By James Kirchick
Originally published on Advocate.com 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.”
Is George Michael right? Is anonymous sex in public parks and restrooms an integral part of gay culture? Is it what “gay men do”? Cruising for sex in public areas is a considerable and formative part of the gay male historical experience, but only in the sense that a substantial number of gay men of a certain era partook; it was certainly more pervasive in the 1950s than it is today. I can only make this assertion based on anecdotal evidence, but it’s reasonable to assume that successive generations of gay men have felt less of a need for public cruising, due both to the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in this country as well as the proliferation of legal methods to meet other men for sex and companionship. (None of this should be read as an endorsement of entrapment, in which police officers arrest men merely for showing interest in a sexual encounter, regardless of their intent to carry it on elsewhere. Throughout history, law enforcement has used the existence of public sex as a pretext for the widespread arrest of gay people or merely those perceived as gay.)
Some might argue that the availability of gay bars, nightclubs, and social organizations for seeking out sex is a luxury available to men only in metropolitan areas and that the highway rest stop or state park is the only option for the isolated and misbegotten homosexual in rural America. But as long as one has an Internet connection, it’s only a mouse click to enormously popular websites like Adam4Adam, Manhunt, and Gay.com. Crutchley tells me that his website is highly trafficked in sparsely populated areas of the country: “Thank God for rural America,” he says, touting both the monetary and kinship value of the site. “We help build a community where they have a hard time finding each other.” When he started Manhunt eight years ago, Crutchley and his colleagues had “bad assumptions” about how popular the site would be in places not exactly known for their vibrant gay scene. Yet he has been pleasantly surprised. “They love us. Maine, New Hampshire, they love us,” he says.
While gay organizations don’t celebrate public cruising, they don’t seem to discourage it either. Take, for instance, the case of television commentator Tucker Carlson, who, chatting about the Craig scandal on MSNBC, recounted a childhood incident at a public restroom wherein the man bestriding the urinal next to him made an overt sexual advance. In shock, Carlson ran outside, recruited a friend, and returned to the bathroom where the culprit was still located, presumably waiting for another object of his unwanted affections to walk through the door. Carlson, at this point laughing, told how he and his friend physically subdued the man until police arrived to apprehend him.
Predictably, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation called on Carlson to apologize. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network condemned Carlson’s remarks as “shocking” and said that he “sends a dangerous message” by implying that it’s acceptable for a teenager to respond with force to an adult making an unwelcome sexual advance. GLSEN went so far as to accuse him of encouraging anti-LGBT bullying, in effect likening the plight of seedy men in restroom stalls to gay teenagers facing harassment. Carlson’s laughing about his roughing up a gay sexual predator may not have been the most sensitive way to retell a harrowing anecdote. But the sexuality of the man in the restroom was immaterial. By condemning Carlson outright, GLSEN and GLAAD sent the message that gays accept the sort of behavior that mainstream society rightly finds repulsive. Indeed, I suspect that most gays find it no less unacceptable.
While public cruising would probably be less prevalent if there were no stigma attached to homosexuality, that doesn’t excuse the irresponsible decisions made by individuals. And though many of the men who cruise parks and bathrooms are closet cases, there is also an element that is comfortably gay and seeks out such sexual experiences for the sheer thrill. And regardless of how the men who participate in the “tearoom trade” perceive themselves, that they seek sexual gratification from other men makes them “not straight,” whether we want them or not. The vast majority of us do not engage in such behavior, which is all the more reason to reject claims that cruising is a matter of personal liberty, sexual freedom, or nostalgia for a bygone era. This isn’t just about keeping up appearances for the heterosexual majority -- though considering their vast numerical supremacy and ability to pass laws that make our lives difficult, that is not always a bad idea -- but personal pride. Not for nothing did Winston Churchill once say of a British member of parliament notorious for cruising public restrooms that he was “the sort of person who gives sodomy a bad name.”