When my fellow So So Gay writer Will Harris asked me if I'd like to spend an evening with the Terrence Higgins Trust, my first thought was that I might end up at some sort of glittering fundraising dinner, or supporting an outreach campaign in a Soho club. Anything, in fact, other than searching through bushes for men on Hampstead Heath on the wettest night of the summer.[pullquote_right]Hampstead Heath is one of London's most famous cruising grounds, and the men who use it have every right to be afforded respect and protection.[/pullquote_right]But there I find myself, on a distinctly damp Friday night, accompanying four members of THT's outreach team, trudging through mud and leaves in search of 'sex litter' and cruisers. If my tone sounds light, don't underestimate how serious this work is; Hampstead Heath is one of London's most famous cruising grounds, and the men who use it have every right to be afforded respect and protection. For THT, that means sending people up to spread its message, exactly as it does in clubs and at festivals: play safely.
Still, it takes a special kind of volunteer to sacrifice a Friday night to hand out condoms and safe sex information, especially in an area where some men simply don't want to be approached by anyone who isn't on a 'walk with a purpose', as one cruiser described it. I head out for the evening with four such volunteers, led by THT's Community Engagement Manager, Del Campbell.
'We're working with the Hampstead Heath Constabulary, aiming to deliver a few messages,' he explains, as we set off into the woodland. 'Obviously, as a sexual health charity our top message is that if you're out on the Heath, whatever you're doing, keep yourself safe. Use protection. We have condoms we can hand out if men need them.
'We also make the point that the Heath is used by all sorts of people for different reasons, day and night, and we have to think about the local residents. Generally, they don't care about people using the Heath for cruising, especially late at night, but we want people to make sure they take their condoms away with them.'
Sex litter is one area that does cause friction with other Heath users. Anyone who knows how annoying it can be to have a dog roll in fox poo, for example, can understand how a puppy bounding from a thicket with a used condom flopping from its muzzle might be an indignity too far. Most of the men who leave discarded condoms and lube sachets behind wouldn't even think about dropping a cola can in a public area. But, as Campbell points out, 'you might not want to put a used condom in your pocket to take it home with you'.
To deal with this, the Corporation of London, which is responsible for the Heath, is working with THT and the Hampstead Heath Constabulary - the Heath's own police force - to install concealed bins in cruising areas, where men can dispose of their litter. It's an interesting and effective approach, not least considering the cruising community's historically fraught relationship with the police.
Campbell explains that some men who use the Heath for cruising might remember bad experiences in the past, when the Constabulary was even known to drive men out of the bushes in the dead of night, when no-one else was around. Today, however, the Constabulary aims to protect all Heath users. Gay men are still occasionally subject to homophobic violence here, so the Constabulary works in partnership with charities like THT to build trust and encourage reporting.
'The police are interested getting Heath users to report crime,' says Campbell. 'We're usually accompanied by the Constabulary, and we hand out cards with their number on. We want Heath users to know that the police are always available, so that if anyone is attacked someone can send for help quite quickly.' On this occasion, sadly, the duty officer was investigating arson elsewhere on the Heath; still, as the evening grows darker, it's reassuring to know that support is available if someone is attacked.
So, I wonder, how do the Trust's volunteers actually go about reaching out to the men on the Heath? I think I'm a reasonably bold guy, but I balk at the idea of walking up to someone to offer him a safe sex kit. Campbell, however, is used to being frank and direct. Almost as soon as we enter the Heath, he spots someone who looks as though he might be cruising and approaches him. 'I'm just sheltering from the rain,' he is told. Feasible, perhaps, but we're ten minutes from the nearest road and it seems unlikely. Campbell points out, however, that it's actually perfectly likely that some men will actually just be taking in some fresh air; and, in any case, if someone doesn't wish to be approached, their rights need to be respected.
Some men are more open, however. We talk to one who explains that, after spending much of the day working at home, he was out on a 'walk with a purpose'. Another, a visitor from the US, tells Campbell that he was keen to see this famous part of London's gay scene. 'He thinks it's really great that we're doing this,' Campbell says. 'He's pleased to have some condoms, but he might not be around for long. And he'd never heard of Terrence Higgins!'[pullquote_left]You can't dance around the issues; you just have to explain who you are, and talk with people, not to them.[/pullquote_left]Jason Warriner, THT's Director of Clinical Services, has worked in HIV work across London and overseas since the early 1990s. I ask how responsive men who use the Heath for cruising are to THT's information. 'They're generally pretty responsive,' he says. 'Very few people turn away from us; a lot of people are interested in the police outreach and in the safe sex campaign. You tend to find that the men who don't want to have much to do with us are the ones who are just stopping off on the way home. They want it to be anonymous and discreet, so they can disappear when you approach.
'You have to be quite direct with people,' he adds. 'You can't dance around the issues; you just have to explain who you are, and talk with people, not to them. Wearing THT branded clothing is a big help, too, because most men know you're just there to help them, not stop them from what they're doing.'
The question of anonymity interests me; surely today, when men have access to Gaydar and Grindr, they can 'cruise' from the comfort of their bedroom, without having to head out to Hampstead Heath where wind, rain and twigs are as much a feature of the scene as anonymous sex. I ask Michael Fanner, a THT youth worker, if the internet has affected men's use of the Heath. 'I think it's changed the culture,' he says. 'It's made accessing men and sex a lot more simple. There are far fewer men cottaging today, for example, especially with the younger guys who use our services. Social networking sites like Facebook and mobile apps like Grindr definitely make a difference.'
Campbell adds that this campaign will give THT a chance to assess just how cruising has been affected by the rise of internet dating. 'I think there are fewer people using the Heath,' he says, 'but the internet's never going to be the answer for everyone - especially some of the guys we find out here. If the weather's good, people still do flock here. Some people come here, probably particularly local and older people, just for company.' Digital cruising grounds - Gaydar in particular - are not 'off the radar' for THT, either. 'We go in to certain chat rooms and give out health messages', Campbell says. 'We go into the sex workers' rooms and cruising rooms, and offer people the chance to talk to us about safety. And we're looking at other sites, too. Grindr, for example, is so popular, we need to look at what we can do with it.'
My night on the Heath is drawing to a close. The rain penetrates the summer foliage, and a cold wind has started to rustle through the darkening woodland. As we head back into Hampstead, the Heath strikes me as the last place I'd like to be on a cold evening. Other men, however, are more than happy there. They seek little more than many younger guys seek through their laptops or mobile phones, or on countless boozy nights out in Soho or Clapham. Terrence Higgins Trust makes no distinction; safe sex is too important an issue to be put to one side just because of the weather. Here on the Heath, working with the police, the Trust is doing a brilliant job.
The Terrence Higgins Trust is the UK's leading sexual health charity. Its website contains advice, leaflets and information, along with contacts if you need to talk to someone about your health. You can follow the Trust on Twitter @THTOrgUK