences different from those you’d find in other gay spaces. Peter* used to attend beats quite often and says that "one of the most rewarding experiences was a very non-sexual experience."

"I'd gone to this park quite out of my way," he recalls. "I ended up going into some thick bushes somewhere and this one guy came up to me and it started off with this most incredible hug. If I was looking online I would never have stopped to connect with him, because he didn’t really appeal to me at all. What I think he found more rewarding than sex was the contact with another man, which he probably would never ordinarily have.”

Safer, but still not a safe space.

With broader changes in society, safety issues have changed as well. The mass violence of the '80s and '90s certainly seems like it is a thing of the past. We’ve also seen changes in the law, like in Victoria, where judges have ruled that sexual behaviour “can only be considered an offence if it takes place in a public place and could reasonably be expected to be seen by a member of the public.” As most beat behaviour occurs late at night, in dark corners, bushes, or toilet cubicles, this ruling has effectively stopped beat users from being prosecuted. This trend is being seen around Australia, and the world.

Yet, despite this, risks still exist. Steven Spencer says that wherever gay men go for enjoyment, "there is always a risk."

He explains: “We saw at a cruise club in Sydney recently, a homophobe went into the venue and put hydrochloric acid into the lube dispensers. We see people going into bars and shooting us up, we see people lure gay men on Grindr to bash them up, and we sometimes see people get harmed at beats.”

There is both hard and anecdotal evidence to back this up. In 2009, for example, a gay man was bashed to death at a popular beat in Centennial Park in Sydney, while in 2014 at least three men were bashed at a beat in Newcastle. There is talk in the community about these sorts of incidents remaining relatively common, with many not coming forward after facing violent attacks.

Part of the issue is that despite changes, there are still concerns about police behaviour. In 2008, a number of gay men in Sydney launched the “Beat Project” following reports of “men being searched, chased, threatened and manhandled by police or visited at their homes the next day — despite not being charged with any offence.” The project has worked with the NSW police to end police harassment and work toward the police protecting beat users instead of prosecuting them. With scandals such as violence at the 2013 Mardi Gras and blunders in dealing with gay bashings and murders, many in the queer community remain wary of police. 

Beat It

Beats have an important history in MSM communities. They have served as places of great illicit fun, but also represent some of the areas of the worst violence against gay people. Despite this often ongoing violence, and claims that apps are killing beats, the culture remains strong.

Beats are a lot more than just a place for quick fun, and with many young gay men still visiting, will remain an important part of MSM culture for a long time to come. 

Watch Deep Water: The Real Story in full at SBS On Demand or right here: