BY James Kirchick
October 08 2009 9:00 AM ET
In July, Marietta, Ga., councilwoman Holly Walquist told her local newspaper about a problem confronting cities and towns across the country: men having sex with men in public places. “We all know or are aware of what’s happening there,” she told The Marietta Daily Journal about two public parks notorious for attracting nature-goers in search of more than lush scenery and fresh air. “How much can you talk about that? It’s not like you want to air your dirty laundry.” What prompted Walquist to reluctantly discuss the issue was a proposal by city officials to spend $3 million on the construction of lights, a bike trail, a playground, and other physical projects that might make the parks less hospitable locales for cruising. According to the Journal, the city parks had become little more than outdoor sex clubs and were so littered with the detritus of carnal activities -- used condoms, cigarettes, and beer cans -- that those law-abiding citizens who wanted to use the play areas for their intended purpose stayed far away. But as much as sex in the parks may be a source of embarrassment for the Marietta residents, the “dirty laundry” belongs to many gay men, who seem to have little problem hanging it out on the proverbial clothesline for all to see.
What the English call “cottaging” (named for public restrooms that resemble cottages) has a long and storied place in the history of homosexuality. In an earlier era -- when same-gender sex was prohibited, gay bars were routinely raided by the police, and sending a magazine like the one you’re holding in your hands through the mail was illegal -- it was understandable that gay men would look for sex in public places. Such venues were often the only outlet they had. Same-sex attraction was not an affirming part of one’s identity but rather led to an activity one would engage in with great shame. That homosexuality was so often manifested in public restrooms only accentuated its link with deviancy.
When I asked a gay woman friend about the phenomenon of cruising in public areas, she sighed and said it was one of those things that she and her fellow lesbians felt burdened with as members of the nebulous gay “community” -- having to defend or rationalize the social pathologies of gay men. Herein lies a question, however, that complicates the whole matter of sex in public places: Can the men who engage in it be accurately described as “gay”? “People are who they identify themselves to be,” says Jonathan Crutchley, cofounder and chairman of Manhunt.net. Many of Manhunt’s users are men who identify as straight (some are even married and identify themselves as such in their profiles).
By Crutchley’s measure, former GOP senator Larry Craig, who was arrested two years ago for soliciting an undercover police officer in a bathroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, is not a homosexual, no matter how much bathroom nooky he was trying to get, for no more complicated a reason than that he doesn’t consider himself one. The bemused reaction from most gay people to this scandal was similar to that of the rest of the country. But there was an added bit of schadenfreude as well. Given both the sheer absurdity of a U.S. senator trolling for sex in an airport restroom stall and the fact that Craig had long been an opponent of every piece of gay rights legislation to reach his desk, it wasn’t an inappropriate response. And the sense of satisfaction that we found in Craig’s public humiliation was only compounded by his assertion that he was “not gay” (that he is also “not straight” seems like a fair compromise). But lost in the jokes about Sen. “Wide Stance” was an acknowledgment that what he did was wrong, not only legally but also as a matter of basic decorum.
And yet not all gay men are willing to take a stand against illegal activity. When London police famously carted off pop star George Michael in 2007 after one of his routine sexual encounters in a park and he allegedly shouted, “This is my culture!” he had some grounding in fact, however antiquated. But despite the humiliation, Michael was unrepentant. A source from his record company later told the Daily Mail that “as far as he is concerned, that is what gay men do, and I don’t think this is going to change his habits.”