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Critics say Kent County, Mich. deputies targeting gay men in area parks


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Gay rights advocates claim that sheriff’s deputies in Kent County, Michigan, are targeting gay men in local parks by striking up conversations with them while working undercover in an effort to entrap and arrest them for behaviors that would be deemed acceptable for straight couples.

At least 33 gay men were arrested in county parks in 2010 under Michigan’s soliciting law but many simply were talking or holding hands, critics told county commissioners Tuesday.

Miriam Aukerman, West Michigan staff attorney for the ACLU, which is investigating the allegations, said in half the reports she examined law officers initiated the contact with those they later arrested.

“In these cases, it’s the officers who are making the approaches,” Aukerman said. “It’s the officers who are doing the accosting and soliciting.”

Aukerman said the practice of sending undercover deputies in search of gay men seeking companionship has a long history.

Kent County Sheriff Larry Stelma on Tuesday defended his deputies, whom he said are merely trying to keep county parks safe for everyone.

According to Michigan law, it is illegal for someone to use a public place to invite another to commit a “lewd or immoral act.”

Aukerman compared the behavior described in police reports to what happens on any weekend night in bars and restaurants all over the country as people — single and otherwise — seek companionship.

She said an interpretation of the state statute is being misused for the purpose of targeting gays.

Stelma conceded there may be some ambiguity in the state law his deputies are charged with enforcing, but said, “Our community has invested heavily in the parks and they expect us to keep them safe, family-friendly places and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”

“This is one of many acts going on against the gay community,” said Collette Seguin Beighley, a board member of Equality Michigan and director of Grand Valley State University’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center. “We just keep hanging out the unwelcome sign in Michigan.”

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